Collepardo, Italy (dpa) – A remote monastery on the slope of a mountain south of Rome seems an unlikely launchpad for the religious right’s takeover of Europe – yet that is exactly what US President Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon has in mind.
The 13th century Trisulti Charterhouse in Collepardo, an hour-and-a-half drive south-east of the Italian capital, is set to become “the spiritual home of Bannonite thought,” according to its administrator, Benjamin Harnwell.
Bannon imagines the place as “half Medieval university campus, half gladiator school for culture warriors,” Harnwell tells dpa during a tour of the sprawling, walled-in 15,000-square-metre institution.
Harnwell leads the Institute for Human Dignity (DHI), an ultra-conservative Catholic group that last year won a government tender to run the mostly-abandoned Trisulti for 19 years in return for an annual rent of 100,000 euros.
The DHI counts Bannon and US Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke – one of Pope Francis’ most outspoken conservative critics – among its supporters, though Harnwell insists that his organization is not anti-Francis.
The DHI is planning to use Trisulti as the campus for a so-called Academy for the Judeo-Christian West – a bastion of resistance against perceived threats to Europe such as mass immigration from Africa, encroaching Islamification and secularism.
The curriculum – inspired by a speech Bannon gave at DHI in 2014 – covers philosophy, economics, theology and history and includes a course from the former Trump advisor on “how to deal with the modern media.”
The speech that inspired the academy’s programme included warnings on the threat posed by “Islamic fascism,” a critique of crony capitalism, global elites and big government, an endorsement of European far-right parties and messages in favour of traditional marriage and against abortion.
Harnwell, an Englishman who converted to Catholicism 15 years ago and worked previously at the European Parliament, is an enthusiastic Bannon fan. With his swept-back, longish hair, he even looks a bit like his mentor.
“I thought he was captivating,” Harnwell says, recalling his first meeting with Bannon five years ago in Rome. “I would sit there and my jaw would [drop] as he was talking.”
Now, he says, the two are in daily contact.
Like Bannon, Harnwell has controversial views: he talks about challenging Darwin’s theory of evolution, which he calls a “monstrous philosophy,” and is sceptical – to say the least – about climate change.
He believes the Darwinist idea of the survival of the fittest is what underpins Nazi ideology, and that thinking life has no divine origin “is a truly horrific principle.”
“The substantial part of what Hitler was doing is pure Darwinism applied,” Harnwell says.
Harnwell plans to get the academy started in Rome in June before moving it to Trisulti in 2020. The monastery should be able to host 250-300 students, accommodated in former monks’ rooms or larger dormitories.
The academy thus won’t be ready before the European Parliament elections in May. The poll tops Bannon’s list of priorities: He wants to help populist, eurosceptic parties do well as part of a plan to shake up the EU political order.
The Movement, a Brussels-based parallel Bannon initiative, is focusing on that. However, the parties it is supposed to help, like Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, seem to view it with suspicion.
The DHI academy is a longer-term project that aims to train the next generation of European anti-establishment politicians. The site of its headquarters is not without irony: The Trisulti monastery was once run by the Order of St Benedict, the patron saint of Europe.
Trisulti is also an Italian national monument, whose monks ran a famous herbal pharmacy. Harnwell says it was “the Harvard University of herbal knowledge” and was the place where Sambuca, an anise-based liquor, was invented.
The monastery’s conversion to a campus is not without practical challenges. Mobile reception is patchy, and the winter months bring icy temperatures and snow that make the rooms cold can block access roads. It is unclear who will pay renovation costs: the only publicly named DHI donor is Bannon.
Harnwell moved to the monastery in June, with only an old prior, a guardian-gardener-cook and a cat to keep him company. He says he is learning Biblical Greek in his spare time to allow him to read the New Testament in its original form.
He’s also been kept busy by some local opposition: Residents of nearby village Collepardo complained about restricted access to the monastery, their local landmark, and eventually won an exemption from a 5-euro entry ticket for tourists.
Meanwhile, a centre-left activist, Daniela Bianchi, organized a march against the Bannon academy late last month that attracted more than 300 people. She is looking to see whether the DHI’s lease for Trisulti can be revoked.
Turning a holy site that has been open to pilgrims and visitors for centuries into a “dark, obscure” training ground for populist-nationalists is “completely in contrast with the nature of the place,” Bianchi says.
Harnwell shrugs off the complaint. He is confident that, as long as DHI pays the rent, it won’t be evicted. Moving deftly around the monastery – and kneeling piously before every altar he finds on the way – he says the place “is more than perfect for our needs.”