Around a decade ago, after being deeply inspired by Pope Benedict XVI and his work—especially Jesus of Nazareth, his masterful three-volume exploration of the life and ministry of Our Lord—I craved to know more and learn more about the faith.

Catholic radio had just recently arrived in the DC market, and every evening on my way home from work I would listen to Catholic Answers Live, a two-hour call-in show hosted by an affable Canadian named Patrick Coffin. Every day, Coffin would be paired with a guest—typically a Catholic Answers apologist like Tim Staples or Jimmy Akin, or an outside guest from the greater Catholic apologetics world, such as Patrick Madrid or Steve Ray—and together they would field calls from listeners asking questions about various aspects of Church teaching.

It wasn’t always the most stimulating program. It seemed that they frequently got caught in the weeds on various issues. Quite often, they’d field the same questions over and over (“do Catholics worship Mary?” or “Where is the pope in the bible?”) Still, I enjoyed the camaraderie between the host and guest, and occasionally I’d pick up a tidbit of knowledge about something I didn’t know before (especially from Jimmy Akin, whose encyclopedic understanding of biblical and magisterial minutiae is unparalleled).

This was nearly a decade ago, and of course things have changed. Patrick Coffin left Catholic Answers and began his own podcasting gig. His show has become a center of Catholic conspiracy and fringe thinking. Guests have included the nonagenarian Corpus Christi emeritus Bishop Rene Gracida, who has openly asserted that Pope Francis is not a valid pope; the notorious anti-semitic commentator E. Michael Jones; and Cardinal Raymond Burke. During his interview with Burke, Coffin asked (and Burke answered) a series of questions on the possibility that Pope Francis is not a valid pope, prompting me to wonder if Burke did doubt the legitimacy of Francis’s papacy.

More recently, Coffin was banned permanently from YouTube for promoting his upcoming “Truth Over Fear” online summit, advertised as “an online gathering of over 25 top doctors, scientists, attorneys, researchers, and journalists, who will share invaluable and eye-opening insights into the truth behind the fear-based headlines, Covid-19, the rushed vaccine, and the role played by both in the Great Reset.” Speakers include the outspoken dissident clerics Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Bishop Athanasius Schneider, as well as some of the most fringe anti-vaxxer, anti-semitic, and conspiracy theory-promoting figures in the world today. This list includes G. Edward Griffin, who has promoted conspiracy theories on everything from the Federal Reserve to chemtrails, to HIV/AIDS denialism, to the JFK assassination and 9/11. Also participating will be Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has long opposed vaccinations; anti-mask activist Peggy Hall; and Dr. Carrie Madej, a QAnon-supporting physician who told the crowd at the MAGA Freedom Rally on January 6 that the real purpose behind the Covid vaccine is to bring about “the ultimate enslavement of humanity.”

Despite the Catholic Church’s position of support for the scientific establishment—accepting and embracing the findings of scientific research and public health guidelines—there is a large and growing subset of Catholics (especially among those who oppose Pope Francis) who are embracing pseudoscientific claims and promoting them enthusiastically. It seems that what Massimo Faggioli described as a “campaign made of kamikazes” in Kathryn Joyce’s story about the movement for Vanity Fair last fall has only gotten bigger.

Just this afternoon, the radical traditionalist podcaster Timothy Gordon posted a trailer for an upcoming documentary film called “The Greatest Reset,” starring himself. The 2:20 trailer depicts Gordon as a brave voice of opposition, fighting back against a malicious UN plan for control over the world. At one point, Gordon references the aims of the landmark document of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory, The Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita (also described by DW Lafferty in his critique of Infiltration, written by Gordon’s old podcast partner Taylor Marshall) as having come to fruition in the election of Pope Francis. Gordon and the other figures in the film seem to see themselves as part of a small resistance movement against a malicious plan by global elites for world domination by ominous forces.

One gets the sense that this is a movie about people who think they’re living in a movie. Sensationalism and grandiose narratives have replaced mundane things like critical thinking or careful discernment. It’s a lot less exciting to accept that we’re sitting out a global pandemic that  took our government and health officials a while to figure out and is deadly and serious—but nowhere near what’s portrayed in movies like Outbreak or TV shows like The Walking Dead.

The pandemic—for those of us lucky not to have been directly affected—has been boring. And some Catholics can’t stand the boredom. So they’ve imagined a more exciting explanation and are passing it along, via social media, to Catholics who have sadly forgotten (or never learned) critical thinking skills.

A reader, Andy Dillon, recently shared a 1978 homily by St. Óscar Romero with me. In this homily, the martyr-archbishop spoke to the importance of critical thinking when engaging with media, and how we cannot buy into created narratives. He explained, “Many ideas are communicated to large numbers of people, but often the media serve as tools of confusion. These instruments, as creators of public opinion, are often manipulated by materialist interests and are used to maintain an unjust state of affairs through falsehood and confusion. There is a lack of respect for one of the most sacred rights of the human person, the right to be well informed, the right to the truth.”

I watched the recent HBO docuseries “Into the Storm,” in which, over the course of six episodes, the filmmaker followed the men who investigators (and ultimately the filmmaker) believed most likely responsible for creating and perpetuating the QAnon conspiracy theory. That the unsavory father-son duo of Jim and Ron Watkins (and whoever may have helped them) could have been able to so dramatically alter the way tens of millions of people perceived reality in such a short period of time is simply astounding. Even more astounding is that nearly one-fifth of white Catholics in the US were among these QAnon believers.

In his homily, St. Óscar warned that “critical people must know how to filter the media to avoid being poisoned with whatever falls into their hands. This is the type of awareness that the church wants to awaken today … Being critical is a vital characteristic in our day, and because the church attempts to implant this critical awareness, she is facing some very serious conflicts. The reason is that the dominant interests want to keep people half-asleep. They do not want people who are critical and know how to discern between truth and falsehood. I believe that never before has there existed in the world, especially in a setting like ours, such a struggle—a struggle unto death—between the truth and the lie.”

Sadly, destructive ideas—the pope is the antichrist, the Magisterium has been corrupted, we should follow Viganò or Burke and not our own bishops—are filling the heads of ordinary Catholics. This narrative, which has tragically taken hold of the consciousness of so many Catholics, cannot be true because we know it contradicts Truth. We know it cannot be Catholic because it contradicts the Magisterium. Those of us who have avoided or been released from the grip of this enslaving ideology know the relief and peace that comes from being freed.

In Pope St. John XXIII’s address at the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, he remarked,

“It sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.”

These prophetic words are just as relevant today. Isn’t it ironic that the voices of today’s prophets of doom are also the most critical of the Council? It seems that this was one of the problems that the Council was intended to address. There is still much work to be done. Let’s follow the lead of Pope Francis and help do that work.

Image: Adobe Stock

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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