You may have noticed that recently my article output has been a bit more sporadic than usual. There’s a reason for this, although it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit. For the last month or so, I have been neck-deep in the mysterious fever swamps of traditionalist Catholic conspiracy theory.
It began innocently enough—shortly after the release of the second episode of the Latin Mass documentary series Mass of the Ages, I decided to write a review of the two films.
My review of Mass of the Ages received a considerable amount of attention—ranging from traditionalists who were extremely unhappy with my evaluation all the way to Catholics who didn’t think I was critical enough of the films (or that I bothered to give any attention to them at all). A few people even agreed with my assessment.
Some fans of the films, as well as writer and producer Jacob Tate,[*] were disappointed about the aspects of the films on which I chose to focus. Admittedly, the traditionalist arguments given in Mass of the Ages weren’t of great interest to me. There is hardly a traditionalist talking point that I haven’t heard by now, and nothing in either film struck me as especially novel or new. I was more interested in the way these ideas were presented, what was emphasized, and where the filmmakers succeeded and failed in achieving their goals. I found it interesting that they decided to put forward a more “positive” vision of traditionalism that stayed away from pope-bashing and that they chose to go with a “council was good, implementation was bad” view of Vatican II.
Many traditionalist readers were not pleased with my observation that “The real problem with Mass of the Ages is that it provides platforms for some of the most extreme and dissenting figures in traditionalism today.” It struck me as detrimental to the aims of the filmmakers to give screen time to radical traditionalists like Peter Kwasniewski and Taylor Marshall (assuming that among their goals was to attract mainstream Catholics to the Tridentine Mass).
I was hoping my review would start a dialogue about the presence—and toleration—of extremism in the traditionalist movement. Many traditionalists seem to deny the presence of extremism on one hand while expressing their extremist views on the other. For example Rachel Amiri and I collaborated on a response to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s New York Times op-ed, in which he railed against Pope Francis’s decision to restrict the old rite, saying it will divide the Church, but also criticizing Catholics who embrace Vatican II, saying, “It seems as though we aren’t even part of the same religion.” Dougherty’s article is demonstrative of precisely the problematic ideology Pope Francis seeks to curb, as demonstrated by statements like, “I believe the practice of the new Mass forms people to a new faith: To become truly Christian, one must cease to be Christian at all.”
Other traditionalists have doubled down since Traditionis Custodes as well. For example, Peter Kwasniewski—who is featured in both Mass of the Ages films—has been especially outspoken recently against the pope and the Second Vatican Council. He’s promoting a new book on “True Obedience,” where he seems to argue that the truly obedient Catholics are actually those who are disobedient against the pope by saying things like:
If we are convinced that something essential, something decisive in the Faith is under attack from the pope or any other hierarch, we are not only permitted to refuse to do what is being asked or commanded, not only permitted to refuse to give up what is being unjustly taken away or forbidden; we are obliged to refuse, out of the love we bear to Our Lord Himself, our love for His Mystical Body, and our proper love for our own souls.
There were many angles I could have taken with the review. I spent a lot of time researching the film’s claims and speculation about the late Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, for example. I was also curious about how well the films had fact-checked and what sources they were using. But I eventually realized that investigating these things went far beyond the scope of a movie review. In the end, I added two footnotes to my article, promising to return to those subjects soon.
Besides, it seemed to me that the most compelling thing about the film was how it managed avoiding polemics while giving platforms to polemicists. I’m still mystified by the apparent inability of so many reactionary traditionalists to restrain themselves in the wake of Traditionis Custodes, which only confirms that Pope Francis made the right decision. Their behavior after the document’s release only decreases the likelihood that it will ever be reversed. Even more baffling still is that less ideologically-outspoken traditionalists, including Mass of the Ages filmmakers Cameron O’Hearn and Jacob Tate, apparently don’t find it prudent to distance themselves from the very traditionalists who are to blame for the restrictions on the Latin Mass.
What is the wisdom in amplifying the more troubling and heterodox figures in the the traditionalist movement? This is a question that continues to vex.
The second attempt
O’Hearn wasn’t interested in having that conversation, however. In response to my review, he tweeted, “I would love to see an article that actually rebuts any point we make in the film so that we could have a discussion about it.”
I would love to see an article that actually rebuts any point we make in the film so that we could have a discussion about it.
