To mainstream Catholics, conspiracy theories probably seem like the epitome of error. And yet, what could we learn if we entered into dialogue with conspiracy theorists?
Conspiracies really do exist and have existed all through history. However, when I use the term “conspiracy theory” in this article, the stress should be on the “theory.” “Conspiracy theories” (as I’m defining them in this essay ) posit that major aspects of reality are best explained as the work of giant conspiracies made up of various actors who have an overwhelming amount of power and influence. Their claims are also typically based on some kind of secret knowledge rather than on publicly available information.
Conspiracism as a Sign of Our Times
In the last few years, conspiracy theories have gone mainstream. With the rise of QAnon, COVID denialism, and similar movements, they’re no longer confined to odd corners of the Internet. Instead, they are exerting an increasingly strong influence on secular politics—and on the thinking of numerous Catholics.
Various conspiracy theories have helped to fuel both the opposition to Pope Francis and reactionary opposition to the Church in general. The two dynamics feed one another. At its core, radical traditionalism is based on a conspiracy theory: that “infiltrators” of some sort have fundamentally undermined the teaching and practice of the modern Church.
While conspiratorial thinking is popularly associated with the political right, I’ve personally experienced the presence of similar beliefs on the left. Interestingly, those on the left sometimes believe the same conspiracy theories as those on the right, though the narratives and characters are generally reversed.
Faced with conspiracy theorists, it is easy to fall into an adversarial mentality. Few things are as frustrating as an opponent who holds a totally different view of reality. It is also tempting to simply write off conspiracy theories and their adherents as stupid, not worth the notice of sane and intelligent persons.
Pope Francis, however, calls us to practice dialogue with intellectual opponents. As he put it: “To wear the shoes of others means to have a great capacity to comprehend, to understand the circumstance and difficult situations.” It is true that dialogue with individual conspiracy theorists is often unproductive, since such theories can create a cult-like mentality in their adherents. Practicing dialogue, in this case, must be an exercise in listening: an attempt to understand why these beliefs are so attractive and persuasive to some of our neighbors.
As a Church, we are also called to read carefully the “signs of the times.” The growth of conspiracy theories is certainly one of these signs, albeit a dangerous and troubling one. While conspiracy theories have always existed, their current increase in popularity and influence needs an explanation. (While the Internet is often blamed entirely for this rise, I believe that the Internet contributes, but perhaps in a rather different way than is popularly believed.)
The rise of conspiracy theories is also a practical problem for the Church. Our family members and fellow parishioners are falling into a variety of intellectual traps. Helping them escape these traps is one of the most urgent problems facing us today. But without a deeper understanding of the worldview behind conspiracy theories, we will be unable to respond effectively.
Points of Congruence
In any dialogue, it is critical to identify points of congruence between the opposing systems of thought. “Conspiracy theory” is a broad label, covering a vast array of different ideas. Common to them all, however, is a suspicion of the modern world’s institutions and systems of power. They share a common concern about so-called global elites. Deep down, they all manifest a fear that behind our complex institutions and systems, there lurks some sort of irresponsible and malevolent power.
We can find congruent concerns in authors such as Romano Guardini, who influenced both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. He is a deep and insightful thinker who can not be dismissed as a mere crank. Yet in his book Power and Responsibility, often republished as a companion volume to his The End of the Modern World, we find the following passage:
Or there may be no appealable will at all, no person answerable for power, only an anonymous organization, each department of which transfers its authority to the next, thus leaving each—seemingly—exempt from responsibility. This type of power becomes particularly ominous when, as is true so often these days, respect for the human person, for his dignity and responsibility…grow visibly feebler.
Then power acquires characteristics which ultimately only Revelation is in a position to interpret; it becomes demonic. Once action is no longer sustained by personal awareness, it is no longer morally answerable, a peculiar vacancy appears in the actor. He no longer has the feeling that he, personally, is acting; … But the emptiness does not remain, for that would mean that the human being would somehow be reduced to a natural being, and his power natural energy. This is impossible. What does happen is that the void is succeeded by a faithlessness which hardens to an attitude, and into this no man’s land stalks another initiative, the demonic…
In certain individuals, as in particular historical situations, it comes powerfully to the fore. The truth behind it is not “the demonic,” but Satan; and who that is, only Revelation can properly say. (pages 124-126; all page numbers refer to my copy, published by ISI Press, currently out of print.)
