The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.

–Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

The Knights Templar have long featured prominently in conspiracy writing, culminating in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. However, they seem to be passé in conspiracy theory these days. I’ve barely heard a peep about them in years, except among those interested in the High Middle Ages or who play the Assassin’s Creed or Crusader Kings series of video games. There are, however, plenty of other groups, individuals, concepts, and talking points that today’s conspiracy theorists “sooner or later bring up.” Many of these are genuinely interesting at first. Inevitably, though, the conspiracy theorist will let slip the surly bonds of common sense and these narratives rise into the limpid empyrean of confirmation bias and epistemic closure.

Idées fixes for conspiracy theorists today vary according to political and religious opinion. Common themes include “Hollywood elites,” the “Satanic cabal,” “lizard people” (a theory mostly associated with British theorist David Icke), a “globalist” New World Order, and US President Donald Trump as either a dupe for or a crusader against “Them.” These themes get remixed in all sorts of ideologically specific ways. For example, in some tellings of the conspiracy theories currently surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the virus is a hoax being perpetuated by the New World Order that Trump is trying to expose; in others, it’s a hoax that he’s in on. There is a specific subgenre of these theories that exists within the Catholic Church as well, and it’s getting more and more airplay in Catholic social media circles of late. Themes in these include:

  • “Globalism” and one-world government (despite the fact that the Holy See currently supports stronger international institutions).
  • Unapproved Marian apparitions, and claims that approved ones, especially Fátima, have been interpreted wrongly.
  • Various conspiracy theories related to sexual orientation, such as those alleging organized homosexual infiltration of the Church.
  • Conspiracy theories about ongoing Freemasonic or communist infiltration.
  • Antisemitic conspiracy theories. (Here is a German-language news source discussing the antisemitic connotations of one of the theories that I discuss below.)
  • Conspiracy theories about Pope Francis and other individual clerics. My favorite one of these, from the furthest fringes, is the theory that Pope Francis is actually Frank Sinatra, who had been kept on ice (or something).

Between May 8 and May 13 I spent quite a bit of time looking at the front pages of various Traditionalist Catholic or otherwise Francis-critical news and opinion websites, including Rorate Caeli, LifeSiteNews, and Church Militant. Here are some of the hot takes and “news” stories that I have seen on these websites:

On Rorate Caeli, there’s “new evidence” that Annibale Bugnini, the controversial and vaguely shadowy-seeming 60s and 70s archbishop who headed the commission that composed the current Ordinary Form of the Mass, was a Freemason. The source cited is a review by Kevin Symonds of Taylor Marshall’s recent book Infiltration, which is a veritable emporium of Catholic conspiratorialism. Rorate Caeli itself admits that “Symonds goes much beyond the conclusions of Marshall regarding Bugnini” (an amazing “up to eleven” feat in and of itself), then reprints Symonds’s review uncritically. A few days later Rorate Caeli published a letter from far-right Kazakhstani Bishop Athanasius Schneider claiming that restrictions on public celebration of Mass were “a harbinger of times of persecution and martyrdom, of which Our Lady spoke in the third part of the secret of Fátima.”

On LifeSiteNews, there’s an open letter composed by ideologically-motivated whistleblower turned crank extraordinaire Carlo Maria Viganò. This letter claims that the coronavirus crisis is being exploited by advocates of “one world government.” The letter is signed by three cardinals, one of whom is the immediate past Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Ludwig Müller. Müller also recently claimed that bishops do not have the right to suspend public celebration of Mass. Viganò’s letter had been signed by four cardinals, the fourth being incumbent Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship Robert Sarah. Sarah, however (in my view reasonably and maturely), asked that his name be removed. LifeSiteNews also has (or had as of May 13) not only an article, but a banner soliciting petition signatures against mandatory vaccination for the coronavirus. Two other signatories of the open letter are the leader of an Italian anti-vaccination group and an anti-vax scion of the Kennedy family, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Rorate Caeli also reproduces this open letter.)

On Church Militant, there’s a whole series of articles about that no doubt irreducible core theological and moral issue: receiving communion on the tongue during the coronavirus (or, as Church Militant calls it, “Wuhan virus”) pandemic. There is also an article with the absolutely astounding headline “STRAIGHT PRIESTS PERSECUTED,” to which I’d suggest the natural response is the sarcastic meme “Big, If True.” “STRAIGHT PRIESTS PERSECUTED” tells the story of several priests who have been, apparently, asked by their bishops to stop making public comments about the Church’s sexual abuse crisis that involve scapegoating gay men as a whole. According to Church Militant, this means these priests are being persecuted for their sexual orientation. There’s also an article, in grand concern-trolling form, about British Cardinal Vincent Nichols attending a Ramadan iftar.

