“Fake News” and Our Duty as Evangelists

Ding! … It was January 10, 2021, and I had just received a text message from a devout Catholic friend with a link to a website. The site had a video from a gentleman claiming to have “received a message” about upcoming events from unnamed sources. These were the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, and all sorts of claims were flying around the Internet.

Among other things in the video, a major blackout was predicted, and people were encouraged to fill their bathtub with water because water would be hard to come by. Moreover, there was a “timetable,” the presenter said — but it could change: he was only going by the best information that he had at present. This timetable was extremely fluid, and so what he says now might very soon be outdated. The gentleman also claimed that Pope Francis was a hologram at some point and that because of pedophilia, Catholicism was “not worth having” and was going to go away.

I had had enough. The claims about a blackout and water were presented in such a way that, if they failed, the presenter could chalk it all up to the fluid timetable. There was no way to verify these claims were true (though I was, and remain, pretty sure that Pope Francis was never a hologram at any time and that Catholicism was not going away). Meanwhile, the confidence that I previously had in the person who sent me the link was shaken.

* * *

The power of a good story is such that it can bypass one’s opinions, biases or simple perceptions. We are basically taken along for a ride and all we have to do is to enjoy it. Taken as entertainment, stories help us to relax and enjoy life. A story, however, can also be abusive. Its power to bypass one’s critical thinking skills can cause great harm.

As Catholic evangelists, we need to be mindful that truth must be at the foundation of all human interactions and public discourse. Without truth, there can be no real cohesion within a society. Sadly, many people within the United States today have been deeply impacted by the phenomenon known as “Fake News.” It is tearing apart the fabric of our society and harming the relations between Christians and their fellow citizens.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to identify “Fake News” from reality. As Catholics, however, we’ve inherited an impressive intellectual tradition of philosophy and theology. That tradition helps us not only to think critically, but also to be balanced individuals who are prepared to face the challenges of a given time in history. With that in mind, I would like to present some considerations for Catholic evangelists that might be helpful in bringing truth to a culture desperately in need of it.

Catholic Moral Teaching and the Consumption of Information

The eighth commandment has become obscured by various culture shifts, and the development of contemporary media.

The eighth commandment given to Moses in the book of Exodus states, “You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).1 Unfortunately, this commandment has become obscured by various culture shifts, and the development of contemporary media. So much has changed, but our ability to be truly human and pursue the truth and love our neighbor has been harmed, not helped.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) issued the document Inter Mirifica, on the instruments of social communication (i.e., “social media”) and their right use. While useful for the upbuilding of society, these instruments must be founded strictly upon the moral order that is grounded in 1) the eternal law, 2) the natural law, 3) the revealed law, and 4) civil & ecclesiastical (church) laws.2 The eternal and natural laws are at the very heart of the Church’s moral doctrine. There is an intelligible pattern and design (the eternal law) built into creation. Man is called to participate in and live in accordance with that design through the use of his capacity to reason (the natural law). Any violations of the design invite disharmony into his life.3

Vatican II taught that everyone who uses the means of social communication, “should know the norms of the moral order and faithfully use [these means] according to those norms.”4 The Council Fathers also outlined three areas of concern that were pressing at the time, and which, arguably, remain quite pertinent today:

  1. Information, either the investigation or publication of news;
  2. Relationships between the arts, laws, and the norms of the moral law;
  3. The question of when information is suitable to be portrayed.5

The first area of concern has come to the fore in recent years with respect to “Fake News.” Generally speaking, “Fake News” refers to untrue (or at least blatantly misleading) reporting in “progressive” or “conservative” media outlets.6 False or misleading news reporting is a terrible failure to serve the truth. The Fathers at Vatican II knew this principle and were concerned that the new media tools could be abused and ultimately hurt man and society.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, states that

“Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another.”8

Truthful relations between men are a fundamental component of human society, so much so that there can be no real or just society without truth. The present problem facing citizens of the United States is the breakdown of communication and public trust between peoples (both individually and between various institutions). Rather than being interested in the pursuit of truth, people, more often than not, have become driven by baser passions and seek to be entertained, confirmed in their biases, or to feed their fears and insecurities.

The second area of concern posed by the Council Fathers is the relationship between the arts, laws, and the norms of the moral law. It is a less important consideration for our purposes here, but for reasons of explanation: the Fathers recognized that there were, “false doctrines about ethics and aesthetics” that gave rise to some “increasing controversies” over what is to be considered legitimate “art” — morally, and legally speaking.9 In other words, is art subject to the laws of morality? What role, if any, should civil law have in regulating the arts? Here, one cannot help but consider pornography and other sexually suggestive (or explicit) material. In a world that is increasingly distancing itself from objective moral law, it is not surprising that people revert to our baser nature.