Further on, Guardini writes:
This process [the diminishment of religious influence side by side with technological progress] leads straight to a concept whose consequences cannot be overestimated: the idea of universal planning. … Universal planning is being prepared with weighty arguments: political necessity, increased population, limited resources and the need for better distribution, the magnitude of modern technical problems, and so forth. But the real drives behind it are spiritual rather than practical; they culminate in an attitude which feels it to be its right and duty to impose its own goal upon mankind—and to utilize all that is as material for the realization of its earthly “kingdom.” (pages 167-168)
Guardini’s idea here—that bureaucratic, technical organizations have become subject in some special way to a demonic power that attempts to impose itself on humanity—is quite familiar to the average conspiracy theorist.
In light of this congruence, conspiracy theories can perhaps be best seen as myths; myths that are often deeply flawed but still potentially instructive. They embody in the form of stories humanity’s deep unease in the face of modernity. The details of these various theories can be absurd and repulsive, but their central theme should be taken seriously.
The concept of myth is widely misunderstood in the modern world. A good example of this is the sterile debates between militant atheists and fundamentalist creationists. Despite their many differences, both sides agree that if Genesis is not scientifically, literally true, it is not true at all. Much nearer to the truth of the matter is the position taken by John Paul II in his Theology of the Body lectures: that Genesis is a “myth.” He did not mean that Genesis was false, but rather that it is “an archaic way of expressing a deeper content…we discover that content, under the layer of the ancient narrative.” Stories such as the creation stories in Genesis are truer than any science textbook ever written. Fundamentalists and atheists, however, are trapped in the modern fixation on the literal, scientific meaning of these stories and so fail to recognize this deeper form of truth.
This is one of the reasons that conspiracy theories, unlike the thought of Romano Guardini and other social critics, generally lack the depth necessary to be intellectually and socially productive. Instead of being appreciated as myths describing the inner reality of the modern world, they are seriously believed as literal facts. Seen as myths, they can be illuminating; seen as factual reality, they tend to warp one’s perspective. When taken factually, they can ironically become a sort of smokescreen covering the deep problems of the fallen, modern world.
Even the most bizarre elements of modern conspiracy theories, such as wild stories about world leaders practicing cannibalism, contain this “mythic” element. Our world really does demand human sacrifice: in the abortion clinics where the children our society won’t support are wiped out, in our sweatshops that produce our cheap goods, in the drone strikes that protect our comfortable way of life.
Another degraded aspect of many conspiracy theories (aside from their use by cynical hucksters and manipulators) is their appeal to self-interest. In this, as in their lack of mythic understanding, mere cranks can be distinguished from radical social critics. Many conspiracy theories contain a temptation to self-righteousness. They can lead one to see oneself as innocent and injured by shadowy forces beyond one’s control. The authentic social critic, by contrast, tends to see himself as enmeshed in a system that brings ruin to others with less access to power. Such a critic typically calls on readers to become responsible and to develop their concern for the marginalized and oppressed.
What can we learn about our world by reading the central tendencies of conspiracy theories as “myths” about our society? Keeping the above caveats in mind, I think these “myths” help to highlight four key problems with the modern world: we experience it as incomprehensible, unfulfilling, inimical, and Gnostic. In the second half of this essay, I will explore these four problems and their relation to conspiracy theories, before turning to a discussion of possible solutions.
One metric for analyzing the probability of a conspiracy theory, in my opinion, is how many people the proposed conspiracy would involve and how much of reality the theory tries to explain. The more people involved and the more it tries to cover the less believable any such theory is. There’s all the difference in the world between saying that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of JFK, and saying that there’s a conspiracy that has orchestrated everything from the French Revolution to 9/11.
 To clarify, in this essay, and my writing more generally, I am using the term to refer to those who see the “Tridentine Liturgy” as objectively superior to the “Vatican II Liturgy”, and who are at least reserved about, if not suspicious of, the Second Vatican Council and the modern Popes, particularly Pope Francis. Such traditionalists are found both inside and outside the Church; I was one for many years. Those inside the Church tend to gravitate toward destination parishes run by the FSSP (Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter) or ICKSP (Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest) if any are available in their area. I am not referring to mainstream Catholics who like a bit of incense or who are fond of medieval architecture, or even to those who like to attend a Tridentine liturgy on occasion.