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On this day in 1894, a short article entitled “How a Jew Found Truth” in the Catholic Herald, a popular English Catholic newspaper, argued that there was some merit to the claim that the Jews deliberately remove and obliterate passages from their own Hebrew scriptures in order to hide the truth of Christianity. According to the article, Johann Emanuel Veith (1787-1876; a Jewish convert to Catholicism, director of the school of veterinary medicine at the University of Vienna, and a prominent and popular priest and preacher), used to have passages read to him as a youth from the Old Testament by his father. The Catholic Herald explained that from a young age he had studied his father’s sacred books assiduously, and by the time he was sent to Prague to study philosophy, he already “knew the Scriptures of the Old Testament thoroughly.” According to the article, though Jewish, Johann Veith decided to attend some Catholic religious classes, and he was astounded to discover passages from the Old Testament “concerning the Messiah which he had never read or heard of at home.” The Catholic Herald explained that when he next visited his father, he examined “his father’s old Bible” to check the passages he had discovered at the Catholic religious classes that discussed the messiah, and found that “the pages containing these quotations had been destroyed or glued together or obliterated.” According to the Catholic Herald, when he asked his father for an explanation, the only answer he received was “a severe blow on the side of the face.” It was that blow, the paper explained, that steeled him to study Christian theology, leading him to “the truth of Christianity and of the Catholic Church.” See “How a Jew Found Truth,” Catholic Herald, 23 March 1894.
This story in the Catholic Herald was a modern example of an oft-repeated anti-Jewish claim dating back to antiquity and frequently repeated during the Middle Ages. As Joshua Trachtenberg’s important study of the religious diabolisation of Jews notes, there have been Christians, from antiquity to the modern day, who have believed that the Jews were wilfully malicious and insincere rather than ignorant in their rejection of Christ. For example, some of the early Church Fathers, such as Jerome and Justinian, complained that the rabbis “consciously and deliberately perverted the meaning of the original text.” Medieval scholars even accused Jews of “tampering with the text of the Bible in an effort to destroy its Christological meaning.” See Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and its Relation to Modern Antisemitism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1943), 15, 153.
One may ask, did Veith really make the claims suggested by the Catholic Herald about his father’s alleged tampering with the Bible? It is difficult to conclusively answer this question. There is anecdotal evidence upon which one may speculate, but this may lead the interpreter to either conclusion. In Veith’s favour, it seems likely that he did publicly refute another malicious anti-Jewish myth, the blood libel. According to Hermann Stack’s classic study of the ritual murder accusation, there are at least three written testimonies to the effect that Veith had publicly stated, at the end of a sermon delivered in Vienna in May 1840 (i.e. shortly after the infamous Damascus blood libel), that there was not a single word of truth in the ritual murder accusation against the Jews. These testimonies were provided by Professor Franz Joseph Molitor (a German Christian Cabalist, and scholar of Hebrew, the Talmud and the Zohar), Dr Eduard Kafka (an Austrian author), and Veith’s brother, Joseph Veith. According to Strack, the concluding words of the sermon were later printed in a Viennese newspaper, the Illustriertes Wiener Extrablatt (on 5 June 1882), though as this was four decades after the sermon was delivered, their accuracy is difficult to check: “I swear here, in the name of the triune God, whom we all acknowledge, before you and all the world, that the falsehood which has been disseminated by cruel cunning, to the effect that the Jews use the blood of a Christian in the celebration of their [Pesach] festival, is a malicious, blasphemous slander, and is contained neither in the books of the Old Testament, nor in the writings of the Talmud, which I know thoroughly and have zealously examined.” Veith’s rejection of the blood libel accusation was also mentioned, albeit in passing, in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. See Hermann L. Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, 8th edition (New York: Bloch Publishing, ), 245-248. See also “Blood Accusation,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1902), 266.
Whilst the explicit and public rejection of one anti-Jewish myth might seem to suggest that it was unlikely that he would endorse another, its evidential basis for determining whether Veith did make the claim reported in the Catholic Herald is at best anecdotal. Furthermore, it seems that there is similar, perhaps stronger, anecdotal evidence suggesting that he might have made the claim. Significantly, it seems to be true that Veith held little love for his father, and spoke of Judaism with bitterness. According to a biography of Veith written by Johann Heinrich Löwe (Veith’s nephew), Veith’s father had the habit of setting him tests every few weeks, and when he failed those tests, he was locked in a small room without food. Veith rejected his father’s wish that he study to become a rabbi, and later wrote (in 1866) that he hated his home Czech town of Klattau, as it was there that he lived a “neglected, mishandled, and joyless childhood, troubled by atrocious examples.” He complained that he “did not even learn Czech, which would have been a thousand times better than the rotten Talmud.” On another occasion, Veith stated that he had been called “from the dung heap to Christianity.” See Johann Heinrich Löwe, Eine Biographie (Vienna, 1879), cited by Adam Bunnell, Before Infallibility: Liberal Catholicism in Biedermeier Vienna (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990), 60-65.
