How to Respond to a Conspiracy Theory

How to Respond to a Conspiracy Theory September 15, 2016

This is post I thought about a few months ago, but am finally find the will (“ganas” in Spanish) to write.  Last May, the Catholic paper of the Diocese of Birmingham, One Voice, published a guest column by Alice von Hildebrand, entitled “Recalling a Hero.”  The column was distributed nationwide by the Catholic News Agency.  It is a rather old-school piece about the dangers of communism:  it quite similar to the anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s.   For instance, she writes

The honeymoon with Communist Russia which was prevalent in 1945 had opened the door to the illusion that the future of the world was “rosy”:  guaranteeing peace, and prosperity.

Very few were those who dared face the truth refusing to see that animated by a most clever communist propaganda in schools in the news media and in Hollywood, communism had made deep inroads in the United States. Stalin was  its “great friend” and an ally of the USA. Truman declared publicly “I like old Joe” – should one laugh or weep?

Besides dramatically over-stating the “communist inroads” in the United States, she seems to ignore the fact that the Soviet Union had just played a critical role in the Allied victory in Europe, one in which the Soviets suffered roughly 26 million military and civilian casualties.  (This is not an attempt to excuse Soviet atrocities, just an attempt to provide context for why in 1945 Truman, for instance, would say nice things about Stalin.)

I would have probably just laughed and passed over this column, were it not for the fact that she introduces a ridiculous and, in my opinion, dangerous conspiracy theory about communism.  She argues that the child abuse scandal in the Church was not an internal problem but rather the result of communist “sleeper” agents attempting to discredit the Catholic Church:

What I am writing on infiltration is not meant to deny that some bishops, some heads of religious orders, some priests have not fallen into the very grave sin of either closing their eyes to the horrible sins committed by people under their authority – but to make aware of the fact that a key factor hardly ever mentioned or mentioned at all, is that many of the worst culprits were not Catholic priests who had fallen prey to “unbridled lust” but infiltrators who had obtained false baptismal certificates and were plainly agents of communism.

Her source for these accusations is Bella Dodd, a former communist who converted to Catholicism and became an anti-communist writer and speaker.   Ms. Dodd claimed that in the 20’s and 30’s, working on direct orders from the Kremlin, she forged baptismal certificates for 1,200 men so that they could enter Catholic seminaries.   She claims that these and other agents penetrated the highest ranks of the Church, including the Vatican.  (More information about her accusations can be found here, at the Traditional Catholic Mass website.)

I cannot take any of this seriously.   There is no evidence presented at all:  no names, no copies of forged records, no corroboration of any kind.   These claims rank with Joseph McCarthy’s claims that the Army and the State Department were riddled with Russian spies.  Again, this would be risible but for the fact that von Hildebrand uses this to deflect blame from the Church for our most massive failing in generations:  It was not our fault!  The communists did this to destroy the Catholic Church.

How to respond to this article?  CNA distributed it because Alice von Hildebrand is one of the regular columnists.  But why on earth would any Catholic paper publish such nonsense?  In the case of my Diocesan newspaper, this is the only column of her that has appeared in the past year, so it is not a matter of the editor holding her nose and publishing a regular feature.  She chose to publish this specific column.

I wrote a letter to the editor, challenging the contents of the article and asking for a retraction.  I received no answer.  I debated writing to the bishop, but in the end decided not to pursue this.  Looking back, I am not sure if this was the right decision.   Conspiracy theories like this are, if not common, then easily found on the internet.  But it is quite another thing for them to be published in the official paper of a diocese.

What do you think is the best way to respond?

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  • brian martin

    I suppose it would be inappropriate to call them out for publishing such an obvious steaming pile of male bovine fecal matter? I have heard less fanciful things from my delusional clients.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Well, I tried to handle it privately, per Matthew 18:15. And I guess you could say that by publishing this on Vox Nova, I am calling them out. But even with this appearing in my Facebook feed, I really doubt it will come to the attention of the editor or the bishop. If someone wants to email the editor and ask for a response, I would gladly post it.

  • Mark VA

    Setting the current question aside, since without historically verifiable documentation it is just an insinuation – I council prudence.

    Humility suggests that those without much knowledge or experience of Communism and its methods should avoid extremes of opinion. One is to see a Communist conspiracy everywhere, the other is to allow one’s left leanings to induce a state blissful naivete.

