Gullibility, Misinformation, and the Ninth Commandment

Long ago, I learned that Albert Broccoli, the producer of the original James Bond movies, was a gardener who invented the vegetable broccoli by crossing cauliflower and something else I’ve forgotten.

My reaction was: “Hey, that’s really cool!” I never even questioned it.

Sometime in the last five years, as political misinformation has become so blatant and unscrupulous, I’ve become unshakably committed to fact checking. But for whatever reason, it did not occur to me that my little interesting trivia about broccoli ought to be fact checked. Until one day a couple years ago when I stopped with my mouth open, prepared to share this interesting tidbit, and thought, “Wait a minute… could broccoli possibly really be that new? Hasn’t broccoli been around for hundreds of years? Come to think of it, this sounds an awful lot like a myth/urban legend. Maybe I should check this before I share it again.”

Shocker: broccoli has been around since the SIXTH CENTURY BCE.

I felt pretty stupid.

Then, a few months ago, my third-born came home from a scout campout. “Mom, did you know that daddy longlegs are THE MOST POISONOUS SPIDER OUT THERE? Except they can’t hurt you—“

“—because their mouths are too small to bite humans,” I said. “Yes, I know that.” Then I stopped. “You know what? I’ve heard that my whole life, but now that I think about it, it sounds like bunch of nonsense. Why don’t we look that up?”

Again, shocker: FALSE.

I’m sharing this kind of embarrassing story because it took me years—YEARS—before I recognized the sound of a falsehood masquerading as legit information.

It made me understand—a bit, anyway—how it is that so many good people, intending to follow Jesus, have fallen into the trap of embracing conspiracy theories. Of sharing memes and arguments so distorted, they’re actually lies. Of writing off fact checkers because if they challenge pre-existing certainties, they must, by definition, be biased and thus can be safely dismissed.

I understand… a bit… which is good, because it also still makes me very, very angry. And I need to cultivate compassion, not anger.

So I am sharing this again today, as a reminder to myself as well as anyone who reads this, that truth telling and integrity are fundamental to our faith. Implicit in the use of misinformation is the idea that the end justifies the means. But that’s not Christianity. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. Context matters.

The chicken and the egg (or: double standards in Christianity)

“Hey,” my husband whispered to me before Holy Thursday Mass. “I forgot to tell you. Pew research did a new survey and the number of people who go to church is below 50% for the first time ever.”

My first reaction was: And Christianity will blame the secular culture instead of looking in the mirror and examining whether our own failures are the problem.

Actually, it’s probably a chicken-and-egg situation. The culture is definitely getting more hostile to religion. But then again, religion keeps giving more reasons for the hostility.

I know. Them’s fightin’ words, but painful though they might be, I think they’re fair.

The trouble is that the Gospel tells us we’re SUPPOSED to expect hostility from the world. But somehow, we’ve translated that into a persecution complex. We never stop to examine our own attitudes, words, and behaviors for how well they reflect the Gospel. We just assume that any pushback we encounter must, by definition, be the culture’s problem rather than ours. It couldn’t possibly be that we are misrepresenting our faith.

Meanwhile, Christianity fails to recognize how incredibly uneven we are in HOW we choose to stand at odds with the world. There are these huge double standards.

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, EXCEPT when it requires taxpayer money to support people most at risk of feeling the “need” for abortion (because of generational poverty and inequality of opportunity, etc., etc).

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, except when it infringes on “personal freedoms” (cough-cough-masking).

Like: Government should stay out of my business, except when it’s about homosexual relationships or abortion, and then of course it’s the government’s business, absolutely.

Or: Sexual assault and harassment are sinful, but how dare we ruin the life of the accused? (Never mind the life of the victim. Whatever. We’ve been sacrificing them for millennia.)

Or: Honesty and integrity are fundamental to Christian belief—they’re in the Ten Commandments—but how many people have wholeheartedly, even rabidly, embraced a lie about stolen elections that has zero basis in fact?