There are also grounds for believing that if Veith did protest against the blood libel in 1840, he later came to change his mind. In 1854 and again in 1856, a Catholic newspaper, the Wiener Kirchenzeitung, published a declaration, allegedly at Veith’s instigation, to the effect that he regarded the whole story of his having declared that the blood libel was a myth as a “contemptible slander.” Strack rejected this, noting that the language of the article in the Wiener Kirchenzeitung was that of Sebastian Brunner. An Austrian priest, author and newspaper editor, Brunner was obsessed with the so-called Jewish threat to Christian civilisation. Strack is probably right that the language was Brunner’s, but as Brunner was both the editor of the Wiener Kirchenzeitung and a close friend and associate of Veith’s, this would only seem to suggest that Brunner wrote the piece on his friend’s behalf, or influenced his language. As far as I am aware, there is nothing to indicate that Veith ever rejected the statements in the Wiener Kirchenzeitung. See Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, 245-246.
The account of Veith discovering that his father destroyed, glued together and obliterated pages from the sacred text to hide passages alluding to Jesus is highly implausible. Jews read the Tanakh, and Christians read the Old Testament, in very different ways, and as such, non-Christian Jews do not tend to hold that passages in the Tanakh/Old Testament refer to Jesus. Those Jews who believe that the arrival of Jesus was prophesised in the Old Testament are of course likely to embrace, or already have embraced, Christianity. By depicting the Jews as recognising passages in the Tanakh as prophetic references to Jesus, and then wilfully responding by desecrating the relevant scriptural passages by obliteration or gluing together of pages, is to construct an image of Jews as highly malignant creatures. However, Veith was capable of speaking with acerbic sarcasm and bitterness when it came to his political and religious opponents, and when it came to his father, it may well be that he felt he had fair reason to be bitter. Certainly it seems that his personal experiences of being instructed in Judaism were not happy ones. It is thus plausible (though it has proven impossible to verify) that Veith, drawing upon a popular medieval myth, did narrate the rather fantastic story depicted in the Catholic Herald, perhaps as an instance of angry hyperbole. Certainly Veith often spoke badly of his Jewish heritage, and quite probably criticized and challenged his father’s readings of the Tanakh.
The Catholic Herald was an English Catholic newspaper which was founded and edited by Charles Diamond. The Catholic Herald was the core of a large group of newspapers. At its centre was the “general edition” of the Catholic Herald, which provided the template for over two dozen regional versions of the Catholic Herald and the Catholic News, including the London Catholic Herald, Preston Catholic News, Tyneside Catholic News, Manchester Catholic Herald, Leeds Catholic Herald, Glasgow Observer, and Irish Catholic Herald. For the most part these and other variants were identical to the general edition of the Catholic Herald except for the local news pages. The self-declared mission of the Catholic Herald was to defend and expound Christian civilisation, the Catholic Church, and Irish nationalism. Charles Diamond (1858-1934) was born in Maghera, Ireland, in 1858. He was M.P. for North Monaghan from 1892-1895. He also contested districts of London for the Labour Party in 1918, 1922 and 1924. Diamond was a political firebrand and maverick who frequently got into trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities. He was repeatedly criticised by the English Catholic bishops because he tended to disrespect and undermine their ecclesiastical authority. A resolution was passed by the bishops in 1910, expressing their distaste with the Catholic Herald, which they complained tended to diminish the respect due from Catholics to ecclesiastical authority. Interestingly, Charles Diamond also got into trouble with the British authorities when one of his editorials (on 27 December 1919) suggested that a failed attempt to assassinate John French, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, should not be considered an attempted murder. He argued that the action was justified since “English government in Ireland is not government. It is simply usurpation, brutality, and oppression.” As a result, he spent several months in Pentonville Prison (from January to August 1920).
