Friday, March 23, 2018

Thoughts on Letting False Narrative Interpret Facts

Recent events in Church reporting shows that the narrative one subscribes to pushes the misinterpretation of what actually happens. For example, the so-called “Lettergate” involving the Vatican publishing house (LEV). In this case we had a letter from Pope emeritus Benedict XVI which called the reaction against Pope Francis a “foolish prejudice” and affirmed the continuity between the current Pope and his predecessors. This was fact that did not sit well with the anti-Francis Catholics. So they began to look for flaws. 

The flaw they found was the fact that the presentation only quoted excerpts from his letter. One section involving the criticism of one of the authors was omitted. Another section involving the fact that Benedict XVI declined to write an introduction because he wouldn’t have time to read the presented works and only would write an introduction on works he had read thouroughly. This was read aloud but the publicity photograph used by LEV covered one page except for the signature and blurred the final lines on the visible page, making these sections unseen.

In this day and age, where people are willing to make rash judgments, it was foolish of the presenters to do this. They probably should have made clear that they were reading excerpts from the letter and either showed the entire photograph or not at all. But false narrative moved quickly to come up with an wrong interpretation that fit their beliefs.

People who believe that the Vatican is being taken over by dissenters assume that this blurring and selective citation was made from a desire to hide the truth. They claimed that the hidden material “changed the meaning” of what was cited. Some claimed—without any evidence—that the letter was published without permission from Benedict XVI. Others went so far as to call it “elder abuse.” At any rate, the fact that he denounced their criticism of Pope Francis and the idea that Pope Francis’ teachings represented a break (the real news) was forgotten. 

Another example involved the case of Bishop Barrios of Chile. In response to a question, Pope Francis said he received accusations but no proof concerning Bishop Barrios’ involvement. Critics of the Pope promptly came up with.a letter he received in 2015. Because of the narrative they followed, this was interpreted as “proof” that the Pope lied. Except he didn’t. Accusations ≠ proof, and the Catholic Church has always required proof when it comes to accusing bishops. In the past it was clear that sometimes false accusations were made. For example, almost 25 years ago this happened with Cardinal Bernadin being falsely accused.

That’s not to say Bishop Barrios is innocent or guilty. I leave that to those tasked with investigating to decide. Rather I bring this up to point out that what we think happened might not turn out to be true. Sometimes the truth shows that people reacted wrongly.

In both examples, certain groups of people were invested in the narrative that Pope Francis was dishonest and promoting error. From that narrative, they interpreted the news stories in a way that would provide “proof” of their beliefs. The problem is, these stories were not proof. Rather the presupposed narrative was assumed to be true based on the assumption that the narrative was true—which is very much in dispute.

The fact is, a certain faction of Catholics are hostile to Pope Francis and have been since the day he became Pope. From day one they have assumed he was in error and interpreted everything he said or did under the assumption he was in error. Some of these were radical traditionalists who believe he runs roughshod over tradition and rubrics. Others are political conservatives who assume that his affirmation of Church teaching on social justice is a “proof” of being politically liberal. Each faction that dislikes him points to the other factions that dislike him as if their dislike was proof and there is “confusion” in the Church—never mind that these critics are the ones causing it in the first place.

Moreover, critics also use the “guilt by association” fallacy to point out unsavory groups that also use a false narrative to claim that the Church is “finally changing.” Because these groups:
  1. Support error and
  2. Claim the Pope vindicates their errors 
Once again critics of the Pope claim it “proves” the Pope supports error. Never mind everything he says affirming what the Church has already taught. The false narrative insists that all evidence “proves” their claim and any that doesn’t is ignored.

But we’re called to do the opposite. Whatever our preferences in politics, society, and customs, it must be formed by Church teaching and properly evaluating events. We can’t twist an event in the life of the Church into whatever we want it to be. We have to learn the facts about it and apply the Church teaching as interpreted by the magisterium to determine the truth and morality of the act. Our narrative must follow truth, not determine it. Otherwise we are like the blind leading the blind... and we know where that leads.

From the pontificates of Blessed Paul VI through Benedict XVI, we saw the false narrative about the “Spirit of Vatican II,” which claimed the Popes were “betraying” the Council. Less easy to see were the Catholics who misinterpreted the Catholic faith as being politically conservative. Now, things are reversed. We have a false narrative about Pope Francis accused of betraying Church teaching that are easy to see. Less easy to see are the Catholics who misinterpret the Catholic faith as being politically liberal.

In both cases, it’s the same error. But each faction switched sides. Tragically, neither faction asks, “have I gotten it wrong?” Rather than ask, they assume they are right. Assuming they are right, they wander. And wandering, they stray from the right path, the Church, by rejecting her when the Pope and bishops in communion with him teach how to best apply Church teaching.

If we would avoid this error, then let us trust God to keep His promise and protect His Church instead of deceiving ourselves into thinking that the Church can go wrong but we haven’t.

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