By FOIA Research
on February 3, 2019 - Last updated: May 14, 2022

Dignitatis Humanae Institute

The Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) is a "Catholic-fundamentalist think tank"1 under the patronage of the far-right ideologue Steve Bannon.2 The DHI was founded on December 8, 2008, by a group of Catholic hardliners in Brussels around Benjamin Harnwell and Nirj Deva. Harnwell, a longtime member of the British Conservative Party, was at that time Deva's Chief of Staff, British Conservative MEP, and Sri Lankan business magnate.3

The organization became more widely known when in early 2018 Steve Bannon announced his by now failed plans to open a fascist cadre school in the Abbey of Trisulti, a remote Italian monastery, with the help of the DHI - a project of which Deva was a primary backer.4 The DHI operated from Rome between 2012 to 2019.5 In 2019, the DHI moved from Rome to the Trisulti Abbey,6 however, after the lease was finally withdrawn in March 2021,7 it is currently unclear from where the DHI operates.

DHI founder Benjamin Harnwell was the first Chairman of the Institute. In 2011, he was succeeded by British royal family member Lord Nicholas Windsor,8 who in turn was succeeded in 2013 by Unione dei Democratici Cristiani politician Luca Volontè.9 Since autumn 2019, the position of Chairman is no longer listed on the DHI's organizational chart. It may be presumed that the omission is connected to Volontè's involvement in a massive bribery scandal for which he has received a four-year prison sentence in 2021.10

History

According to the FAQ section of the DHI website11:

Harnwell came up with the idea for the Institute in 2004 after the mainstream Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was forced to withdraw his candidacy as Italy’s nominee for Vice President of the European Commission because of his Catholic views on homosexuality.

Buttiglione made headlines when in 2004 José Manuel Barroso included him on his list of nominees for the European Commission as Commissioners for Justice and Equality. During Buttiglione's hearing before the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice And Home Affairs, he was asked about his stance on homosexuality and women. Buttiglione responded that he considered homosexuality a sin, and also stated his belief that the family "exists in order to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male who takes care of them."12 The PES, ALDE and Green/EFA groups strongly opposed Buttiglione's nomination, and threatened to reject the entire Commission. Buttiglione received plenty of support from the Catholic fundamentalist Communion and Liberation movement in the course of the controversy,13 long speculated to be a CIA front,14 to which he has been devoted since the beginning of his career.15 Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ultimately announced that the Italian government would withdraw Buttiglione's nomination, however, kept him as Ministers for European affairs in the Italian government. Buttiglione was previously listed as a founding patron of the DHI, but in the meantime he has vanished from the DHI's organizational chart.

The foundation date of the DHI, December 8, 2008, coincides with one of the most important Marian feasts in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, celebrating the immaculate conception of Virgin Mary - as Cardinal Martino noted during a Papal audience granted to the DHI in 2013.16

That same day, the European Parliament’s Working Group on Human Dignity (WGHD) was founded, i.a. by former Irish MEP Gay Mitchell (Fine Gael), with Harnwell becoming Honorary Secretary.

Another section of the DHI is the International Committee on Human Dignity (ICHM), “the Institute’s most influential political arm,"17 of which Deva is currently president. The ICHM published an arch-reactionary manifesto, the Universal Declaration of Human Dignity,18 written by Harnwell, which formulates the ideological basis of the DHI.

The term “Human Dignity” reverberates the declaration Dignitatis Humanae ("Dignity of Man"), which Pope Paul VI. promulgated on December 7, 1965, in the course of the Second Vatican Council on Religious Freedom.

The complex, pseudo-legal declaration, which references documents such as the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, tries to link the concept of “human rights” with the term “human dignity." The latter entails, according to the declaration, that humans are “made in the image and likeness of God," and are thus sacred. Such sacredness would count for “every single human life from conception until natural death." In other words: abortions or euthanasia would be not only sacrileges but offenses against human rights.

The DHI links into a vast network of national and international organizations and lobby groups, which are commonly subsumed under the term “pro-life” campaigners. They are advocating various objectives of the Christian Right, such as making abortions and contraception illegal, bringing down the “gender ideology,” ostracizing homosexuality, and opposing divorce.