Charles Diamond saw himself as a champion of Catholicism, Christian civilisation, and Irish nationalism, and he saw the Jews (and Freemasons) as enemies to those concerns. He disliked Jews and Freemasons, not as a consequence of theological concerns per se, but because he believed them to be a foreign and threatening presence within Christian civilisation. He felt that the European nations should have the right to expel the Jews. “His civilisation is not Christian,” the Catholic Herald warned, and “his ethics, his morality, are not Christian. He has a deadly hatred of Christianity”. Whilst he was not concerned with theology per se, Diamond was happy to draw upon aspects of Christian religious narrative in order to make his antisemitic constructions of the Jew more powerful by giving them the semblance of scriptural authority. An editorial in 1914 provides an example. This editorial was written in response to news reports in other newspapers that a rabbi-chaplain had been killed whilst attending a dying Catholic soldier on the battlefield with a crucifix to ease his passing. The editorial stated that this story was improbable. It went on to suggest that there is “ample evidence” to show that most Jews are more than willing to “trample upon the Christian name” and to treat the crucifix with anything but respect. The editorial argued that the Jews had pillaged the Church in France and that their houses are filled with the plunder. The editorial made its construction of the Jew more diabolic by combining traditional religious narratives about the “Pharisees” and “Christ-killers” with more recent stereotypes about Jewish greed. It stated that “the First Christian of all and the Founder of Christianity was put to death, the supreme tragedy of history, by the Jewish people.” The editorial concluded with the following question: “If our Jewish brethren still live under the Old Law, the old dispensation, which permitted ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and which made it lawful to ‘spoil the Egyptians’ and all others who were not Jews, and if they have in certain specific and proved cases shown themselves ready and willing to act on these principles, are we to take it that the mere mention of the fact is evidence of a bigoted and persecuting spirit?” The paper’s implicit answer was no.
Charles Diamond reinforced his composite construction of the Jew with narratives based on scripture in several other issues of the Catholic Herald. In “The Jew and the World Ferment” (June 1919) and “Jewry” (June 1920), in addition to depicting the Jews as gamblers, usurers, parasites, tyrannical bullies, pathetic sycophants and vulgar materialists, Diamond also stated that “the Scribes and Pharisees, the wealthy Israelites, and most of the selfish and hard hearted multitude, sought only power, and glory and pre-eminence for their nation, and led by their rulers, the high priests and the body of the priesthood, they committed the paramount crime of all time”. Diamond suggested that whilst it is “beyond our province even to speculate” as to “how much of what Christians and non-Christians despise in them and denounce is due to what they have endured during the two thousand years of expiation of their unparalleled crime,” it was apparent that “their sufferings have not improved them.” Other articles and editorials in the Catholic Herald also combined references to “pharisaically dishonest action,” “haters of the Christian name” and “a denial of the Divinity of Christ,” with stereotypes of Jewish greed, cowardice, cunning, secrecy and treachery, and the oft-repeated conspiracy myth of a Jewish-Masonic alliance. The paper later complained that the Jews had used their powerful influence to have a movie, The Kings of Kings, which was released in 1927, modified so that responsibility for the murder of Christ was confined to the Roman authorities and Caiaphas the High Priest, rather than “the Jewish race as a whole.” This was, the Catholic Herald suggested, a gross falsification of the “historical record.”
The Catholic Herald increasingly developed a more malevolent construction of the Jew during and subsequent to the First World War. Diamond claimed that the Jews had looted the Church in France and that “the most sacred Christian objects [are] being bought up by the Jews for a mere song.” This, he suggested, was the result of their (supposed) belief that they still lived under an old dispensation that entitles them to despoil all non-Jewish nations. The claim that Jews feel it is their right to spoil the nations in which they reside and the accusation that they plundered the Church became regular leitmotifs of the Catholic Herald from 1914 onwards. The paper even argued that the First World War was arranged by Jews specifically so they could have another opportunity to pillage. According to the Catholic Herald, “this Hun war was largely the work of the Jews around the Kaiser. It was a huge plan of plunder and pillage, in which the Jew was to get his chance.” The paper continued with this stereotype of Jewish greed and exploitation after the war. In 1919 and 1920, the Catholic Herald acknowledged that Jews have a reputation for being “great philanthropists,” but observed that they nevertheless continue to be despised. The paper concluded that the reason they continue to be hated is that “as a people, taken as a whole, they are given to the worst of vices.” According to the Catholic Herald, the Jews are “gamblers, fond of vulgar display; cruel and domineering when they have power, sycophants and cringers when they are weak or have an end to serve.” According to the paper, the “orthodox Jew” and the “creedless materialistic Jew” were nearly as bad as each other, as the orthodox Jew has a religious creed which encourages “spoiling the stranger,” whilst the secular Jew hovers “like a vampire over the nations.” In the late 1920s, the accusation that Jews plundered the Church in France was transformed into the accusation that they plundered the Christians in Russia; the paper claimed that the Jews were pursuing the identical policy in Russia that they had once pursued in France. According to the Catholic Herald, “the worst characteristics of the human race” find their “highest and fullest expression” in the Jewish people.
