Fake news and alternative facts

Wednesday 22 February 2017 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — George “I-cannot-tell-a-lie” Washington’s birthday. 

The media these days is abuzz with accusations and counter accusations concerning “fake news and alternative facts.” The general public is confused by this strange turn of events, but it’s in fact not new at all.

It was, dear readers, while attending college in Canada that I first became aware of the existence of fake news and alternative facts. It was during the Vietnam War. We seminarians were allowed to watch the 6 p.m. news — but only until the first commercial. 

If we watched a news program broadcast from the United States, the commentator stood on the north lawn of the White House. There the grass was always green, the sun shone and a single squirrel scampered playfully in the background. It was very comforting for me to see that all was well in the United States. The optics, unfortunately, were presenting alternative facts.

If we happened to choose a Canadian television network, the pictures showed the White House surrounded by barbed wire barricades with strategically placed machine gun nests. Just outside the White House gate, an angry mob chanted and burned American flags. Truth be told, all was not well in the United States. 

The Catholic Church knows about these strategies. We’ve been the subject of fake news and alternative facts for several centuries. Science has proven that if a lie is told often enough, it tends to become, in the minds of many people, a proven fact. Responding to these alternative facts and fake news stories is called “apologetics.” 

Here are both facts and “alternative facts” about the Church.

Fact: The authors of the New Testament were our church leaders. The Church determined which books were inspired by God and would be included in the Bible and which were not. It was our monks who dedicated their lives to preserving the Bible by painstakingly copying every single letter into priceless manuscripts. Today, each time Catholics assemble for worship (for any of the seven Sacraments), the Bible is proclaimed. The proclamation of the Scriptures is very often followed by homiletic application. A large number of today’s most acclaimed Biblical scholars are Catholic. Our rotating system for reading the Bible at Mass allows the assembly to hear all the major passages over a period of time. Consequently, practicing Catholics can often recite Bible passages from memory, although we normally don’t quote chapter and verse. Several other denominations have adopted our method. Most of the catechetical programs for our children are Bible-based. Adult Bible studies in Catholic churches are common. 

Alternative fact: Catholics don’t know the Bible. 

Fact: We believe in one God. It’s the first line of our Creed. We don’t worship Mary as some sort of goddess. There are Three Persons (not four) in the Blessed Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The saints, including Mary, are human, not Divine. The saints are our brothers and sisters who have gone before us in faith. We pray for their intercession before God and together we worship the one God, living and true. It’s called the Communion of Saints.

Alternative fact: Catholics worship idols.

Fact: The Bishop of Rome is the most recognized ethical leader in the world. Since the pope has no political bones to pick, Vatican diplomats (and even the pope himself) are often called upon to mediate between feuding nations. They often succeed in calming international crises between feuding nations.

Alternative fact: The pope is intent on controlling the governments of nations.

Fact: During the Medieval period of European history, the Church was a beacon of scholarship, education, art and architecture, music, jurisprudence, political science, social services, economics, engineering, and medicine. There was no such thing as the “Dark Ages” for the Church. Just step inside La Sainte Chapelle in Paris (or any other Gothic-era church). It was obviously not designed and built by blithering ignoramuses.

Alternative fact: During the “Dark Ages,” the Church kept people ignorant, illiterate, poor, and subservient. 

And the list of alternative facts goes on, but I won’t.

So how does a Catholic counter alternative facts and fake news about the Church? First, get the real facts. Don’t rely on hearsay or heresy. Knowledge comes from study. Catholic apologists (many of whom are converts to Catholicism) are a good resource.

Next, have a reasonable discussion with the misinformed. This isn’t easy. Ask the source of the alternative facts. Are the sources reliable or tainted? What is the motivation behind them? Acknowledge unflattering facts you know to be true. Most importantly, be kind. 

You and your debate opponent may come to agree on at least some things — or maybe not if biases, prejudices, and bigotry have taken firm hold of a person’s reasoning process.

In the end, “alternative facts,” no matter who promulgates them, are nothing but lies in disguise. They are rooted in ignorance. In spite of what people say, ignorance is not bliss.

As the late great Jimi Hendrix once asked, “If ignorance is bliss, why aren’t there more happy people?” Good point.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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