Monday, November 16, 2009

Does it Matter? Considerations on Internet Disputes

The Internet makes for interesting communications.  To reach a wide area, one doesn't need to sell a book to a publisher or an article to a magazine.  One doesn't need to buy airtime.  All one needs is a free blogging service, the time to write, and one can potentially (depending on fame/notoriety) reach a far reaching audience without cost.

Of course, the frontiers of the internet also have a sense of wide reaching consequences.  It is largely unrestricted.  With the exception of images of something illegal (for example, child pornography), one can easily post whatever they feel like.

When it comes to opinion blogs or sites dedicated to a topic, one could easily type what they wish and post it, claiming it is true.  Another site links to the first, and before long it is possible that a false claim can take on a life of its own.  Sites like Snopes have been established to debunk some of the famous internet rumors, but of course the rumors can go far afield, and far beyond the ability of such groups to handle all the misinformation out there.

This can lead to the frustrated attitude of "Does it really matter?" when one comes across false statements bandied about as if it were true.  (Consider, for example, the infamous "Madeline Murray O'Hair wants to ban religious programming" rumor which still goes around even though she is dead.)

The answer is: It depends.

What Doesn't Matter

I think things that don't matter so much are things from obscure sites which have little to no following.  For example, I once encountered a site which claimed that Pope Pius XII favored the dropping of the bomb on Japan so as to eliminate paganism and making it easier to convert the nation.  Something like this is ridiculous, and flies against the known facts (such as, Nagasaki having a large concentration of Christians in it).  But it isn't worth responding to because, as far as I know, nobody believes it… or at least nobody who has any sense of credibility.  It isn't widely repeated, and is best left to languish in anonymity.

There will always be "crackpot theories" out there, which anyone can make up but have no real affect outside of the author of their theories.

What Does Matter

What does matter is when one of these false statements takes on a life of its own, and becomes widely quoted across the internet.  People assume it is true without questioning it.  There is a good deal of this going around.  For example, there are numerous allegations made by anti-Catholic sites giving quotes allegedly made by different individuals with influence in the Church which are used to "prove" a claim made by an individual about the evil of the Church. 

For example, numerous claims of the Catholic Church insidiously seeking to promote pagan practices under the guise of Christianity are made for the purpose of attacking the Catholic Church and seeking to "scare" people out if it.  The claim that the Spanish Inquisition killed 65 million people is another similar widespread claim which has no basis (World War II "only" killed 20 million people).

For a second example: I have seen, on atheist sites, pictures which purport to show that the Church was hand-in-glove with the Nazis during WWII.  The pictures are authentic.  The explanations are not.  (The author of the captions for example did not know that the "Reich Church" did not include Catholics, but was Hitler's crude attempt to control all Protestants under one Church.  It was opposed by the Catholic Church and the Protestants in what was known as the "Confessing church.")

As a third example, I have seen on a sede vacantist (those who hold the Catholic Church has not had a valid pope since Pius XII) site pictures of Pope John Paul II surrounded by people in native garb (Polynesian or American Indian for example), with claims that he was taking part in pagan worship or allowing pagan practices in a Catholic Mass.  Again, the pictures are real but the captions are false.  These individuals were Catholics who were performing welcoming ceremonies for the Pope and were not pagan actions at all.

The reason this sort of thing does matter is that the claims have enough widespread repetition that people believe it to be true, and one has to spend the time and effort to point out that what is being reported is either a distortion of the truth or an outright contradiction to what the Church believes or in contradiction to actual events.

Why It Matters to Respond

When one comes across a distortion or a false claim which has wide distribution, we need to remember that the reason it gets repeated is because:

  1. People believe it to be true
  2. What was actually held or done by the Church is not known by these individuals

If people believe something false, they unwittingly take part in a slander when they repeat it.  Now of course it is not possible to eliminate such falsehoods (though I think it would be wonderful to have a Christian version of Snopes), we can at least snip one branch of the spread by challenging it where we encounter it.  We may not convince the person spreading such a falsehood.  But not all the readers are determined haters of a group, and those who see a claim and do not know it is false are at a crossroads.

  1. If nobody debunks the claim, these individuals may go on assuming the claim is true.
  2. If somebody debunks the claim, these individuals become "inoculated" to the claim and may take other claims of a false nature with a grain of salt.

The Truth is What Matters, but what is the truth?

Now it is true that in an institution as old as the Catholic Church, there will be knaves within the Church who have done evil things in the name of the Church, and of course there will be times when someone posts something which is true, though out of context.

We don't want to assume everything done or said is automatically false if it is negative to the Church.  Yes Torquemada did do some pretty bad things in the Spanish Inquisition.  In the United States, Catholics in the South did attempt to explain away the Pope's teaching on slavery in a way which justified them.  It would be foolish to try to cast those bad things as if they were justified.