Charles Diamond also incorporated the stereotype of Jewish secrecy into his multifaceted construction of the Jew. According to his newspaper in 1916, a group of Jewish money lenders “had dropped their Jew names and taken Irish names in order to disarm suspicion, and the better to swindle others.” The Catholic Herald was also disturbed by reports in other newspapers about “Jewish soldiers who were alleged to have won the highest military decorations in Russia for their bravery.” The paper concluded, with more than a touch of sarcasm, that it is “all right, of course, to praise Jews when they do something meritorious. It appears to be all right even to invent such stories.” In 1919, Diamond maintained that the Jew “is an intrusion, a foreign element in the Christian body politic,” and “he endeavours to get round this by all sorts of dodges and trickery, and tries to hide his Semitic origin and principles by changing his name and pretending to be what he is not.” Throughout the late 1910s and the 1920s, the paper frequently printed its paranoid fears and conspiracy theories about the Jews secretly hiding behind non-Jewish names except when they achieve, or “purchase”, some great honour or distinction; then the Jew has no problem being held up as a credit to his people, the paper complained. The stereotype of Jewish secrecy sometimes coalesced with that of the unpatriotic Jew, resulting in an even more inflammatory stereotype: The Jewish spy. According to the Catholic Herald in 1917, England was “honeycombed with Jew spies and traitors, using, of course, assumed names.” These pro-German Jew spies, the paper argued, “are adapts at treachery, and their co-religionists and friends in the press and elsewhere are ever ready to slander and abuse anyone who calls attention to their proceedings.”
The Catholic Herald also combined its stereotypes and representations of Jews with those of Freemasons; and the paper attacked Jews and Freemasons with equal passion. According to the Catholic Herald, “Freemasonry is a detestable form of secret tyranny as is proved by its implacable hatred of Catholics on the Continent.” The paper argued that Freemasonry is “anti-Christian,” “anti-Catholic,” “anti-nation,” “anti-social” and a “State within the State.” The paper alleged that Freemasons conspire to discredit and attack Catholics, and in particular Catholic priests, as part of its organised campaign against religion. The paper also suggested that Freemasonry has secretly and insidiously infiltrated and “honey-combed” the British army, navy and war office. Its main concern was that as a result these institutions were suffused by a “subtle anti-Catholic spirit.” It also hinted at Masonic naval officers participating in the “most shocking” rites and rituals whilst their vessels were docked in foreign countries. Whilst the Catholic Herald excoriated Jews and Freemasons independently, the paper’s composite construction of the Freemason not only closely mirrored its construction of the secretive, disloyal, anti-social and anti-Christian Jew, it also coalesced with it. For example, the paper stated that “the worst elements of Jewry, as of Atheism and Freemasonry … are the enemies of Christian civilisation as well as of Freedom and Justice.” After the war, one of the articles in the Catholic Herald that accused the Pharisees of murdering Christ and contemporary Jews of failing to improve themselves during their two thousand years of penitence for this “unparalleled crime,” went on to report that whilst the “defeat of Germany” in the war was a “blow to German Jew interests and ambitions, we may rest assured that the Jew trader, the Jew speculator, the Jew financier, the Jew Freemason, the Jew, politically and socially, will emerge from the ordeal the gainer as a whole by the cataclysm.” The paper announced that the “Young Turks” who led the violent revolution in Turkey were predominantly Jews and Freemasons. “Freemasonry in Turkey,” the paper reported,” is “of the atheist Jew brand” and the “Young Turks” who have been put in control of the Ottoman Empire by the Freemasons are “chiefly Salonica Jews, revolutionists, anti-Christians, and atheistical Masons, almost without exception.” The paper blamed the Jews and Freemasons for other revolutions of an anti-clerical nature. For example, in the late 1920s, the paper attributed the persecution of Catholics in Mexico to the “forces of evil represented by Atheists, Freemasons, Communists, Jews and all the other forces of infamy.” In 1931, the paper observed that a tolerance for Christians is not indicated by the fact that Jews do not attempt to proselytise to them. It is, the newspaper indicated, “only too true that the most bitter persecutors of the Catholic Church, in various countries where they have the power, have been, and are Jews.” “The anti-Catholic propaganda for which Jewish Freemasons and others are responsible is a matter of notoriety,” the Catholic Herald concluded.