Another Church Militant article, to which I’ll devote extra care as a sort of ideal type of conspiracy atop conspiracy, is named “Catholics Condemn Pope’s ‘Sacrilege,’ ‘Blasphemy’” with the subheader “Further globalist push for ‘One World Religion.’” The “globalist push” here is Francis’s call for a pan-religious day of prayer for an end to the coronavirus pandemic. “Catholics,” Church Militant tells us, “are using the hashtags #syncretism, #freemasonicfraternity, #Chrislam, #OneWorldReligion and #FrancisIsNotOurPope to protest the pan-religious day of prayer.” (The mere fact that a hashtag is used of course tells us nothing about its aptness.) Cited as an authority on this issue is Deacon Nick Donnelly, a Briton who came to prominence as a polemical defender of Benedict XVI during his visit to the UK in 2010. Donnelly has since dispensed with his previous high view of the papal office, changing his Twitter handle from “@ProtectthePope” to “@ProtecttheFaith.” These are, of course, both admirable sentiments in themselves, but the change from one to the other says a lot about where he stands. He has promoted the idea that Francis is a heretic and a false pope, thus giving fuel to both sedevacantism and the fringe idea that Benedict is, in fact, still the legitimate Pope.

The article also cites and links to an essay by Archbishop Viganò called, “The World Neo-Religion Will Have its Temple: With the Pope’s Approval.” This essay is noteworthy because in it Viganò goes the extra mile and actually condemns the Vatican II document Nostra aetate, which is probably best-known for its repudiation of antisemitism. One of the images that Church Militant uses to illustrate this article is the picture, below, of Pope Francis at the center of a Coexist-bumper-sticker-esque design showing symbols of a dozen different religions. (Some of these symbols are obscure enough that I had to look them up, even though I’ve studied comparative theology academically.) One might say that this article represents a remarkable synthesis of a number of the types of Catholic conspiracy theory mentioned in my bullet list above. A sort of conspiracy-theory syncretism!

Image: Pope Francis at the center of a wheel or mandala of symbols from various religions.

Interestingly, much of the online content being produced around these and analogous “issues” comes from a fairly close-knit and well-defined group of people. Rorate Caeli’s Freemasonry allegations, as mentioned above, come in the form of a review of a book by extremely-online lay theologian Taylor Marshall. Church Militant, meanwhile, has a seemingly never-ending series of articles and podcast episodes talking up a book called Rules for Retrogrades, by Timothy and David Gordon, the former of whom was a frequent guest on Marshall’s podcast. On his podcast, Marshall has extensively interviewed other leading lights of online conspiracy theorist Catholicism such as Austrian Traditionalist activist Alexander Tschugguel, who rose to public notice during Pachamamaghazi late last year. There are also other eminent figures in this media biome, who intermittently support and feud with one another. These include LifeSiteNews editor-in-chief John Henry Westen, Church Militant’s Michael Voris, and a revolving cast of about a dozen ideologically sympathetic bishops, under the de facto leadership of Cardinal Raymond Burke. Science fiction novelist William Gibson might call this, in the words of his debut novel Neuromancer,  “a seamless universe of self.”

I don’t mean to suggest that anybody who has some of the preferences I’ve mentioned here—for Latin in one’s liturgy, for communion on the tongue, for bishops with a more confrontational attitude towards other religions—is a “lunatic.” I share milder forms of some of those preferences myself. I’ve taken to describing my taste in liturgy, for example, as “traditional but not Traditionalist.” You have to look at the big picture and the recurring themes and tropes to get a sense of just how hermetic and self-referential the full flower of this worldview is. So self-contained is this biome, in fact, that its inhabitants often turn against even each other, feuding at the most obscure provocations. Currently, for example, Marshall is feuding with the Church Militant people, despite their strong connections in the past. Meanwhile, Church Militant seems to be engaged in a full-court press against the not-quite-schismatic Traditionalist organization the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), accusing it of widespread abuse and cover-ups. I’m reminded of naturalist Richard Hingston’s initial—and, as it turns out, inaccurate—description of the feeding habits of the highest-dwelling animal in the world, the Himalayan spider Euophrys omnisuperstes. “For food,” Hingston said, “they eat one another.”

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Addendum 5/24/2020: Kevin Symonds, mentioned in this article, contacted me on May 21 and encouraged me to read his full review of Infiltration, which Rorate Caeli had, contrary to what I had believed, reproduced only in redacted form. Having read it, I can say that Symonds’s actual claims regarding Archbishop Bugnini are more limited and more parsimonious than either Rorate Caeli or Where Peter Is had intimated.

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