— Mass of the Ages: The Latin Mass TRILOGY (@liturgyfilm) June 17, 2022
This was a puzzling response, because my intention was to engage with the film as art, not as an argument. Still, this is the sort of challenge I have difficulty refusing, often to my detriment. But I couldn’t resist. I decided to leap back into the Mass of the Ages universe to find “any point” made in the film that I might “actually rebut.” It was time to follow through on those two footnotes about Archbishop Bugnini. One of them was about a falsified quote featured twice in the film, the other referred to the claims made by Fr. Charles Murr in the film. Fr. Murr claims that his former boss, Cardinal Édouard Gagnon, had conducted an apostolic visitation of the Roman Curia in the 1970s and uncovered irrefutable evidence that Bugnini, who was one of the main architects of the liturgical reform, was a Freemason.
My response to Tate would require a deep dive into the world of Catholic conspiracy theories.
Down into the rabbit hole I went again, for the next four days. Throughout this time, I ate, drank, and breathed 1960s and 70s Vatican intrigue. I thumbed through heavy books, scoured the internet archives, and exceeded my annual Amazon Kindle budget by a good amount. I probably also burned a few bridges after sending emails and direct messages to Vatican officials, bishops, theologians, historians and journalists, asking if they knew anything about the Gagnon investigation. In my weaker moments I would go down my list of contacts and think to myself, “this priest seems pretty old, maybe he knows about this. I’ll ask him.” (If you are reading this, Father, I apologize for bugging you and I don’t blame you if you never want to speak to me again.)
Eventually I ran out of steam and information began drying up, so I wrote my follow-up piece, “Annibale Bugnini: Liturgy’s Greatest Villain.” It was pretty clear that the idea that Bugnini wanted to “Protestantize” the liturgy was based on falsehoods. Furthermore, to date, no credible evidence that Bugnini was ever a Freemason has ever been produced. I also concluded—after investigating many of his claims about people and well-documented historical events—that Fr. Murr is not a reliable witness on the matter. I summarized my findings in the article, published it, and shared it with the filmmakers.
Apparently those weren’t the points he wanted a discussion about. He never replied.
A few days later, however, I did receive a reply from someone else. Writer and author Kevin Symonds responded to my piece, criticizing my dismissal of Fr. Murr’s claims. He wrote, “Having subtly cast doubt and aspersion upon Fr. Murr’s veracity, Lewis attempts to nuance himself, ‘Until such evidence emerges, it does not seem reasonable to assume it’s true.’ Unfortunately, there is no nuancing here. Fr. Murr is either telling the truth (according to the best of his recollections), or he is lying.”
Symonds went on to suggest, based on my conclusions, that I conducted my investigation with a one-sided agenda and with prejudice against Fr. Murr. His response was filled with statements like, “Lewis doesn’t raise this question,” “Unfortunately, Lewis does not consider any of these matters,” “In essence, he casts aspersions upon Murr for not producing the evidence,” and “Lewis provides a very one-sided presentation of the facts.”
The truth, however, is that when I wrote the article, I was being much more delicate about the question than I could have. I don’t want to cast aspersions on Fr. Murr, nor do I want to disrespect him. But after many hours spent researching and evaluating his claims, I concluded that he is not a reliable source of historical information. Although his claims regarding Archbishop Bugnini are impossible to prove or disprove, many of his other statements are very unlikely to be true, and some are demonstrably false. And in his books and interviews, he makes no attempts to explain these discrepancies.
Was I biased when I conducted my research? Admittedly, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve doubted the Bugnini accusations for a while, but I did my best to substantiate Fr. Murr’s claims. I’ve been down the Bugnini rabbit hole before, both as a believer and a skeptic, and I’m generally of the opinion that there is nothing to the Freemason accusations. I consider Bugnini biographer Yves Chiron’s conclusions on the matter to be the final word. (That is, barring the unlikely discovery of the Bugnini dossier in the Vatican archives, which will never happen if it doesn’t exist.)
Still, I’m open to documentary evidence. If some ever emerges, and it’s credible, I’ll accept it. To suggest that I didn’t make a good-faith effort to substantiate his claims is untrue. (One wonders if anyone who believes his claims has ever tried to prove them.)
To say that I hadn’t considered his side of the story, after all the work I’d put in, merited a response.
