Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the oft-quoted opening stanza of William Butler Yeats’ apocalyptic poem, “The Second Coming“:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats‘ imagery entered the realm of cultural cliché long ago, but that is because it draws on ideas that have a universal resonance. The first line, in particular, pulls us in: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre . . .” The gyre, or vortex, is in this case a metaphor representing the loss—or rejection—of a centre of authority and order within a hierarchical structure. In such a situation, this loss of centre creates a vacuum, into which the fragments of the hierarchical order are drawn by centripetal force as they break apart.
Yeats was talking about the chaotic situation in Europe after World War I, but this metaphor of the gyre/vortex may also be applied to current world events, and especially to our current media-environment. Political instability and social media has proven to be a volatile mix, and we see all around us the formation of whirlwinds or vortices of politicized information. Such vortices can have a very real power of attraction for the gullible and discerning alike. We see hyper-partisan messaging creating new political realities at a terrifyingly rapid pace, producing adherents who are, to put it charitably, “full of passionate intensity.” Each media-vortex may appear, in its incessant rotation, to be a manifestation of a new order, but closer inspection always reveals an empty centre and an absence of value—a cipher.
The Church has not remained unaffected by these cultural developments, particularly since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis—which happened to coincide with the ascendancy of Twitter in the social media landscape and the beginnings of a new burgeoning of populist politics in the West. As a result, a sizeable minority of Catholics, especially in North America, have entered into a vortex of confusion and conflict fueled by social media and political turmoil. I do not mean to suggest that the Church is coming apart in any fundamental way. No matter what challenges it may face, that will not happen. The particular vortex I am referring to exists in the minds of those Catholics who have stopped listening to or simply deny the authority of the Supreme Pontiff.
The symptoms of the vortex are the same as they were in Yeats’ time, even if the context is very different. First comes a fragmentation of reality and a loss of spiritual and intellectual discernment that result in the development of conspiracy theory. What inevitably follows is scapegoatism and apocalypticism.
When one has taken the “red pill” (to use a popular motif) and begins to reel from its effects, where should one turn? One looks for sympathetic voices, and in the Catholic world these are easy to find: extreme traditionalists, sedevacantists, disgruntled priests, a wide variety of angry and politicized mainstream Catholics, and perhaps even some voices in the Church hierarchy. These voices, collectively, form a new medium, processing and distributing information, delivering a daily flurry of out-of-context snippets of news. When a new news item appears, it is immediately chopped and spun, and becomes yet another part of the vortex. New patchwork narratives are constructed, and become stabilizing points of reference. The result, most often, is conspiracy theory. For those drawn into the vortex, a cause for the perceived loss of order and authority must be found, and it must be tangible and traceable. Thus, over the last four or five years, some Catholics have discerned the outlines of a conspiracy within the Church—a supposed pattern of subversion. Terrible crimes have been committed, and although they have not all come to light, they are legion. But who is responsible? A favourite phrase of the conspiracy theorist is “cui bono?” or “who benefits?” The resulting discourse is permeated with what Richard J. Hofstadter famously described in 1964 as the “paranoid style.” Hofstadter was referring to the popular conspiracism that regularly blossoms in American politics, but his term applies equally well to much of the politicized discourse within the Church today.
With the development of the vortex of conspiracy theory we enter into the realm of the accuser and the scapegoat. The empty centre of the vortex demands a sacrifice. The scapegoats, for those who have fallen into the anti-Francis vortex, are homosexuals, Modernists, baby boomers, “cafeteria Catholics,” ‘liberal’ members of the Church hierarchy, and of course Pope Francis himself. At the centre of the vortex, the former normative hierarchy and all that it is associated with takes on the appearance of the cipher—a visible manifestation of the absence of good. The figure of authority is now a puppet, imposter, monster or antichrist. The apocalyptic moment has arrived. Already we see this happening in the anti-Francis vortex. The pope is regularly ridiculed and demonized. Priests and bishops who support the pope are described without qualification as “bad,” and those who resist him as “good.” We even see, given the extraordinary circumstance in which we have a Pope Emeritus, some distinguishing between a good pope, forced into retirement, and a bad pope, who has been lifted to power by conspirators. Those who have been granted this apocalyptic vision feel there can now be no dialogue, but only uncompromising battle against demonic forces that must be eliminated.