One focus point for the paper was the Dreyfus Affair. The paper at first began with a comparatively innocuous, albeit ambivalent report, when Captain Dreyfus was initially accused of treason. It suggested in November 1894 that as “the accused has not yet been tried,” he “ought therefore to be presumed innocent until he is found guilty.” It deprecated the French press for its unanimous verdict in condemning Dreyfus before the trial, though it did allude to the power of “the highest Jewish families in France,” who were, the paper claimed, supporting the accused. However, the tone of the paper soon became more hostile. “The traitor Dreyfus,” the Catholic Herald reported in January 1895, “has astounded all France, and even the whole civilized world, by his execrable crime of treason against his country.” His sentence, the paper concluded, “seems far too light for such a detestable crime.” During and subsequent to the First World War, the Catholic Herald repeatedly returned to the Dreyfus Affair and the crisis in France, which had, it suggested, been provoked by the “Masonic-Jewish camarilla.” The paper suggested that the Jews and Freemasons exploited the crisis in France as an opportunity to persecute and exclude Catholics from political positions, to plunder the Church and disestablish the Catholic religion. The paper asked, “has any body of Jews, here or elsewhere, protested against the Jew-freemason-atheist plunder of the French Catholic Church?” The Catholic Herald reasoned that Alfred Dreyfus must have been a Freemason and that the Freemasons supported the Dreyfusard cause because he was a brother of the Lodge. The reality of the case, the paper suggested, was that “a traitorous French Jew was punished for his guilt of treason.” The paper repeatedly argued that when a reporter from the Daily Mail was sent to France to investigate the retrial of Dreyfus and concluded that he seemed to be a little guilty, Dreyfus’ Jewish-Freemason brothers would not accept it. They got their way, the paper concluded, and consequently a second reporter was sent to France with instructions to write “that Dreyfus ‘was innocent’, in face of the evidence and of his own convictions!” The Catholic Herald repeatedly claimed that the Jews and Freemasons had pressured Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail, to declare that Dreyfus was innocent irrespective of his actual guilt.
Charles Diamond’s Catholic Herald continued to repeat anti-Jewish stereotypes and conspiracy theories during the early 1930s. The Catholic Herald did condemn “Hitlerite” Jew-baiting, but the paper simultaneously argued that “the Jews in Germany no doubt played an evil part in pre-war politics.” After describing the attacks upon Jews in Berlin as “outrageous,” the paper went on to argue that Bolshevism was a Jewish movement and that Jewish usury was responsible for much of the then current hatred against Jews. In April 1933, the paper reported that “a leading Jewish representative” had stated in “the press” that “the Catholics of Germany” had stood up against the persecutions of Jews in Germany. According to the Catholic Herald, this Jewish representative also called upon the pope to similarly speak out against Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. The Catholic Herald suggested that the Jewish representative was making an “unwarrantable” claim upon the pope, as “the Holy See does not rush into every conflict, even when challenged by unauthorised persons.” The paper went on to report that “a German Catholic” points out in response that all over the world, in France, in Spain and elsewhere, “it is too true that Jews, especially the Masonic Jews who are so numerous, are the bitter and persistent foes of the Catholic Church.” The paper claimed that the revolution in Spain had the “wholesale” support of Jewry. According to the Catholic Herald, “whenever it can do so, Jewry is the leading and bitter enemy of the Catholic Church.” The paper complained that people protest against the “far lesser wrongs” inflicted upon “a far smaller number of Jews,” whilst ignoring or approving of the horrors inflicted upon millions of Catholics wherever “Protestantism and Atheism and Freemasonry have power.” In October 1933, the editor of the Catholic Herald stated that the “Jewish attitude towards the Catholic Church” is notorious. It is, he asserted, “notorious that the war upon the Church in France which culminated in the robbery of the Church was fiercely helped by Jewish influence, especially the Jewish Masonic Lodges and other atheistic organisations.” According to the paper, most of the £20,000,000 of Church property which was seized by the French Government was bought up by Jews all over France and distributed to Jews all over the world. The editor claimed to have been “in the house of a Jew friend in Paris which was filled in every room with Church property bought at knock-out prices all over France.” The “whole record of the Jewish people is a record of persecution of their neighbours,” the editor argued. According to the paper, “anyone acquainted with the Old Testament knows that fact and anyone acquainted with the first centuries of Christianity knows that the Jews, like St. Paul before his conversion, went about preaching violence and slaughter against Jews who became Christians and against the Christian name everywhere.” In fairness to the Catholic Herald, the paper did go on to state that every Catholic should raise his voice against antisemitism. And yet, in virtually the same breath, the paper reasoned that the widespread attitude of hostility towards Jews was not caused by “the wickedness of those who attack them,” but rather was provoked by the Jews themselves.
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).