History of Jesuit fake news


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An interesting article in The Independent on 7 August 2017 put ‘fake news’ into a deeper historical context.

Its author, Linda Kiernan, a lecturer in French history at Trinity College Dublin, focused on the febrile climate of 17th Century Europe. At a time when civil wars and unrest beset Western Europe, in Britain the widely believed ‘fake news’ (known as the Popish Plot) was that the Jesuits were planning to do away with Charles II in favour of his Catholic younger brother, James. With Catholicism and Protestantism being a matter of life or death depending on where you were living, information and misinformation abounded – it was just transmitted differently to today’s fake news.

There were armies of pamphleteers, but posters, songs and stories were also modes of transmission. Our own Edmund Campion SJ, with his famous ‘Decem Rationes’, created one of the most famous booklets in the defence of the Catholic faith. Not being able to rely on Facebook or Twitter, Campion had to go down the risky route of setting up a secret printing press in Stonor, near Henley. This was followed by the audacious act of sneaking in during the night and leaving 400 copies on the benches of St Mary’s, Oxford before the commencement of the university year. Not all propaganda was fake news.

The Economist made ‘fake news’ one of its grim words of the year in 2016, focusing on ‘viral’ stories that had, for example, convinced many voters that Mrs Clinton had sold weapons to Islamic State, or that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. And it has become fashionable to talk about the idea of ‘post-truth’ political discourse, a term first used by David Roberts, then a blogger on an environmentalist website, Grist. But as Ecclesiastes points out, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, and Miss Kiernan agrees. It is just easier now, with communications technology, to get your news out there.

If you take a wander into the dark recesses of YouTube, you will discover many conspiracy theories with the Jesuits at the centre. We were allegedly responsible for the 9/11 atrocities, the New World Order and of course linked to the Illuminati, amongst many other things. However, the Jesuits were the subject of many a conspiracy theory long before the advent of the Internet: perhaps the most damaging fake news for the Society of Jesus was a forged letter that was produced in France in 1767 and was a key factor in the suppression of the Society. Purported to have been written by Fr General Ricci, it was found and presented to the King of France who was enraged. The fake letter had Fr Ricci claiming that he was gathering documents proving irrefutably that Charles III was a child of adultery. The infamous ‘Ricci Letter’ had been slipped into the luggage of two Jesuits leaving Spain for Rome and lead to the expulsion of the Jesuits from France and its territories.