“Fake news” has been all over the news since early December when an armed guy shot up a pizza place in Washington. He had read on the internet that it was host to a child trafficking ring run by prominent Democrats. He got himself arrested. Nobody hurt. This time.
Though media treat fake news as a contemporary epidemic, it has been with us for a long time. There has been a persistent subculture of conspiracy hysteria based on fake facts. Some do it to make money, others to push an ideology, still others out of pure hate.
UFO zealots, JFK assassination theorists, Illuminati humbuggery, worldwide Zionist plots, Freemasonry, the International Monetary Cabal — the list goes on and on of secret conspiracies built on fake news and fake history. Social media may make it seem the newest thing, but this stuff has a long heritage in America. It bubbles below the pop culture surface and only becomes news when a guy tries to shoot up a pizzeria.
The Catholic Church has long been the target of fake news. “Catholic urban legends,” as they are often called, are as false as fake news. But the difference is that they are not hidden in some scurrilous corner of the internet. To the contrary, they are normative thinking for the enlightened person. They are part of the common anti-Catholic baggage carried around by many — Catholics included.
An example: Galileo had been forced by the Inquisition in 1633 to recant his teaching that the Earth rotates and orbits the sun because there was no scientific proof at that time for a contention that seemed contrary to the teaching that the Earth is at the center of the universe. But as he exited the Inquisition trial, the brave Galileo exclaimed: “And yet it moves!”
The problem is Galileo never said it. There is no record of any such quote ever mentioned in period documents. The first mention of this came nearly 125 years after his death. It was an invention, another bit of propaganda created in the 18th-century battle between the so-called French Enlightenment and the Church. But Galileo’s statement became part of the corpus of Western thought. By the 19th century, every Protestant schoolchild would have known it. Most Catholics would have believed it as well. To the secular scientific community it became a rallying cry against the Catholic Church that some equated with superstition and repression.
The list of Catholic urban legends goes on and on: The Church was invented by the Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 325, and the West was hurled into the Dark Ages — this despite the fact that the Church after the collapse of Rome built a revived European society, preserved ancient learning and conserved the Faith of the Apostolic Church while witnessing that faith lived with saints from Patrick to Francis of Assisi.
Then there is the one that the crusades were a papal-mandated attack on a peaceful Islam. Or that the Church condoned the slave trade in America (though ignored by some, the Church and successive popes had condemned slavery consistently for centuries); or that Pope Pius XII engaged in a conspiracy of silence with Nazi Germany in the Holocaust (an invention of post-war communist propaganda).
Catholic urban legends have the same characteristics as fake news. Facts and obvious historic reality to the contrary are simply ignored.
Like fake news, Catholic urban legends are populist cautionary tales most often meant to silence the voice of the Church in the public square.
Keep an eye out for fake news. The stuff is not only silly but can also be dangerous. As are Catholic urban legends.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.