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Jim McDermottJune 14, 2022
St. Ignatius Loyola (Wikimedia)

When I was in my 20s, the big show was “The X-Files.” Every Sunday night, 10 to 20 million Americans tuned in to see F.B.I. agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate unexplained phenomena and insane conspiracy theories about alien abduction, the end of the world and the U.S. government. We watched it in part because we did wonder about things like Bigfoot and flying saucers, but also because it was all just so completely bonkers.

At some point between then and today, though, the Fox Mulders of the world seem to have taken over. We’re in an era of “the industrialization of conspiracy theories,” “X-Files” creator Chris Carter wrote in The New York Times last year. “Rigorous science and scientists are castigated and vilified. Rigorous journalism is decried as fake news.”

In recent years, we have seen people afraid to get vaccinated because they think the government has installed trackers in them and others who say Covid-19 isn’t real or that Dr. Anthony Fauci was responsible for its creation. As of January, 40 percent of Americans still believe President Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election.

And in recent days, we’ve been hearing about the “great replacement” theory, the belief that a secret cabal (sometimes identified as Democrats and/or Jewish people) are secretly trying to wipe out “the white race” in America through things like mass immigration and interracial marriage. This theory has been cited by violent perpetrators in many cases of racist attacks and rallies in recent years, including by the gunman who killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo on May 14. Tucker Carlson has pushed tenets of the theory more than 400 different times on Fox News.

Over the course of its nearly 500 years of existence, the Society of Jesus has been the subject of many conspiracy theories of its own. Jesuits have been accused of killing Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy; we’ve been painted as doomsday cultists trying to bring about the end times and as maintaining our own secret global cabal. One theory worthy of “The X-Files” even has us behind the aliens who crashed at Roswell. You thought they were from another planet, but no, those gray creatures were made by Jesuits doing science in our “deep underground military bases.”

But in looking at some of these Jesuit conspiracy theories, the thing I’ve discovered is that within the absurdity of it all, there are lessons to be learned.

Take, for instance, one of the craziest conspiracies ever proposed about us.

That Time When the Jesuits Sank the Titanic

On April 10th, 1912, the RMS Titanic left Southampton, England, on its maiden journey. Its initial route took it across the English Channel to Cherbourg, France, and then to Queenstown, Ireland. The next day, April 11, it began its trek across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.

Onboard when the Titanic first left England was 32-year-old Irish Jesuit in training, Francis Patrick Browne. As a gift, Browne’s uncle had given him a one-day trip on the liner from Southampton to Ireland. While onboard, Browne met an American couple over dinner. They so enjoyed his company that they offered to pay for his travel the rest of the way to America and back. But when Browne telegraphed his superior for permission, the response was quite clear: “GET OFF THAT SHIP—PROVINCIAL.”

In looking at some of these Jesuit conspiracy theories, the thing I’ve discovered is that within the absurdity of it all, there are lessons to be learned.

Now, in the history of the Society of Jesus, there have been moments like this where a Jesuit discreetly “misses” bad news from a superior and does as they think best. But Browne dutifully obeyed his provincial and got off the boat. Three days later, on the evening of April 14, the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank.

Browne was a very lucky man. Or he was the main actor in an astonishing plot to change the world order? As detailed in the book Titanic & Olympic: The Truth Behind the Conspiracy, some believe that the sinking of the Titanic was actually a planned strike by the Society of Jesus upon a few of the world’s wealthiest men, in retaliation for their refusal to join a group of global power brokers in their plan to increase their wealth and might. This would-be plot to assassinate Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor IV and Isidor Straus, all of whom died on the Titanic, was quite intricate: Not only was the ship’s captain, Edward Smith, a secret Jesuit being “run” by Browne to effect the disaster, the ship itself was built by J.P. Morgan at the Jesuits’ command, as a lure to gather Guggenheim and the others. (In other versions of this story, it’s Morgan himself who planned the operation, and his scheme involves, among other things, electromagnetic seals on decks to trap passengers within.)

According to this conspiracy theory, Browne got off the boat after ordering Smith to drive the Titanic into an iceberg and went on to live his life, mission accomplished.

But how did Browne and the Jesuits know that the Titanic would encounter icebergs in the first place?, you ask. They just did. They’re the Jesuits.

Herein lies the most obvious truth about conspiracy theories: They eventually involve leaps that defy logical explanation. But what’s sometimes missed is that they also generally rely upon elements of truth: There were warnings of icebergs along the Titanic’s route, but on the day that the ship crashed, not before the ship left Ireland. Smith also had decades of experience sailing those seas; the fact that iceberg warnings would not have caused him to proceed more cautiously is strange. And not only did Browne get off the boat before it headed to its doom, Morgan cancelled his berth at the last minute.

Even the idea of putting this whole conspiracy on the shoulders of a young Jesuit emerges in part from facts.