So I decided to show my work.
The Deep Dive
For a few years now, I’ve wanted to take the time to deconstruct a popular traditionalist Catholic conspiracy theory by thoroughly analyzing the narrative, comparing to known facts, and tracing the claims back to their origins as far as I possibly can. These stories all start somewhere. Most conspiracy theories contain clear flaws and contradictions, but other aspects are more elusive and harder to prove or disprove.
And since I’d already done much of the research, Fr. Murr’s testimony seemed like a good test case.
But even more than evaluating the testimony, I wanted to explore the motives and psychology of conspiracists themselves.
Back into the fever swamps I went, (hopefully) for the last time. I dug back through the same documents, books, and websites, this time trying to document as much of my research and findings as I possibly could. The scope of my project kept growing as I continued. Every bit of new information led to new questions, and new areas to explore. After a week or so I became neurotic, trying to determine if any of Fr. Murr’s claims were true.
I had collected so much information that I didn’t know how I was going to put it together.
Here is the result, if you are interested:
Was it worth it?
Almost certainly not. It was probably the biggest waste of time of my entire life. And that’s saying a lot.
But I learned a few things.
Debunking (or proving) Catholic traditionalist conspiracy theories is very difficult, because (as I have long observed) many of these theories took root from the 1960s through the 1980s, and therefore much of the groundwork was laid before the internet era. The work of debunking is even more difficult because over the last 25 years, many conspiracy theories have been posted online by adherents and circulated, compared to very few rebuttals. Many of these theories may have been debunked decades ago, but contemporary debunkers often have to start from scratch.
A further challenge of Catholic conspiracy theories is that many official documents and primary sources are not available in English. Quite often, tracing the history of a quote or story (such as the fake quote in Mass of the Ages) requires searching through Italian or Latin documents.
Unfortunately, all of these obstacles have led to a situation where an ordinary Catholic who hears about a fabricated story will look it up on the internet and will only find websites promoting the conspiracy theory. Of course, this is to be expected. Who wants to invest the time to create a website centered on the idea that Sr Lucia of Fatima wasn’t replaced by a body double in the 1960s? You can find plenty of websites that enthusiastically support the idea that she was, but who has the time or inclination to refute it? For that matter, most people who are willing to entertain such ideas aren’t likely to be persuaded by a reasoned argument (or even concrete evidence) that the theory is false.
Making the work of debunking even more challenging is that conspiracy theories are typically designed to be unfalsifiable. This means that even though adherents provide no concrete evidence for their claims, there’s virtually nothing that can completely rule them out.
That means the arguments tend to go something like this:
Conspiracy theorist: The documents are locked in the Vatican archive! They must be released!
Skeptic: But Bishop X said the documents aren’t there.
Conspiracy theorist: Bishop X is a Mason. He’s lying.
Skeptic: Why do you think Bishop X is a Mason?
Conspiracy theorist: Can you prove to me that he isn’t?
Conversations with conspiracy theorists are difficult because they believe irresponsible, unsubstantiated claims, yet they shift the burden of proof to the person who doubts the theory. And they spread like wildfire. The way they proliferate online, putting a stop to them is nearly impossible. Sadly, those who believe in conspiracy theories (and their loved ones) suffer real-life consequences.
As for my analysis of the “Freemasons in the Vatican” conspiracy theory, you might imagine it as an anthropological exercise. It’s not as much an attempt to convince others that this conspiracy theory is false, but an attempt to trace its origins and the psychology behind it.
Once again, here’s a link to my analysis: “Freemasons in the Vatican?”
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with two takeaways:
- I will never do this again. Debunking conspiracy theories is frustrating, tedious work. There’s rarely any reward. In fact, you’re more likely to be demonized for your efforts than to change someone’s mind. Now that I’ve been to the bottom of the rabbit hole, I have no desire to return.
- The conspiracy theorist is often more fascinating than the conspiracy theory. My experience has reinforced this idea. The human mind is an imaginative, unpredictable, and beautiful thing. Throughout this project, I read a great deal about belief perseverance, confirmation bias, and false memories. But more on that another time.
[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly named director and producer Cameron O’Hearn as the author of the quoted Tweet from @liturgyfilm. The tweet was posted by the film’s writer and producer Jacob Tate.
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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.