For decades in certain traditionalist Catholic circles, conspiracy theories have been circulated claiming (among other things) that Pope St. Paul VI and other prominent bishops at the time of Vatican II were secret Freemasons. Paranoia about Freemasons trying to take over the world was long a hobby of ultra-conservatives, and this was a particular manifestation of it that was intended to discredit the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, which Paul VI carried out. The recent book Infiltration by Taylor Marshall simply transfers these tropes and ravings to Pope Francis.
I was recently asked by someone to direct them to written books or articles refuting the conspiracy theory about Paul VI. So far as I can tell, no such book or article exists. Nor should it.
Most historians, biographers, and scholars (including theologians) don’t research and write about conspiracy theories. It would be a waste of our time, when we have many other things we would like to write about and research. Sometimes you can find that a passionate person has written something and put it on the internet or made a YouTube video attempting a debunking. Occasionally, we do it here at Where Peter Is. Some sites, like Snopes.com are devoted to debunking fake news and misinformation spread on the internet. But to touch these things in the professional world is not usually done. Life’s too short, and there is almost no market for reading that kind of thing since most people (rightly) don’t care about conspiracy theories. Furthermore, research about misinformation has shown that attempting to refute conspiracy theories, by the mere fact of addressing them at all, tends to spread knowledge of the theory itself, which thus attracts new followers. As such, it can be self-defeating to try, giving scholars even less reason to bother.
There’s another important, epistemological point here. It would be difficult to write an article refuting the conspiracy theory that Paul VI was a secret Freemason, because by its very nature a conspiracy theory is a baseless claim about something allegedly done in secret and kept secret. Because the claims are offered without real evidence, strictly speaking they can’t be refuted. Think about it: how could anyone prove that anyone wasn’t a secret Mason?
It is a principle of rationality that when people make extraordinary claims, they need to provide extraordinary evidence. Conspiracy theories don’t do this, no matter how much or how loudly their proponents scream that esoteric “arguments” are evidence. Was Paul VI a Mason? Show me his Masonic membership card. Show me the membership records of the lodge he allegedly belonged to with his name enrolled. Show me the testimonies of fellow Masons. Show me photographs and videos of him participating in Masonic events. If someone said I secretly belonged to a Mormon church, that is the sort of evidence they would have to provide to substantiate the claim. If they didn’t, I need not say anything beyond the fact that I’m a Catholic to refute it. So also with Pope Paul VI.
It must also be said that hearsay is not evidence. The conspiracy theory about Paul VI seems to be based on hearsay of “So-and-so said that Cardinal Siri told him that Paul VI was a secret Mason!” Decades have passed since some people first made these claims. Am I supposed to take their improbable and fact-free claim at face value on faith? I have no reason to believe them, certainly I would not believe them before I believed Paul VI himself!
As I’ve said, we shouldn’t accept claims offered without proof, and if the claim is extraordinary then it would require extraordinary proof. But in this case Catholics have another reason to reject the claim. The people making it were obviously doing it in order to advance an ideological aim of theirs: they wanted to discredit Paul VI because they opposed his implementation of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. They wanted to discredit Vatican II and the pope who oversaw it.
In my opinion, the best way to “refute” such a conspiracy theory is to ignore it. Instead, as a Catholic theologian, I would rather devote my time to defending and explaining Catholic doctrine, as authentically taught by Vatican II and the popes.
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).