Under the catch phrase of “human dignity” the DHI and other lobby organizations, such as ADF International19 and European Dignity Watch,20 lead a legal war aiming especially at making embryos legal entities, and are very well connected within the European Parliament and the European Commission.

In the course of its existence, the DHI gathered an illustrious group of Christian fundamentalist campaigners, many of them in the orbit of the Vatican's right wing. The DHI’s advisory board includes several cardinals who are openly challenging pope Francis stance on marriage and sexuality.21

The changes in the composition of the DHI are best reflected by a chart on the organization's website, populated with well-known figures of the Catholic Right. Initially, Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino served as honorary president of the DHI (July 2010 - January 2019), who advocates that “Catholics should not vote for politicians who support abortion."22 Until 2009, Martino was head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and since 2010 he is the Grand Prior of the Order of Constantine.

Starting in 2013, the DHI has organized an annual international congress on a specific topic23:

  • 2012 (in the Roman Office of the European Parliament): The Role of Christians in the Public Square ( "The Role of Christians in public")
  • 2013 (in the Palazzo Casino di Pio IV.): Squeezed between European and national legal orders: Is there room for Christianity?
  • 2014: (at the Palazzo Casino di Pio IV.) Poverty and the Common Good: Putting the "preferential option for the poor" at the service of human dignity
  • 2015: The Persecuted Church: discipleship in the 21st century

Key people

Cardinal Raymond Burke

From 2013 until 2019, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke (*1948), an American cardinal prelate of the Roman Catholic Church and frequently seen as a de facto leader of the Vatican's right wing, was the president of the DHI’s advisory board.24 Burke is known as a sharp critic of Pope Francis, accusing him for being too lenient towards homosexuality and abortion.25 Burke withdrew from his DHI post in June 2019, following “a report that stated Bannon endorses allowing priests to marry and that he believes a majority of clergy members in the Vatican are gay,” according to BuzzFeed News.26

Cardinal Burke

Burke, a former Breitbart contributor, has been heading a vendetta against Pope Francis, especially against the latter's apostolic exhortation Amor laetitia (The Joy of Love) from 2016. The Washington Post calls Burke the “rebel prince” of the catholic church, who is “undermining Francis’s reformist, compassionate papacy, and gospel teaching […] using his position […] to legitimise extremist forces that want to bring down Western liberal democracy, Stephen K. Bannon-style.”21

Burke was prefect of the Vatican's highest court, the Apostolic Signatura from June 2008 until November 2014, when pope Francis removed Burke as head, and named him patron to a “largely ceremonial post” at the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM),2728 which he held until 2017.

On January 21, 2017, Burke met Matteo Salvini of Lega Nord.29 Shortly after, in early February 2017, Burke was sidelined as patron of the SMOM, and Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu as his special delegate to the order. On February 21, 2017, Albrecht von Boeselager, the order's Grand Chancellor, announced that Burke was officially suspended from the patronage.30

In September 2017, Burke was reappointed by Pope Francis as a member of the Apostolic Signatura, but only as adviser.31 Still, Burke remains one of Francis’ harshest critics. For example on a conference on April 7, 2018 in Rome, entitled “Catholic Church: Where are you heading?”, Burke was openly rallying for “limits to papal powers."32

Benjamin Harnwell

The DHI websites features a site-wide banner with a quote by Steve Bannon: “[Harnwell’s] the smartest guy in Rome… [he’s] always a tough guy - he comes across as a monk, but he’s actually a very tough guy.”

Breitbart contributor Harnwell was special advisor to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from 2002 to 2004. Later, until 2010, he became Chief of Staff to MEP Nirj Deva. Overall, he was an “active member of the British Conservative Party for over 15 years.” In 2010, he moved to Rome to direct the DHI. In 2016, Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, bishop chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Sciences, appointed Harnwell as external counselor.2

Harnwell is openly aligning with Europe's far right, for example "encouraging Benito Mussolini fan Matteo Salvini, of Italy’s Northern League, and Muslim-baiting far-right Catholic poster girl Marion Le Pen, the National Front “rising star” niece of party leader Marine Le Pen in France," according to the Washington Post.21

According to the DHI website2:

Benjamin identifies himself philosophically as an Austro-libertarian, co-founding (with Vincent de Roeck) the European Parliament’s Mises Circle, which exists to promote greater recognition of the Austrian School of Economics; he also co-founded the international Right Approach Group (with Patrick Barron), to explore free-market solutions to contemporary problems.