Sadly, this is an old story within the Church. In just the last century, the Church was shaken by both the Action Française and Lefèbvrist vortices. Yves Congar, in Challenge to the Church (1976), describes the discourse typical of these movements:
Here we have a set of characteristic attitudes and procedures: sticking disparaging labels on one’s opponents, while never admitting that one might be in error oneself; gathering everything that one detests under an umbrella term which arouses unqualified emotional repulsion; insisting that one is right, while sometimes displaying a pettifogging spirit in so doing; being convinced that there is a wicked plot, that a ‘Judaeo-Masonic’ or communist conspiracy has infiltrated the Church, is working inside it, and is fomenting internal subversion. (16)
Sound familiar? We can expect to see more of this in the months and years to come.
I say all this not as a call for an intensification of the culture war within the Church, but as a simple plea for sanity. Those who have entered the anti-Francis vortex are not stupid or irredeemable. I have studied conspiracy theory in an academic context, and I know that it can grip people of even great intelligence. In my research on the (literary) modernist author Wyndham Lewis, I looked at the aspects of his thought that pushed him perilously close to the realm of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi conspiracy theory in the early-to-mid 1930s. Even though Lewis later modified his views significantly, rejecting anti-Semitism unconditionally and embracing a cosmic and universalist vision that drew him toward an appreciation of Catholicism, his period of near-paranoia in the 1930s still casts a shadow over his career. He bitterly regretted his lapse in judgement. Later, I studied the work of bestselling British author Douglas Reed, a prolific and gifted journalist and political commentator who, during the course of World War II, managed to convince himself that Adolf Hitler was the puppet of a Jewish world conspiracy. His bizarre conviction, once it had solidified and become unalterable, eventually led him into self-exile and obscurity in Rhodesia. His is a tragic story of intelligence wasted.
Of course real-life conspiracies do happen, but they are usually far less clever and coordinated than conspiracy theorists imagine. Conspiracy theorists, though, are not interested in the mundane, awkward, and often chaotic realities of political and institutional life. They need to posit a great and terrible enemy in the shadows with which they can do battle. They want a narrative in which they can situate themselves—one which will clear up all confusion and invest their actions with significance. The conspiracy theory functions as a narcotic, easing pain and providing an artificial stimulation that gradually poisons the soul. It is hard to watch someone suffer its effects and do nothing to help. It is also distressing to see what is left after the effects of the “red pill” wear off, or after it has taken an irreversible toll.
What is the solution? It’s next to impossible to defeat conspiracy theories through argument. Those who have fallen prey to them can only exit the vortex by rekindling their faith in the promise that Christ made to Peter: that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church. Against all their instincts, they must put their trust in the pope, because they can be assured that any change he brings to the Church and its practices will not lead anyone astray. If blind faith is required, so be it. No pope is impeccable, and the Church hierarchy is comprised of sinners, but the Church is still the Barque of Peter and will not sink or become stranded, no matter how rough the waters.
I respectfully ask those in the anti-Francis vortex to listen to the plea of one of the earliest popes, St. Clement of Rome, in his letter to the Corinthians, who had become engaged in controversies that led to rebellion against Church leaders:
“Why do we divide and tear in pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that “we are members one of another?” (Romans 12:5) . . . Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continues.
. . .
Who then among you is noble-minded? Who compassionate? Who full of love? Let him declare, “If on my account sedition and disagreement and schisms have arisen, I will depart, I will go away wherever ye desire, and I will do whatever the majority commands; only let the flock of Christ live on terms of peace with the presbyters set over it.” He that acts thus shall procure to himself great glory in the Lord; and every place will welcome him.”
Leaving the anti-Francis vortex does not mean capitulation or defeat. We can still disagree among ourselves while remaining members of the Mystical Body of Christ. It means renouncing pride, for the sake of the Church. For those who have the bravery and humility to do this, the rewards will be great, and “every place will welcome him.”
Congar, Yves. Challenge to the Church: The Case of Archbishop Lefèbvre. First published 1976. Trans. Paul Inwood. Collins Liturgical Publications, 1977.
St. Clement of Rome. “Letter to the Corinthians (Clement).” Translated by John Keith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9. Edited by Allan Menzies. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1010.htm>.