    In this vein, I propose an experiment:

    Let a Polish speaking columnist at Vox Nova (I believe there is one?) read “Teczki Wojtyly” (Wojtyla’s Files), published in 2003, compiled by Cyprian Wilanowski, and then write about it;

    This compilation consists of 236 documents, dating from 1960 to 1979, written by Communists for Communists. These documents were released as part of the Freedom of Information Act (in Poland) after the fall of Communism, and obviously, they were never meant to see the light of day. They deal with Karol Wojtyla and other clergy, the problem of religion in general, methods to combat belief in God, various psychological profiles, use of plants, blackmail, cadre discipline, statistical information, methods for instigating provocations and divisions, etc.

    It would be interesting to know the thoughts of a contemporary American about these documents:

    So, if I may, please put that lance away for now, Don Quixote ; )

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Mark, given the long history of anti-communist hysteria in the US, I think that counseling prudence ignores the very good grounds that exist for completely discounting this. One does not have to be ideologically blind to what has happened in the past to still believe that these sorts of charges are groundless. Yes, Venona established that Julius Rosenberg was a Russian agent; but it also established pretty clearly that this was close to the limits of Soviet penetration.

      With regards to the links posted–I will take a look as this looks interesting. But I think this is a bit of a comparison between apples and oranges: what the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc nations accomplished internally, with the full power of state control, is pretty impressive (in an awful sort of way), but this gives no evidence for the existence of a massive fifth column within, for instance, the Catholic Church. Was there an attempt to infiltrate agents? Probably: though I have seen no evidence it seems a reasonable surmise. Was it necessary to forge baptismal certificates to get sleeper agents into the Church? This is more likely a fantasy. It would have been much easier to suborn a priest with leftist sympathies, or even simply find someone who was baptised a Catholic who embraced communism as an adult.

      And, I go to my final point: I would have laughed and ignored this essay except that she is using this specter of communism to excuse the inexcusable. To continue your image, this is worth busting a few lances on! 🙂

      • Mark VA

        A classy reply, but:

        The point of digesting “Teczki Wojtyly” is not to help decide this or that question, but to lay the intellectual groundwork necessary for understanding Communist mentality and methods – as they exist in the real world;

        It is not an exercise in an academic sorting of Marxism-Leninism, nor is it a litany of horrors. Neither are we on a James Bond kind of adventure here, with skullduggery, double agents, “massive fifth columns”, etc – this exercise is a different kettle of fish altogether;

        Let me borrow from Dante Alighieri – the ninth circle of hell is a place of absolute stillness and ice, where Life itself is negated. How right he was! Except that I see there a sea of gray, massive concrete. The deeper we descend into Wojtyla’s files, the deeper we descend into the concrete;

        One minor point: what the people of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc nations showed, was that the strength of the concrete depended on fear alone. Now, let’s look around us, what do we see? I see growing fear.

  • Follow up! This is how conspiracies spread. It takes one other reader unlike you to share with someone of like mind ( meaning, open to believing Ms. Von Hilebrand’s nonsense) and this dangerous ridiculous pap becomes the latest reason to dismiss the horrors of the church’s sexual abuse scandal. Remember, it takes the silence of one good man ( a bad paraphrase, but you get the message)….

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      What would you recommend as the next step? I am quite serious in asking as, beyond this post, I am out of ideas.

  • Kurt

    The issue here is not crackpot theories, but setting up a basis for the complete rejection of any Church responsibility for the child abuse crisis. Dr. Von Hildebrand’s theory would suggest the various programs for the protection of children that have been implemented are a waste of time and might well be dispensed with. Pastors need to address if this is acceptable or not.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Exactly! But what is the next step?

      • Kurt

        Most diocese have a child protection hotline. I would call them and ask if they would like to have a private discussion as to if Dr. Von Hildebrand’s theories are acceptable to the diocese or would they prefer the discussion be in the public square.

      • brian martin

        contact the Bishop…they actally sometimes reply

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          I have been debating this for some time, but after reflection, I think I shall. Kurt suggested contacting the child protection hotline, but I think instead I will frame it this way in my letter to the bishop. I will repost if I get a response from the Bishop.