The Mises Circle can count well-known names amongst its patrons: Frits Bolkestein (nl), former EU Commissioner, Herman de Croo (be), former Belgian President of the Chamber of Representatives, Mart Laar (ee), former Prime Minister of Estonia, Earl of Stockton (uk), chairman of Macmillan Publishers, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (de), deputy leader of ALDE, and honorary member Prince Philipp von und zu Liechtenstein (li).3334

In October 2021, Harnwell became the "international editor" of Bannon's podcast War Room: Pandemic.35 As of May 2022, Harnwell has participated in in over 170 War Room shows.36 It may be speculated that in his role as international editor he is responsible for inviting Catholic hardliners from his orbit as interview guests.

Steve Bannon

Bannon and Harnwell

The DHI puts much emphasis on its connection to Steve Bannon, who is listed as “patron” of the organization. The Washington Post reported that it was Austin Ruse, a leading figure within the U.S. Catholic Right and co-founder of the arch-reactionary Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM), who initially had introduced Bannon and Harnwell before the two hit it off in 2014.37 According to the Christian newspaper Christ und Welt, Bannon is aiming to unite the conservative forces inside the Vatican with the help of the DHI.38 Cardinal Raymond Burke, former president of the Institute’s board of advisers, said that Bannon would play a leading role in the institute, helping in "the defense of what used to be called Christendom."25 In 2019, Reuters reported that Bannon had helped the DHI to craft curricula.25

Although Bannon has been involved in the Institute since around 2014, his efforts to spur a populist movement in Europe have increased after his brief fallout with Donald Trump in 2018, when he decided to build up The Movement.25

Searching for the term “Bannon” on the DHI’s website, there are dozens of links to key news reports on his activities.39 The earliest article mentioning him is from April 27, 2014:40

Stephen K. Bannon spoke with Ben Harnwell, from the Dignitatus Humanae Institute, at the Pontifica Universita in Rome, during events leading up to the canonization of Pope John Paul II and John XXIII. Harnwell said his institute has “worked on the front lines of the fight for Christian politicians to be publicly Christian.” He adds that the entire “Pontificate of John Paul made the fight that we’re currently working in possible. He armed us.” He went on to say that the pro-life movement has never been as strong as it is today.

Shortly afterwards, on June 27, 2014, the Institute invited Bannon as one of its key note speakers to a conference in Rome.41 Bannon's speech, delivered via Skype, is mentioned frequently as a concise summary of Bannon's world view and ideological pedigree,42 particularly his reference to the obscure Nazi ideologue Julius Evola.43

In a January 2018 BBC interview, in which Harnwell is introduced as a friend of Bannon, Harnwell talked of the role of Bannon in the Trump administration, and the reasons behind his demise. In regards to Bannon’s motives, Harnwell said, “I think as far as Steve’s concerned, he’s concentrating on helping the President from outside to fulfil the agenda, for which he was elected.”44

Luca Volontè

Luca Volontè, an anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ activist, was the last designated chairman of the DHI. He is the CEO of the Novae Terrae Foundation as well as a member of the Board of Trustees of CitizenGo.45 He was formerly an Italian MP (1996 to 2013) and President of the European People's Party at the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

After a dossier by the European Stability Initiative was published in December 2016, entitled “The European Swamp (Caviar Diplomacy Part 2) – Prosecutors, corruption and the Council of Europe,"46 a large-scale investigation into a multi-billion money laundering scheme hit off, in which Luca Volontè was implicated.4748 Investigators said “they have uncovered 2.39 million Euro in payments to Volonté through British and offshore companies. […] The payments, prosecutors allege, were made in exchange for Volonté’s efforts to mute the European body’s criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record.”49

In September 2017, The Guardian ran a piece “UK at centre of secret $3bn Azerbaijani money laundering and lobbying scheme,"50 which reads:

Azerbaijan’s ruling elite operated a secret $2.9bn scheme to pay prominent Europeans, buy luxury goods and launder money through a network of opaque British companies, an investigation by the Guardian reveals. Leaked data shows that the Azerbaijani leadership, accused of serial human rights abuses, systemic corruption and rigging elections, made more than 16,000 covert payments from 2012 to 2014. […] The leaked bank records show multiple payments to several former members of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, PACE. One is […] Italian former chair of the centre-right group in PACE, Luca Volontè.