The third area of concern raised by the Council Fathers dealt with the suitability of what is portrayed through various media. A simple question to ask here is: is what is to be portrayed through social media true, beautiful, good, wholesome and up-building to the human person and society? Or, conversely, is it sensational, “Fake News,” a tool to manipulate people towards some predetermined end? The Internet is a place of rapid communication, where anyone can say whatever they want and influence other people. Is what they say, then, suitable, i.e., in accordance with the moral law? Is it truthful, or just the ramblings of an uninformed person? 

To know the difference, processing the information well, one must have the requisite training in virtue (moral and intellectual).11 Take, for example, our opening story. The gentleman presenting the claims about a blackout and conserving water did not appear to have malice. He truly seemed to believe what he was saying, and seemed to be concerned for the well-being of people and society as a whole. Personal sincerity, however, is not enough to establish the truth of one’s claims. To know the truth, one must engage the matters at hand with a critical mind. In the present example, the gentleman’s claims were not to be believed for two reasons.

The first reason pertains to the blackout and conserving water. The gentleman came across as being at least somewhat credible (blackouts do happen and if there were a water shortage people might do well to save bathwater). The “fluid” nature of his claims, however, left no accountability, no real way to assess their veracity. In order to give us reason to believe him, he would have had to give his viewers more than what he was providing them (such as sources, or some other method of verification). Otherwise, all that he was actually doing was spinning a sensational story that fed into people’s fears or other feelings, but which was otherwise dispossessed of a rational basis for belief.

The second reason why this gentleman could not be believed was because his two remarks in relation to Catholicism were demonstrably false. First, they contradicted Jesus’ own words: the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18-19). She isn’t going anywhere until Christ comes again and His return hasn’t happened yet. Second, it is rather clear that Pope Francis is not a hologram. He is seen and touched by many people during the course of a given day. To say that there was a hologram of Pope Francis just sounds ridiculous.

Conclusion

The tools of social media have the purpose of communicating truth so as to build up the human community. Truth must have as its reference point ‘that which is’: verum est ens. It must be informed by the facts and discerned by right reason, and, for those of us who are believers, also by orthodox faith. To do these things, the solid foundation of the eternal and natural law (including the eighth commandment) is required. Returning to this foundation will contribute to restoring public trust between individuals and institutions in our society. As Catholic evangelists, we need to be deeply rooted in this foundation when we engage our fellow man on the street (or elsewhere). Approaching the Internet virtuously requires us, among other things, to exercise great prudence and discretion with respect to how we obtain and evaluate information as well as discuss it in civil discourse. A little working knowledge of how social media is manipulated also goes a long way.12 Let us, therefore, become more aware of our great intellectual and spiritual heritage, bear witness to it, and put it into practice.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptural citations are taken from the New American Bible (NAB).

[2] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), sec. 1952.

[3] See CCC, sec. 1949-1960.

[4] Inter Mirifica, sec. 4. Translation by Kevin J. Symonds.

[5] Ibid., sec. 5-7.

[6] Not all that is called “Fake News” is truly such and we must take caution in public discourse when applying this term in concrete circumstances.

[7] This is most aptly stated in Inter Mirifica, sec. 2: “For [the Church] recognizes that men are able to employ these [means] against the plan of the divine Creator and to convert [them] in sacrifice of themselves. Indeed, [the Church] is troubled by a maternal sense of sorrow due to the injuries to human association which have too often arisen from their depraved use.” Translation by Kevin J. Symonds.

[8] CCC, sec. 2469.

[9] Inter Mirifica, sec. 6. Translation by Kevin J. Symonds.

[10] Secular society is presently weighing this very question after various events forced the State to weigh free speech with morals and ethics. The question here is, “by what standard will the State adjudicate these matters?” If the State uses natural law theory, it will end up with one answer. If the State rejects natural law, then it runs the risk of making whatever political party is in power the arbiter. In this case, there is no standard, no objective principle other than who is in political power at a given time.

[11] This fact was very clearly outlined in Inter Mirifica, sec. 10.

[12] Sharyl Attkisson has done some noteworthy work in this area of study.

3 thoughts on ““Fake News” and Our Duty as Evangelists

  1. Sandy Hapenney says:

    Kevin, thank you. I too am so irritated by fake news. People make all kinds of claims with no facts to support them or if they cite sources, the sources themselves are fake news. Your explanations are always a gift.

    Reply
  2. Ed Graveline says:

    excellent Kevin. I have tried my best to research news that I deem or suspect them to be fake news. It seems like I do this for almost all news today. It is really sad that so much of it comes out to us.

    Reply

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