Every Jesuit Wants to Rule the World

As first superior general of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius had a principle in approving ministries: All other things being equal, choose the work that can have the most influence on the most influential. As he writes in his Spiritual Exercises, “Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created,” namely the praise, reverence and service of God.

One’s eye should always be on the magis, i.e., that question of what is “the more.” As influential people like kings, diplomats, business leaders or bishops had the potential to impact more people’s lives, having Jesuits serve as advisors or confessors to them was often seen as the greater good. Similarly, providing schools for the children of elites quickly became another way both to influence them and to positively affect the future, when those children came into power of their own.

The Society’s goal was the service of Christ’s mission, but this emphasis on influencing the influencers also meant that from its earliest days, Jesuits have been associated with power and ambition. Just 10 years after the order’s founding, English Augustinian monk George Browne preached of the Jesuits, “These shall spread over the whole world…making your Princes reveal their hearts, and the secrets therein.” In some places, Jesuits would get accused of being spies for the Vatican; the fact that our fully professed fathers take a fourth vow to the pope—and do so in a private ceremony—only fed these claims.

At other times, they were viewed as operating on behalf of their own agendas. In the early 17th century, a former Jesuit promulgated the “Monita Secreta,” or “Secret Instructions of the Jesuits,” in which superior general of the Society of Jesus Claudio Acquaviva supposedly instructs Jesuits on how to expand their wealth and power. “Princes and persons of distinction everywhere must by all means be so managed, that we may have their ear, and that will easily secure their hearts,” begins one chapter. “All persons will become our creatures, and no one will dare to give the society the least disquiet or opposition.” Emperor Palpatine, eat your heart out.

Within those moments lie lessons about not just the ways that we are sometimes perceived but the entitlement and personal ambition with which we sometimes act.

And that, in short, is how a 32-year-old seminarian whose uncle wanted to give him a cool gift becomes a Jesuit capo who runs the most astonishing hit ever on the world’s most famous passenger ship. From its origins, the Society of Jesus had been an international organization with men placed amongst the powerful and a founder who had said we should be trying to influence the influential. Conspiracy theories about the Jesuits trying to rule the world kept popping up because what we were doing looked a lot like that. And when you get right down to it, what makes us so sure there wasn’t some truth in what they were saying?

The Note Behind the Note

You often hear horror stories from screenwriters about shocking notes they get back from executives. “I like ‘The Color Purple,’ I really do, but does Celie really have to be Black?”

But good writers will also talk about listening for the note behind the note. A studio exec may make terrible suggestions, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong about a script having problems. As a writer, you have to take in what they say and try to figure out what’s behind it. Is there something not right here? What’s the note that I need behind the note I’ve been given?

When it comes to conspiracy theories, a similar operating principle can be helpful. Yes, the idea that the Covid-19 vaccine comes with a lifetime supply of spyware is crazy. But what is the thing that’s being expressed behind that? What is the note behind the note? Perhaps it’s a fear about how fast the vaccine development process went and whether there was proper oversight.

Similarly, the insistence that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election after every state certified the results, including those controlled by Republicans, seems ridiculous. But perhaps it points to concerns about the inviolability of mail-in ballots and computerized voting equipment. Certainly we can point to news outlets like Fox who repeat these theories so often that it begins to sound believable. But maybe people’s receptivity to these kinds of stories highlights a very real need for greater governmental transparency.

Yes, the idea that the Covid-19 vaccine comes with a lifetime supply of spyware is crazy. But what is the thing that’s being expressed behind that? What is the note behind the note?

Violence against people of color such as we saw in Buffalo in May is a social crisis that merits immediate and profound political action. But simply labeling the shooter’s rantings about race as just fringe craziness may do more harm than good. As University of Connecticut professor Matthew W. Hughey wrote in Slate after the shooting, “the core tenets of ‘white nationalism’ are neither as rare nor as unpalatable as one may assume.” Hughey points out, one in four white Americans surveyed between 2012 and 2016 said they believed they were more intelligent than Black people. A 2021 survey showed that 56 percent of Americans believe that in the workplace, a less or equally qualified Black person will always get promoted over them. Even within the church, racial justice movements responding to the unprovoked harassment and shooting of members of their community are painted by some as ideological or anti-Christian.

In the Jesuits, we laugh at stories like the Titanic Job and paint moments in our history when we have been persecuted as largely unfair. And yet within those moments lie lessons about not just the ways that we are sometimes perceived but the entitlement and personal ambition with which we sometimes act.

To discount the “great replacement” theory as insanity may similarly keep those of us who are white from confronting important truths about how we see ourselves and treat others. Fox Mulder always insisted that “The truth is out there.” Sometimes the greatest challenge lies not in finding it, but in forcing yourself to see it.

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