In January 2021, Criminal Section X of the Court of Milan sentenced Luca Volontè to four years in prison for taking bribes from Azerbaijani politicians.10 As of 2022, there is still a banner on the DHI website naming the Novae Terrae Foundation as a partner, a vehicle that Volontè had used to receive some of the bribes.51

Parliamentary working groups

According to the DHI's website, “The Institute is in the process of establishing parliamentary working groups on human dignity in legislatures worldwide.”52 The DHI runs currently one European, and three national parliamentary working groups: in the UK, Romania and Lithuania. Another working group was announced in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, but so far I could not identify it.52 The UK working group is called All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Dignity, and is ”chaired by the veteran pro-life campaigner, Lord Alton of Liverpool. It was launched in 2010 by another pro-life activist, Dr. Alveda King, niece of the late Martin Luther King.”52

European anti-choice agenda

The call for “human dignity” resonates in other pro-life campaigns, such as “One Of Us - European Federation for Life and Human Dignity,"53 an anti-abortion lobby group, whose members include pro-life associations from almost all European countries.54 One of its most active supporters is Ignacio Arsuaga55, whose CitizenGo project appears also in the member list of One of US, and is linked in the sidebar of the DHI website. Arsuaga said during an Arte documentary from 2017, "One of Us was the beginning of a far-reaching lobby, which wants to exert influence in the European Union.”56

In 2013, One of Us was behind a petition in the European Parliament to cancel the EU’s support for birth control and abortions, especially in development countries. The petition received a record vote of over 1,7 million, and thus was reaching the threshold where the EU Parliament and Commission had to discuss the issue. When the EU denied the demand, in 2014 the initiators of the petition started a pro-life interest group within the European Parliament.

Sophia Kuby, who works for the lobby groups ADF International,57 and European Dignity Watch20, is an important actor of this interest group. European Dignity Watch issued an open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014 signed by Kuby, in which the DHI appears amongst the supporting organisations.58 This indicates that the DHI, most likely through its Working Group on Human Dignity (WGHD), is connected to the “pro-life” lobby on a European level.

MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, member of the Committee for the Rights of Women, described her contact with the lobby inside the European Parliament:

“I never use the expression “pro-life”. These people are anti-choice. I am for life and for free choice. They are permanently using terms such as “dignity” “justice”, “peace, “freedom”, “life”, “family”. It sounds great, like peace, happiness, and bliss, but that is not the case. These people take away all options from women. At times they even behave awfully. Extremely anti-democratic, and anti-pluralistic.”59

Neil Datta, Secretary General of the European Parliament Forum, has the following to say:

They are using human rights for their purposes by interpreting its statutes to their advantage. They are doing this in several areas. They are for example trying to obtain a legal status for embryos, or the right of the father to have a say in case of an abortion. […] One of Us is only the visible side of the anti-choice movement, the politically correct one. But behind it there is a bigger, more militant group, with representatives from 30 to 40 countries.60

The pro-life EU lobby is apparently very well organised, as internal documents show. Their meetings are strictly confidential. A document  entitled “Restoring the Natural Order - Agenda for Europe” has leaked from their working group, and was outlined by a 2017 Arte documentary.61 “There is written i.a. that the Western civilisation will decline in 10 to 20 years, because of the harmful watering down of the term human rights.”62

The picture shows a screenshot from the document as shown in the documentary:

Timeline

2017

The “Budapest Family Summit” on May 26-27, 2017, organized by the World Congress of Families, brought together many of the key actors of the pro-life lobby group. Its opening speech was delivered by Victor Orbán. Other speakers included Benjamin Harnwell, Alveda C. King, Natalya Yakunina, Ignacio Arsuaga, Sophia Kuby, and Luca Volontè.63

2018

In February 2018, the DHI announced that it had signed an "accord with the Italian Ministry of Culture to become the official leaseholder of the historic Abbey of Trisulti," an isolated monastery complex in the mountains of central Italy, which holds an ancient library of 38 0000 volumes.64 It “will be the home of a number of projects that underscore the fact that man is made in the image and likeness of God, and that recognition of the imago Dei is the cornerstone of the Judaeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilisation,”64 according to DHI head Benjamin Harnwell.

