Some people believe that the U.S. government is conducting research into UFOs at Area 51 or that the CIA was behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the late 1980s to early ’90s, conspiracy theories led to the “Satanic panic,” unsubstantiated rumors about satanic cults abusing children. Today, that theory has been given new force via QAnon beliefs. Even more amazing is the Public Policy Polling finding that 12 million Americans believe that our political leaders are actually alien lizards.
People have long embraced these and other conspiracy theories to make sense of catastrophic events. Such theories often gain ground when some aspect of them is affirmed. While suspicions about Area 51, for example, have been around since the days of Roswell, the government’s acknowledgment of this top-secret site did not come about until the early 1990s. “See!” say the conspiracy theorists, “The government did withhold information regarding UFOs.” Similarly, the Watergate scandal affirmed that the government does keep secrets. And when J. Edgar Hoover’s secret list of “enemies” was made public, the conspiracy theorists again said, “See! What did I tell you?”
Most of us, however, usually dismiss conspiracy theories, finding them at times amusing, at times disturbing. But now some proponents of QAnon have been elected to Congress and a former president has given a number of conspiracy theories, including QAnon, considerable traction.
The lizard theory is one of those that might seem easier to dismiss. However, it relates to some deeply dangerous prejudices. David Icke, who created the theory, was openly antisemitic and questioned the reality of the Shoah. In a similar vein, Newsweek reports that almost half of QAnon supporters believe that Jews are plotting to rule the world. Thus, something as seemingly silly as the lizard theory reflects dangerous undercurrents present in the current political atmosphere.
This conspiracy theory thinking has infiltrated several faith groups, including Catholicism, to the point that 11 percent of white Catholics buy into QAnon. Some in the church have been guilty of a conspiracy of silence, too, in recent years—especially in the area of abuse cover-ups, but also in response to Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations of a stolen election or claims regarding the character of immigrants.
The Catholic Church has no official stance on conspiracy theories. But even if conspiracy theories such as QAnon are outside the parameters of official teachings on faith and morals, our tradition does have something to say about seeking truth and holding ourselves accountable. It does have something to say about treating others with suspicion and prejudice. It does offer guidelines on how to dialogue on incendiary issues.
Take a lesson from Pope Francis
Pope Francis recently wrote a pastoral letter titled “Towards Full Presence: A Pastoral Reflection on Engagement with Social Media.” He addresses the divisiveness that has developed within the church and addresses those bishops, pastors, and influential lay people who use social media to spread conspiracy theories and division. For example, several American bishops have used social media as a vehicle for instigating protests against LGBTQ rights. Others have used social media to verbally attack Francis, even calling on him to resign.
Pope Francis decries the kind of social media presence that espouses harsh judgment and even violence. He notes that “when groups that present themselves as ‘Catholic’ use their social media presence to foster division, they are not behaving as a Christian community should.”
Francis tries to emphasize the power and importance of listening, suggesting that we be “reflective, not reactive” and citing the letter of James’ suggestion that we be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” He encourages the use of social media as a tool for Christian witness and as a way of empowering those in need.
Following Francis’ guidance, then, we can suggest five Christian responses to conspiracy theories.
While Pope Francis’ letter offers an important starting point in how to engage with social media in a way that combats conspiracy theories, more work is needed. Priests and bishops also need to address the increase in harmful online theories while being sensitive to the reality that many Catholics who regularly attend Mass may believe in these ideas.
An important first step for these pastors is to learn from and emphasize the pope’s method of approaching sensitive issues from a position of compassion, not judgment or fear. They need to communicate directly about social media, the reasons conspiracy theories spread so quickly, and how both they and their parishioners can commit to using it in a responsible Christian manner.
Engage in self-evaluation
Our priests need to address the toxic political environment in which we live, again emulating the pope’s emphasis on compassion while finding a vehicle for dialogue. One part of this is to be open about their own beliefs and engagement in political discourse and online forums. How and why do they engage in and share information, and is it consistent with Christian principles? We all—ordained and lay—come to social media with a host of personal baggage, including the fears of disapproval and judgment. How does this affect how we show up online?
Like priests, laypeople are also called to intelligent analysis of our own beliefs and behaviors online. If we feel drawn to such notions as QAnon, why? Are we following evidence or are we driven by emotions? Conspiracy theories tend to represent efforts to make sense of painful events, to provide answers to great spiritual challenges. They offer us the illusion of control.
Some of us may be drawn to that illusion, driven by the notion that knowledge is power. When we are attracted to a conspiracy theory, we should evaluate our own impulses, and the theory itself, in light of Jesus’ message of love. For that is the knowledge that offers the answers we are looking for.
Hold the church accountable
The fact that some clergy embrace and publicize conspiracy theories raises the issue of how we laypeople hold our priests and bishops accountable when they participate in promoting harmful conspiracy theories. The clergy abuse crisis already showed us we need to do better about accountability. How can we challenge officials who foster conspiracy theories at odds with Christian principles?
First, we need to be able to communicate with clergy in a meaningful way. Laypeople can be tempted to be passive in the face of troublesome trends in our church. We tend not to challenge our priests and bishops, whether through social media or face-to-face. Many of us remain silent when we hear a bishop calling for Pope Francis to resign, for instance. Perhaps we need to find a more confrontational voice in cases when dialogue becomes impossible.
Be aware of sources
Both laypeople and clergy need to educate themselves by reading reliable resources within the Catholic press. When reading a news article, it is important to be aware of any bias or slant as well as whether the news article is from a trustworthy source.
Ann Garrido’s book #Rules_of_Engagement: 8 Christian Habits for Being Good and Doing Good Online can be helpful. Regarding assessing the accuracy of a news item, she recommends researching the reputations of various news agencies for accuracy. The online source Media Bias/Fact Check can be helpful. She also suggests using online tools such as snopes.com to assess the accuracy of stories. Garrido’s book in general is a helpful, thought-provoking guide to a Christian approach to social media.
From the looks of the news, conspiracy theories will be with us for some time to come, not just within the realm of politics. We are called to respond to this in a spirit of truth and justice while having compassion for those who spread harmful misinformation.
Image: Unsplash/Ludovica Dri