I’ve been trying not to write these kinds of posts lately. Nobody needs me haranguing them; it’s not particularly effective at anything except making people mad. So I’ve been trying to focus my posts here on working out my own spiritual journey instead of lambasting everything that’s wrong with the world. I have spent this Lent praying for “enemies,” and more importantly, for the heart to do so authentically while remaining in union with God’s will. So much is happening in my heart this year—I am journaling it, bit by bit, but I’m deep in the weeds and I can’t synthesize it yet.

But there are times when my frustration comes out. And this is one of them. And maybe, after all, Good Friday is not a bad time to have our collective conscience stung.

The First Step

This is part of the conclusion of Pope Francis’ reflections on the Good Samaritan. I find that it’s easy for these parables and teachings to become trite by repetition. It’s not a fault of the story, it’s a fault of human nature: we start tuning out b/c hey, we already know this story. I did a presentation on this parable a year or two ago, and reflecting on it anew really changed my relationship with it. This reflection does the same thing–renews and adds insight to something I’ve known for a long time.

Pope Francis spent this reflection pointing out that this parable is about individuals, but it’s also about groups of people. That it applies in person-to-person situations close to home, but also in communities and nations and the world. And there’s no neutral in this story: at each level, you’re either a victim, a passerby, or a person who undertakes the uncomfortable work of engaging. Most of us end up being passers-by, but we don’t want to admit it, and so we come up with all kinds of excuses. Hence, the bickering over policy that has caused the Church to divide along “abortion” and “everything else.” I see this as a call to recognize that those entrenched philosophies are themselves the problem. A sin.

I’m not sure how to change myself. I still want to point everything I read at others. That’s my sin. And so I begin simply by admitting it. Change my heart, O God.

This quote is me

I’ve been wrestling painfully lately with what it means to love people with whom there seems to be so little common ground. People who believe and do and say things I find so horribly contrary to my faith and world view. A friend told me that Fratelli Tutti‘s third chapter addresses that.

But first I had to read chapter two–a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Of all the quotes that jumped out at me in that section (there were many!), I picked this one to share, because this is the truth that has twinged my own conscience in recent years. I drifted very comfortably in a black-and-white view of the world for years, until it impacted me directly when I was given the gift of a child with a developmental disability. This quote was me. And my spiritual journey now is deeply formed by wondering if, in fact, this quote still is me, and I just don’t know it.

The more I interact with Pope Francis’ writings, the more in awe I am, the more grateful that the Spirit gave us this man to lead us during this particular moment in history. And once again, I beg everyone: READ THIS ENCYCLICAL.

St. Jude Novena

(If you want to receive the daily email from which I took this screen shot, click here.)

Unity has been on my mind for a long time, but particularly in the past few months. The divisions in our country and among Catholics are profound. What I have come to realize is that nothing I do or say is going to change that. I don’t see a way out of this. Since, oh, October sometime, I have been praying for God to navigate a path none of us can see–a path that will get us out of this toxic sludge pit we’ve dug for ourselves. The one that is drowning us.

Last week, after chewing over all this with a devout Catholic friend, I decided to pray a St. Jude novena. It seems appropriate, doesn’t it? St. Jude, the patron of desperate cases and lost causes (Wiki’s phraseology) or “patron saint of the impossible” (St. Jude Shrine’s phraseology). If ever there were a lost cause, a desperate case, or an impossible situation, it would be the search for unity in our time.

And when Pope Francis’ daily email yesterday sounded the same call–prayer, because unity is actually beyond us–I knew it was a divine nudge.

Today I embark on this prayer and I invite you all to join me. My intention is: “for a path to unity in God’s will for our Church and our nation, and for the conversion of all our hearts to make that possible.”

I will post it daily on Facebook, but for today, here is the link to the prayer.

“How Liberalism Fails the Church,” from the late Cardinal George

I realized several hours too late that the post I referred to in Wednesday’s reflection was never published at all, because I opted to honor MLK Jr. Day instead.

