Conspiracy Claim? Be Like Saint Luke

By Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
September 2022

Conspiracy theories may have always existed. History is riddled with them, many of which were blatantly anti-Catholic. It seems, however, that the internet, mass media, and social media have made them more commonplace and they are finding their way into our political discourse.

How should Catholics respond to conspiracy theories? How do we recognize one?

A conspiracy is a covert plan involving more than one person, usually for a nefarious purpose and with the intent to keep the plan secret from the public. Secrecy itself is not a conspiracy and nor is a secret agreement for a legitimate purpose, like national security. Real conspiracies rarely stay secret, especially if they involve many people. By their nature, people are not good at keeping secrets, especially for wrongful purposes.  

A conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is the belief that certain events or situations are secretly manipulated behind the scenes by powerful forces with negative intent. They are hypotheses that are not actually proven to be true. Nevertheless, these unproven theories can become powerful forces. Many people accept them as true and shape their actions, including political actions, around them.

As Catholics, we believe that there exists more than the material world. We believe in the invisible, angels, demons, miracles, and evil one. That does not mean, however, that we should succumb to superstition and conspiracy theories. Indeed, we are called to be on guard against them. Catholics are called to use reason and faith in all things. God gave us the ability to reason so that we can sort out facts and identify, to the extent humanly possible, what is true and what is false.

Saint Luke gives us a good example of putting those gifts into practice in the first verses of his gospel. He wrote: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.” (Lk 1:1-4) He relied on eyewitnesses. He not only investigated, he investigated “anew.” Finally, his purpose was to obtain “certainty. Saint Luke did not write down anything that was not proven accurate.  

One feature of conspiracy theories is that they consist of allegations that, by their nature, cannot be proved or disproved. I recently heard of someone in North Dakota government claim that the hospitals around the state — including the Catholic facilities — routinely perform abortions but hide them and do not report them to the Department of Health, as required by law. He claimed that the numbers were twice what is actually reported to the state. The claim has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory. It alleges a secret plot to hide abortions from the public, but the person cannot prove the plot is real because the abortions were “secret."

Applying reason, however, we can conclude that the claim lacks credibility. For example, as mentioned above, large groups of people can rarely keep something secret. It is hard to believe that hundreds of hospital staff persons — including those at Catholic hospitals — have successfully hid hundreds of abortions from the public, insurance companies, and the state government for years.  

Sometimes adherence to conspiracy theories contradicts truths or practices that we accept in other circumstances. For example, sometimes the same person who claims that health care entities and public health officials cannot be trusted based on a conspiracy theory has no problem turning to a physician or hospital when their own health is in danger.  Another example is when someone alleges that a government agency, individual, or corporation is hiding the truth about something and then turns around and points to something said by the same government agency, individual, or corporation as “proof” that they are lying. If they cannot be trusted to tell the truth, why would their “admission” be valid? 

Something similar happens when self-professed conservatives believe in a large government conspiracy. One of the foundational principles of conservatism is not that government is always bad, but that is always imperfect. Accordingly, governments should be incapable of carrying out a massive conspiracy. Self-proclaimed conservatives that buy into conspiracy theories about governments are not really conservatives. Incidentally, the same principle applies to non-government entities. Claims that a select few billionaires or corporations are secretly controlling the economy are inconsistent with conservatism.

These are just some examples of how to apply the tools God has given us to spot conspiracy theories. Saint Luke used them. When approaching claims of conspiracies, we should be more like Saint Luke.

By the time this is published, that day may have arrived. The North Dakota Catholic Conference has dealt with many abortion-related bills since 1995. Some good, some bad, some ill-timed. None was in vain. We often tried to be part of a national strategy shaped in part by the people I mentioned. They helped build what Mississippi eventually took to the finish line on June 24.

This year, June 24 was the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Usually, June 24 celebrates the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, who as an unborn child heard the voice of Mary, leaped in his mother’s womb, and received the Holy Spirit. St. John the Baptist was the forerunner. He helped prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.

I think of these of the people I have mentioned as helping to prepare the way for

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The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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