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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