Oops.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So I’ll share it today instead. The one I want to share today is from the late Cardinal George. https://catholicoutlook.org/how-liberalism-fails-the-church-the-cardinal-explains/

Essentially, Cardinal George’s point is: “We shouldn’t be calling ourselves liberal or conservative Catholics, we just need to be Catholic, period.”

Like Mark Shea’s offering, this is lengthy but very worthwhile. It’s interesting to me that in this, Cardinal George is not talking about political liberalism, but theological liberalism. There’s nothing in it that critiques left-leaning Catholics’ positions on immigration, efforts to alleviate inequality or poverty, the need for universal health care, etc. There’s a good reason for that: those left-leaning positions are word-for-word from Catholic teaching.

All in all, I found this a really, really good call to examine what it means to be a Catholic in the modern world.

Mark Shea’s “Mea Culpa”

On Monday I shared Cardinal George’s reflections on liberalism in the Church, shared by Catholic Outreach as a series of reflections connecting Catholics in relation to the Capitol insurrection.

This reflection by Mark Shea is another in that series. Many, many…MANY things in his reflection resonated for me. The spiritual journey he describes parallels my own, although mine started earlier than his. And his “mea culpa,” though the details are quite different, resonates for the same reason.

One other thing that really struck me was his discussion of how apologetics begins from a place of defensiveness and combativeness rather than joyful evangelization. That, I fear, describes my work here as well. It gives me a lot to think about.

I invite you to read his lengthy but very, very worthwhile reflection.

Mea Maxima Culpa” on Stumbling Toward Heaven: A Catholic Lives The Writing LIfe and Tries to Be a Disciple of Jesus, Mostly Badly

Wisdom

This is profound on multiple levels. My first reaction upon reading this quote was to nod vehemently at the words “unverified data.” I have been appalled at the things people are unshakably convinced are true, when a quick internet search easily disproves them.

On the other hand… I do a lot of fact-checking as I scroll social media, and I’m in a terrible rush when I do it. Quick searches are good for making sure something is legit. But not for the pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom takes time and prayer and processing.

What happened this week was inevitable.

Background photo taken from the Jefferson Memorial, October 2018

It’s been a week, hasn’t it?

I saw this quote this morning in America magazine (linked below, if you’re reading on social media). I can’t find the source, which makes me think it might be not 100% word for word, but the message is one we really need.

Since day one at Intentional Catholic, I have been begging my fellow Catholics to share and read with integrity. We have a Christian responsibility to make sure we fact check the things we share, the things we take in, the opinions and philosophies we embrace.

We have a Christian responsibility to think critically and compare what we take in and say and share to the teachings of our faith. To embrace the niggling discomfort when our consciences are tweaked. To acknowledge that that discomfort is meant to point out the ways in which our worldly view is out of whack with our faith.

We have a Christian responsibility to use that discomfort to reshape our world view more authentically with our faith, even if it means setting aside long-standing idols in the form of political ideologies. (I say this as someone who’s had to do that myself. I know it’s hard. To this day, I routinely have to keep questing in order to keep myself from swinging too far the opposite direction.)

To choose instead to chase down, embrace, and share conspiracy theories, distortions, and outright lies is a violation of the ninth commandment. It is a violation of every exhortation in the Bible about living with integrity.

When large numbers of Christians fail to fact check and instead enthusiastically embrace things devoid of integrity, the events of this week become inevitable. For months, God-fearing people have been expressing terror about socialism, about dictatorships, about the shredding of the Constitution. And then, on Wednesday, people with those same beliefs shredded the Constitution themselves, far worse than anything they fear from their political opponent. I even saw one Facebook commenter say that Trump should declare martial law so he doesn’t have to leave office. Apparently, dictatorship is fine as long as it’s “my” dictator.

What we saw this week was the inevitable end of the path we embark on each time we choose to share distortions and outright lies because we haven’t undertaken the time—or embraced the humility—to examine them and recognize them as such.

We are meant for more.