One of the more bizarre Catholic news stories of the past week has been that of Hope Is Fuel and its constantly fluctuating roster of participants in the days leading up to its launch on May 24. Described on its website as providing a “Signature Catholic Course,” Hope Is Fuel promises to be “A faithful Catholic solution to combat misinformation warfare and a light in the darkness.” The event page offers a list of speakers who will each be leading a “class,” who are described as “some of the most trusted names in the fields of theology, philosophy, history, journalism, education, psychology, spirituality, and science.” Each class is apparently a pre-recorded interview between the speaker and the host.

In early May, the list of speakers for the course was a curious mixture of fairly mainstream conservative Catholic speakers — the type who give parish talks and appear at diocesan conferences, such as author Jeff Cavins and Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer — and some more radical figures, including John-Henry Westen of LifeSiteNews and podcasters Tim and Stephanie Gordon. Last week, however, the more mainstream speakers began to withdraw from the event in a steady stream after becoming aware that the event’s organizer, Patrick Coffin, considers Pope Francis to be an antipope, and when E. Michael Jones — an author who holds extreme antisemitic views — had been added to their ranks.

Many of the speakers who withdrew stated that they were previously unaware of Coffin’s beliefs, and that they could not in good conscience participate in an event that provided a platform for Jones’s antisemitism. For example, one of the speakers who withdrew, Lisa Duffy, released a statement through her brother Patrick Madrid, saying, “I have withdrawn my permission to use my video at this conference and publicly disassociate myself from this because I do not agree with Patrick’s assertion about Pope Francis and I firmly repudiate all forms of anti-semitism. I do not wish to be a part of any event that would associate me with these ideas.”

E. Michael Jones was a late addition to the list, which shocked some of the scheduled speakers and led to very quick cancelations. I was surprised, however, that so many of the participants were unaware of Coffin’s views, which have become increasingly reactionary in recent years. Then again, most of them likely don’t pay very close attention to the radicalism that has crept into their circles in recent years.

They might have egg on their faces following this fiasco, but at least they withdrew prior to the program’s launch. This group of 20 or so conservative Catholics is certainly not the first group to be tricked into participating in a project headed by antisemitic radical traditionalist conspiracy theorists. They are in very good company. In many ways this fiasco reminds me of when a different group of radical traditionalists known for antisemitic views persuaded a bunch of mainstream scientists and a Star Trek actor into participating in a film promoting an absurd pseudoscientific theory.

Back in 2014, film trailers for The Principle — presented as a cosmological documentary about the Earth’s place in the universe — began to appear on the internet. This is a very interesting topic — none of us would be here if a multitude of conditions had not lined up just right.  For years, scientists have studied the confluence of factors that have allowed our planet to sustain life, such as its stable orbit around a suitable star, its location in the Milky Way Galaxy, the presence of the moon, and its plate tectonics. If any of these were missing, human life could not exist.

Several world-renowned scientists agreed to be interviewed for the documentary, including Lawrence Krauss, Michio Kaku, and Max Tegmark. Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on the television series Star Trek: Voyager was brought onboard to narrate. With its impressive lineup of experts and compelling visuals and subject matter, potential viewers were likely anticipating an educational and  fascinating film.

But it wasn’t. They had all been duped.

These participants did not realize until after the trailer was released that the real purpose behind The Principle, a project produced by traditionalist Catholics Rick DeLano and Robert Sungenis, was to normalize belief in geocentrism — the idea that the sun and the rest of the universe revolves around the earth. In the film, the interview footage of the respected scientists espousing grand thoughts about the unknown mysteries of the universe was woven together with footage of DeLano, Sungenis, and several pseudoscience “experts” promoting geocentrism.

Lawrence Krauss wrote an article for Slate entitled, “I Have No Idea How I Ended Up in That Stupid Geocentrism Documentary,” and Kate Mulgrew — despite her credentials as a decorated Starfleet officer on a fictional television show — also admitted on her Facebook page that she had been misled about the subject of the film. Although Mulgrew and the scientists signed releases, they said they were unaware that they had agreed to appear in a film that would promote the geocentrist position.