2019

In January 2019, Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino stepped down from his role as DHI's Honorary President. Martino was followed by Cardinal Raymond Burke in that position who had served as President of the DHI’s Board of Advisors since 2013.65 Shortly after, however, in June 2019, Burke resigned from the DHI.

In April 2019, MSNBC published a video report that give some insight on Bannon's current activity in the Vatican. According to Bannon, the Vatican experiences a financial crisis, which he wants to help to resolve. The report also sheds more light on the activities in Trisulti, which Bannon wants to turn into an elite training camp of "Gladiators."66

But after in early May 2019 the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported67 that a letter used as a guarantee for the lease was forged, Italy’s cultural heritage ministry announced68 it would revoke the lease.6970 According to an article by The Economist71:

The DHI took over the monastery following a competitive tender. Accompanying the institute’s bid was a business plan and a letter endorsing it, apparently provided by the Gibraltar branch of a Danish financial institution, Jyske Bank. But on May 7th La Repubblica, an Italian daily, reported a statement by Jyske Bank declaring the letter to be fraudulent. The managing director of Jyske Bank in Gibraltar, Lars Jensen, confirms the statement. 'It is a fraudulent letter, put together by I don’t know who,' he told The Economist this week. The signature purported to be that of 'a lady who hasn’t been in the bank for years. Her role was that of an assistant and in that letter she’s a director or something like that. So it is obviously fraudulent,' he said.

The DHI's plans have also led to local initiatives to stop the project. Already in March 2019 around 200 protesters from the Italian village of Collepardo embarked on a protest march, holding posters saying "Stop Bannon - Free Europe" and "#BannOFF."72 A heroine in the fight against Bannon's project is 64-year old local activist Letizia Roccasecca, who stated in an interview with the Financial Times that for her "Trisulti is becoming the centre of the worldwide struggle against fascism and nationalism."73

In summer 2019, Bannon's relation with the arch-reactionary Cardinal Raymond Burke soured. Burke withdrew from his DHI post in June 2019, following “a report that stated Bannon endorses allowing priests to marry and that he believes a majority of clergy members in the Vatican are gay,” BuzzFeed News reported.26According to an interview with the New York Times, Burke stated in that regard74:

Douthat: What about your own relationship to Steve Bannon, which has been a source of great media fascination?

Burke: I came to know Steve Bannon through my involvement with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, an association founded to assist European parliamentarians in following the demands of the moral law. Eventually, Bannon also became involved in its work. I met with him on three or four occasions, as I recall, to discuss Catholic teaching with him. From my point of view, they were conversations of a priest with a member of the lay faithful, which concerned the moral duty of a Catholic in public life. When the media presented more and more my relationship as my cooperation in his particular political program, I had to clarify the matter.

The final straw was the announcement of his plan to make a movie of the book by Frédéric Martel, “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a project [concerned with closeted homosexuality among Catholic clergy] with which I was in complete and clear disagreement. It was necessary for me to make clear that I have never been part of Bannon’s political organization. In my relationship with him, I have tried to fulfill my mission, as a priest, to teach the faith and morals for the common good.

2020

In May 2020, it was reported that the legal difficulties in regard to the lease agreement of the Trisulti monastery were overcome.75 "An administrative court in Lazio has overturned a decision by the Ministry of Culture to revoke the 19-year lease handed to the group seeking to implement President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist’s plans," according to the catholic The Tablet. "Benjamin Harnwell, who runs the institute, said that following the decision the restoration of the monastery will continue, while registration for online courses, run from the United States, will open on 1 June."76

2021

In March 2021, Italy’s highest administrative court blocked the DHI's plans to open its fascist academy on the grounds that the DHI "had misrepresented its legal status and experience in the field of promoting cultural heritage," among other reasons.7 In November 2021, the Abbey of Trisulti opened to the public again.77

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