We laugh at ludicrous anti-Catholic conspiracies. But we underestimate how many minds they poison, thanks to the latest developments in digital technology
This week I discovered that Jesuits sank the Titanic. I was shocked, naturally, and hope that the Holy Father – himself a Jesuit – won’t be too distressed when the evidence is laid out in front of him. But facts are facts, and here we go.
The building of the Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast coincided with a meeting of top bankers at the Jekyll Island Club, Georgia, an exclusive winter retreat for the super-rich. It was here, in November 1910, that representatives of J P Morgan, the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers agreed to set up the US Federal Reserve, America’s central banking system.
This much is a matter of historical record. What isn’t widely known is that these men were acting on behalf of their paymasters, the Jesuits, who “desperately wanted a central bank in America so that they would have a bottomless reservoir from which to draw money for their many wars and other hideous schemes around the world”.
This quotation is taken from a book published by the Pacific Institute of San Diego, California, which bravely exposes Catholic conspiracies, as well as offering “astounding” interpretations of Bible prophecy. (It meets every Saturday morning at the Ramona Community Centre, should you find yourself in the area and want “conclusive proof” of its claims.)
Anyway, the Jesuits knew that the creation of the “Fed” would be opposed by powerful men outside the Rothschild/Morgan/Rockefeller cartel. These opponents “had to be destroyed by a means so preposterous that no one would suspect they were murdered”. So the Society of Jesus, displaying its trademark cunning, ordered the building of an “unsinkable” death ship that would take its plutocrat passengers – who included members of the Guggenheim and Astor families – to a watery grave.
To this end, they employed a ship’s captain, Edward Smith, who was a “Jesuit tempore coadjator” [sic] – not a priest, but a “Jesuit of the short robe” who furthered the Society’s aims in his secular profession. To cut a long story short, he was ordered by his masters to steer the ship towards an iceberg and did just that. The real estate magnate John Jacob Astor, who might have used his $85 million to block the central bank, perished in the floating palace.
No sooner had the Titanic sunk, on April 15 1912, than US public opinion began to swing in favour of a federal reserve and it was duly set up in 1913. Job done. The Jesuits then had the cash to embark on their next project – the First World War.
You might wonder: why would the shock troops of the papacy allow so many Catholics – Irish, Italians and French emigrating to the New World – to die alongside Mr Astor? Answer: they had to be sacrificed “to shield the papacy from suspicion”.
This is, of course, a conspiracy theory and – as I’m sure you don’t need to be told – rubbish from beginning to end. Dealing, as it does, with events that occurred over a century ago, it’s easy to laugh at. But on second thoughts, we shouldn’t. Conspiracy theories are as harmful in the 21st century as at any point in the past. As I’ll explain, the Church cannot afford to pretend they don’t exist.
The Pacific Institute is a contemporary organisation that, in addition to exploiting the agonising deaths of 1,500 people in the Titanic disaster, also blames the Jesuits and the Vatican for the murders of 9/11. Thanks to the internet, it is keeping alive the so-called “black legend” of Jesuit world domination. Let’s take a quick look at that phenomenon.
The legend dates back at least as far as 1614, when an anonymous book entitled Monita Secreta was published in Poland.
To quote John W O’Malley SJ in his new history of the order, this “crude forgery purported to be secret instructions from the superior general of the Society telling select members how to fleece widows of their fortunes, how to use confessional secrets to blackmail rulers, and how by these and other despicable means to climb to the pinnacle of political power”.
This story circulated almost unchanged in 19th-century America, where Puritan-inspired fear of Catholics remained a potent political force until the middle of the 20th century. Nearly always it took the form of a conspiracy theory.
But Catholics were not the only victims of this way of thinking. Confusingly, the same people who detected the swish of the Jesuit robe behind every locked door were often equally paranoid about Freemasons – the traditional enemies of the Catholic Church.
It’s well known that many of the founders of the American Republic, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were masons; some of the principles of the constitution, including freedom of religion, were derived in part from Freemasonry. This made the brotherhood deeply unpopular with hardline Protestants, who turned their religious crusade against it into America’s first third-party movement: the Anti-Masonic Party.