Robert Sungenis, it turns out, is a controversial figure himself. Raised Catholic, he later became Protestant before returning to the faith. He shared his faith journey in Surprised by Truth, Patrick Madrid’s classic 1994 compilation of conversion stories, along with those of other well-known Catholic apologists and speakers including Marcus Grodi, Jimmy Akin, Al Kresta, and Dave Armstrong. For nearly a decade, Sungenis worked with mainstream US Catholic apologetics organizations; for example, his website mentions appearances on EWTN and Catholic Answers Live.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2002, mainstream Catholic organizations cut ties with Sungenis after he wrote a 33,000-word document attacking a joint statement between a committee of bishops and a group of Jewish leaders in the US. According a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The article repeated a series of ancient anti-Semitic canards, relied on anti-Semites like Father Denis Fahey as authorities, and even praised Fahey and Father Charles Coughlin.”

According to a 2016 article in the New Oxford Review by Christopher Beiting, Sungenis’s public views involve a wide spectrum of antisemitic conspiracy theories, perhaps resembling a combination of Coffin’s conspiracism and Jones’s hatred of Jews:

He is on record as believing that dinosaurs coexisted with humans, that the sinking of the Titanic was an inside job, that crop circles are caused by NASA firing lasers or plasma weapons at the earth, that the moon landings were faked by Stanley Kubrick (a Jew), that 9/11 was an inside job (orchestrated not by Muslims but by Jews), that the tidal wave that struck Japan and set off the Fukushima reactor was not a natural event but was triggered (by Jews), that Monica Lewinsky’s seduction of Bill Clinton was orchestrated (by Jews), and that Kennedy was not assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald but by another group (the Mafia — no, sorry — the Jews). Oh, and, of course, the Holocaust didn’t happen either, at least not as is commonly accepted.

Within a few years of his public screed, Sungenis shifted gears from writing on his ideas about Judaism and turned to focus on cosmology, specifically his belief that Catholics must accept geocentrism as an infallible doctrine of the Church. He received a PhD in 2006 from an unaccredited university that many have described as a diploma mill based in England and self-published a three-volume work entitled Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right, and ultimately co-produced The Principle.

The story of The Principle is a cautionary tale about how individuals with dangerous and hateful ideas can easily deceive well-intentioned people into unwittingly promoting their radical views. Colin Lecher, explains the potential impact such extremists can have, writing in Popular Science, “Despite its absurdity, the mere fact that DeLano, Sungenis, and the rest of their crew were able to fund and execute a slickly produced film, and to cajole famous physicists to sit and chat for it, makes the geocentrist fringe startlingly real: people who believe in these ideas not only exist, but have the wherewithal to make a movie.”

Despite the chaos of the past week, Hope is Fuel is scheduled to go on. The roster has some new names, and I imagine that many of them — “masculinity” podcaster Elliott Hulse, and “cancelled priest” John Lovell — will feel much more at home with the host and this roster of speakers than the original group. One of the late additions, the dissident radical traditionalist Peter Kwasniewski, initially agreed to participate following the initial exodus of speakers, but announced his withdrawal on Sunday, May 21, on his Facebook page. He explained, “In fact, I agreed to join *after* the initial outburst of the hysterical progressive Catholics on Twitter, about whose opinions I know little and care less, except perhaps as evidence of distressing sociological phenomena.” He explained that he changed his mind after “a number of conversations with fellow traditionalists that have prompted me to reconsider the prudence of being on the roster of speakers.”

Those of us who are concerned by the rise of schismatic beliefs and reactionary extremism creeping into the Church through duplicitous means must become more vigilant than we have been. And we must do what we can to promote the truth in the face of the many destructive fantasies that consume people around us.

It’s disheartening to witness people we once held in high esteem descend into hateful ideologies and embrace conspiracy theories. For Catholics, it can be incredibly shocking when fellow believers who we once assumed were rock-solid and committed to their faith begin to slide down the seemingly endless slippery slope of paranoia, fear, and suspicion — chasing apparitions, hiding from Big Brother, obsessing over the end times, and succumbing to sedevacantism.

The stories of Hope Is Fuel and The Principle should serve as reminders of the importance of critical thinking, discernment, and having a deep understanding of our faith. We must resist the temptation to be swayed by extremist voices and instead embrace the true teachings of the Church, rooted in love, compassion, and unity with the pope and each other. In this way we can counteract the influence of dangerous ideologies and actively work towards building the kingdom.

Updated May 21, 2023 in light of Peter Kwasnieski’s withdrawal as a participant in Hope is Fuel and for clarity.

Image: Adobe Stock. By theblackrhino.

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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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