History is replete with a number of bizarre yet dangerous anti-Jewish and anti-Masonic conspiracy theories, such as the Diana Vaughan hoax, various narratives about the so-called Jewish and/or Masonic “Anti-Christ”, and the infamous ritual murder blood libels. Jews and Freemasons have also been accused of being secretive, manipulative and greedy, and blamed for supposedly controlling the press, stock markets and international finance. Anti-Catholic conspiracy narratives are no less fantastic, dangerous, and venomous. An excellent recent article in the Catholic Herald by Dr Damian Thompson – an expert on apocalyptic beliefs and Antichrist narratives – justifiably noted that we may “laugh at ludicrous anti-Catholic conspiracies. But we underestimate how many minds they poison.” He observes that conspiracy propagandists are “having a field day constructing alternative realities that frighten us and poison our minds.” And whilst those hostile to Jews and Freemasons have the notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to fuel their imagination, anti-Catholics have the Monita Secreta (a forged document purported to be the secret protocols of the Jesuits). Damian Thompson, “No, the Jesuits didn’t start World War I,” Catholic Herald, 22 January 2015.
According to Thompson’s lucid consideration in the Catholic Herald, Catholics are accused, even today – or perhaps especially today in this age of the internet and mass media – of all kinds of bizarre things, such as being responsible for the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Thompson explains that according to the conspiracy theory, the Jesuits (and presumably also their so-called accomplices, the “Rothschild/Morgan/Rockefeller cartel”) came up with a diabolic scheme to build a “death ship” – which they would falsely claim to be unsinkable – in order to lure a number of opponents of their so-called US Federal Reserve cartel to a “watery grave”.
Other anti-Catholic conspiracy theories blame Catholics for starting the First World War, and instigating the 9/11 terrorist attack. As Thompson rightly notes, in the construction of these ludicrous and yet poisonous conspiracy theories: “The demons are interchangeable: Catholics, Freemasons, the Illuminati and, most persistently, Jews. The structure of the story remains broadly the same. ‘They’ are rich, powerful, secretive and plotting world domination. The righteous must act now to thwart their plans.” It is thus unsurprising that Jews and Freemasons have also been blamed for the First World War, and accused of master-minding the attack on the World Trade Center; and if someone was to tell me that a deranged theory exists, accusing “the Illuminati” or “the Knights Templar” of participating in the 9/11 attack, it would not surprise me – such is the surreal nature of the conspiracy theory.
One of the things that impressed me about Thompson’s article, is that it does not shy away from the fact that Catholics too have been “progenitors” of such theories: “Catholics need to face up to the reality that, over 2,000 years, elements in the Church have been progenitors as well as victims of conspiracy theories. Mostly this should be a source of shame – but we need to bear in mind that paranoid thinking is to some extent part of the DNA of Christianity in general; Protestants and Eastern Orthodox are also vulnerable to it.” As Thompson reports: “Alas, certain Right-wing Catholics have not been able to resist the lure of the Protocols: they were favourite reading material of Bishop Richard Williamson, disgraced bishop of the Society of St Pius X (which expelled him in 2012).” Thompson goes on to explain that: “Williamson, though an Englishman, was immersed in a French Catholic conspiratorial subculture that predates the Protocols. Ultra-clericalist Frenchmen in the Third Republic blamed all their misfortunes on Jews and Freemasons.”