This body drew heavily on conspiracy theories very similar to ones directed against the Catholic Church. Many voters believed in both sets of allegations. This would have been baffling to, say, citizens of France, where you picked your side, pious Catholic or anti-clerical mason, and subscribed exclusively to the appropriate conspiracy theory.
But the simultaneous popularity of anti-Jesuit and anti-Freemason legends in America is not as strange as it might appear. What it illustrates is the malleability of conspiracy thinking throughout history. 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.
The Catholic Church has had an intimate association with conspiracy theories throughout its history. Often it has been the target of the same sort of propaganda directed against other groups: the Monita Secreta forgery bears a strong resemblance to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic hoax written in Tsarist Russia in which Jews supposedly plot to subvert the morals of the Gentiles and impose Zionism through the banking system. The Protocols inspired Hitler – and Henry Ford, who sponsored the publication of half a million copies of them. Today they are popular among Muslims in London (I bought my copy in an Islamic bookshop in Bayswater).
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). 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.
This mindset persists in traditionalist circles, to the point where it undermines attempts by benevolent Catholic conservatives to popularise their old-fashioned devotions. To quote Francis Phillips, writing in the Catholic Herald in 2011, “some very dodgy elements have lately attached themselves to the campaign long and bravely fought by Daphne McLeod [emphatically not a bigot] to restore proper catechesis in Catholic schools. Masonic plots? Third Secret of Fatima skulduggery? You name it, they believe it.”
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.
The Book of Revelation is in the canon of the New Testament. It’s also a conspiracy theory whose authors introduced early Christians to the notion of the Antichrist, littering the text with mathematical codes and lurid allegory. Most scholars think that 666, the Number of the Beast, is derived from assigning numerical values to the letters of the name of the Emperor Nero. Nowadays we associate this kind of behaviour with orange-haired Protestant televangelists. But the game of decoding Revelation and its Jewish predecessor, the Book of Daniel, was played enthusiastically by the medieval Church.
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.
I’m not qualified to say what the Church’s theological response should be to this aspect of its heritage. But in practical terms it should be alert to its persistence on the fringes of Catholicism. The Church did not invent the conspiracy theory: it flourished in Second Temple Judaism and possibly Zoroastrianism before that; arguably it is a natural human reaction to inexplicable, troubling and disappointing events. Christians do, however, have a responsibility to monitor it – for the simple reason that the self-appointed investigators of “hidden plots” spread lies with the aim of hurting people they dislike.
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. Also, through no fault of his own, he is in the bizarre position of living next door to his predecessor. This has revived a well-worn Catholic conspiracy theory: that the “real” Pope is being held prisoner in the Vatican by an interloper. As soon as Benedict announced his resignation I knew there would be trouble. Lo and behold, a mysterious prophet called Maria Divine Mercy (MDM) has appeared online to reveal that “my poor Holy Vicar, Pope Benedict XVI” has been ousted by a false prophet from Argentina by the name of Bergoglio. Although MDM has no significant following in the Church, milder versions of this scenario play well in some traditionalist circles. No doubt Pope Francis will shrug them off.
There is, however, a more pressing reason for the Church to study conspiracy thinking. Sometimes allegations are made against the Vatican that demand investigation. The “court” that the Holy Father dislikes so much is secretive and gossipy – and, as we must now accept, not beyond covering up grave financial and sexual crimes. Distinguishing truth from rumour and falsehood in such an environment is tricky – but the Church has a duty to do so if it is to heal the wounds it has created.
That process will be made easier if bishops, priests and lay advisers know how to recognise the signs of a conspiracy theory. These ancient nightmares have come back to haunt Catholics and other minorities thanks, paradoxically, to the latest developments in digital technology. Propagandists everywhere are having a field day constructing alternative realities that frighten us and poison our minds. As a first step, may I suggest that the Vatican finally learns how to use the internet?
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (23/1/15)