However, the context is often distorted.  For example, while Torquemada was reprimanded by Rome and  the Spanish Inquisition was run by the state, not the Church; and Southern Catholics did attempt to recast the papal documents condemning slavery as if they were condemning only the slave trade, these things are often not widely known.

Certainly there are old documents, which are written in terms of specific situations, which sound bad when looked at from the perspective of the 21st century Western civilization.  However they sound bad because these documents are portrayed as universal and for all time, when in fact they are being cited out of context.

For example, in the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam, the Pope did in fact say "it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff."  However, those Feeneyites who claim this means all people not explicitly in the Church are going to hell quote this out of context.  (Those who do not know this through no fault of their own will not be punished for what would be impossible for them to know).

Pope Boniface VIII actually wrote this in response to Philip the Fair of France who demanded that the clergy of France put loyalty to the King over loyalty to the Pope.  In other words, King Philip was usurping spiritual authority he had no right to demand, and the Pope was setting straight this erroneous view.

The Need to Understand History and Doctrine

One needs to understand history and doctrine to assess the context of a statement which sounds bad and is authentic.  One also needs to understand these things to recognize a false statement attributed to the Church.

Unfortunately, many people do not know of these things.  A non-Catholic would probably not know much about what the Church in fact teaches, just as I would have to do some substantial research before I could accurately discuss the disputes between pre- mid- and post-tribulationism.  So when they encounter such a statement made on the internet, they might have no reason to doubt it, and because of this, not bother checking it.

The Duties of Those Who Know

Those who have knowledge on a subject certainly need to stand up against falsehood on the subject.  Just as the scientist needs to stand up to someone going about posting a misrepresentation of what science has discovered, the Christian who knows the truth needs to stand up against someone posting false or out of context statements on the Church.

The Duties of Those Who Do Not Know

Decency and charity require us to investigate whether or not a bizarre claim is true before repeating it. 

For example (and this really happened), I have no high esteem for Martin Luther.  I think he erred in his actions.  However, once I came across a claim on an internet forum that the story of Martin Luther flinging an inkpot at the devil was in fact a bowdlerized version of a story and he in fact flung his own excrement.  Such a story, if true, would make one doubt Luther's sanity.

The key clause of course is: "IF TRUE."

Looking up this claim however, I could find no credible source that this in fact occurred.  It was only repeated on small sites, none of which had any credible citations.  I suppose it isn't impossible, but there is no credible basis for claiming it is true.  Such a claim seems probable to only come from someone who had a desire to discredit Luther.  Because of this, it seems to me to be indecent and uncharitable to repeat it as if it were true. 

Another example is the quote alleged to de Tocqueville which stated "America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."  It is widely repeated, and does indeed sound inspiring.  However, the problem is, it does not exist in his work Democracy in America to which it is attributed.  It is an old adage to be sure, and I think there is truth in it.  However, de Tocqueville did not write it, and it ought not to be attributed to him.

Before Passing on A Quote We See on the Internet

The questions which need to be asked are:

    1. Did it in fact even happen?  Was it in fact said?
    2. Can we establish this was said/done from a reliable source?
    3. Can we establish a quote as existing from a specific document which is a primary source? (That is, not somebody quoting a thing, but the actual document where the individual wrote it, or a transcript of an address where the individual said it)
    4. Are we sure that what was said/done was not taken out of context in this quote or picture?
    5. Are we sure that when we are looking at a statement or action, we are understanding the context of the times people were living in?

Before judging someone on a quote or picture on the internet, we need to ask these questions.  As soon as we answer one of these questions with a "NO," it is no longer truthful and ethical to print such a claim.  If our answer is "I don't know," we are obligated to do more research until we can answer yes or no.

To use a secular example (for those readers who might be turned off by religious discussion), there is the "birther" controversy over Obama.  The claim is he was born outside of this country and as such does not qualify to be president.

The question is whether or not this is true.  From what I understand from my own research, what Hawaii released was the document it releases for all birth verifications (not just Obama's), and that several quotes allegedly made to show he was not born here cannot be verified in transcripts from reliable sources.

Because of this, I don't consider it ethical for me to repeat "birther" claims as if they were true.  I strongly disapprove of certain actions of his on moral and ethical grounds to be sure, but I don't think this disapproval justifies my repeating as true things which cannot be proven as true.


All of us have ideas of what is right and what is wrong.  Quotes abound out there which seem to be ideal to prove our point.  However, the question which always needs to be asked is whether it is true.  Unless we can be certain it is true (citing a reliable source, with reference that others can verify) it becomes mere gossip at best, or possibly even libel unless stated as being your opinion it is true… which brings us back to the question: On what basis do you believe it to be true?

Edit to the Post:

Well I feel foolish, but when I was doing the final editing of this post, I did not notice that some of the list on "Before Passing on A Quote We See on the Internet" section was phrased wrong, and in those cases, a "yes" answer would mean we should rethink, as opposed to a "no" answer.

I have edited the post to make it consistent with my original intent, and my apologies for the error.

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