Interestingly, as I discovered during my PhD, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, such narratives were not confined to ultra-clerical French Catholics. At the time of the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, articles and columns in popular English Catholic newspapers, in particular the Tablet (which was not then the liberal Catholic magazine it is today), also went along with such narratives, accusing Jews of conspiring with Freemasons against the Church. For example, a report in the Tablet in March 1897 noted that: “In criticizing the Anti-Semitic policy of the clerical party on the Continent, it must be remembered that the Ghetto is there the focus and centre of the Liberal warfare against Catholicism, and that Jews and Freemasons form everywhere the vanguard of the forces of infidelity. By their address in capturing and manipulating the political machinery and the power of the press, they have contrived in Catholic countries to organize a systematic persecution of the Catholic Church, and to trample on the faith and practices of Catholicism as though they represented but the belief of a contemptible and impotent minority. The alliance of the Synagogue with the Lodges is in all continental countries the symbol of the triumph of infidelity over Christianity, and the creed of modern, no less than of ancient Judaism, is hostility to the Christian name.” See “Anti-Semitism in the Austrian Elections,” The Tablet, 27 March 1897, 481-482. During the Dreyfus Affair, the Tablet reported in February 1898, that it is suspicious that “in the sudden clamour for the revision of the Dreyfus trial … it is a subsidized movement, financed by the moneyed interest, which has made the cause of the Jewish Captain its own.” The Tablet stated that: “We shall not, we trust, be accused of palliating or condoning the excesses of anti-Semitism, by pointing out that the Jews, in France, Italy, and Austria, the three principal Catholic nations of the continent, exercise a political influence entirely disproportioned to their numbers, and that this influence is always exercised against the religion of the country. In close alliance with the Freemasons, … they form the backbone of the party of aggressive liberalism, with war to the knife against the Church as the sum and aim of its policy.” See “Captain Dreyfus and His Champions”, The Tablet, 12 February 1898, 238. Furthermore, during the late nineteenth century, the Tablet and the Catholic Herald were somewhat credulous (though not quite as credulous as La Croix) when it came to reports of Luciferian Freemasonry (for example, during the Diana Vaughan hoax).
Thompson provides other (more theological) examples of conspiracy-like narratives. He explains that the Book of Revelation in the New Testament is “a conspiracy theory whose authors introduced early Christians to the notion of the Antichrist, littering the text with mathematical codes and lurid allegory.” Thompson correctly notes that in some Protestant anti-Catholic narratives, the Pope has been vilified as this shadowy Antichrist figure. Significantly, he also acknowledges and laments that the Antichrist has not been confined to anti-Catholic narratives, but has also been used by some prominent Catholics to vilify non-Catholics: “Today it seems repugnant to Catholics that Luther should have identified the Pope as Antichrist. We forget that both pontiffs and Catholic monarchs had previously taken great pleasure in identifying their own enemies as this Satanic figure, whom the Bible explicitly tells us will emerge from disguise shortly before Jesus returns.” Significantly, as I discovered during my own PhD research (link for brief summary of PhD), such narratives were not confined to pontiffs, Catholic monarchs, or ultra-clericalist French Catholics in the Third Republic. Prominent English Catholics during the nineteenth- and the early twentieth-centuries, such as Father Henry Manning (who went on to become the second Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster) and Canon Dr William Barry (of the Archdiocese of Birmingham), as well as less prominent figures, repeated narratives about how the so-called “Jewish Antichrist” would arrive (or had already arrived) to lead anti-Christian forces against the Church (link for English Catholic Narratives about the “Jewish Antichrist”).
Thompson humbly concludes that he is “not qualified to say what the Church’s theological response should be to this aspect of its heritage.” Not being a Catholic myself, I am even less qualified to comment on the Church’s theological response to this aspects of its heritage, though like Dr Thompson, I believe the Church has a duty to respond in some way, if “it is to heal the wounds it has created.” Thompson suggests that whilst the Church did not invent the conspiracy theory narrative (for example, shadowy inventions similar to the diabolic Antichrist existed in pre-Christian Jewish and pagan myths), “in practical terms it should be alert to its persistence on the fringes of Catholicism.” Unfortunately, he suggests that Pope Francis may have his work cut out if he wishes to address the persistence of such narratives. According to Thompson: “Pope Francis is perceived – and presents himself – as a new broom in the Vatican. Ironically, this may make it more difficult to sweep away the conspiratorial mindset, since he himself hints that corrupt curial officials have seized control of dicasteries.”
Thompson suggests as a first step that the Vatican needs to learn how to better employ the internet. One can only hope that it not already too late in this age of mass media, when blog posts and tweets can circulate the globe and reach a huge audience very quickly, to dismantle the myriad of prejudiced myths and conspiracy theories (whether the role of diabolical villain is assigned to Jews, Freemasons, Catholics, Ahmadi, Roma, or some other group or combination of groups). Unfortunately, one suspects that such pernicious narratives are now resiliently embedded in the digital discourse (though this should not stop us attempting to dismantle them).