While there has been much discussion about Q-Anon and its impact on American life and politics, I have seen little—nothing, actually—directed toward a pastoral or catechetical approach toward a conscious embrace of Q and other radical conspiracies. Like many of you, I have family and friends who embraced the Q-anon conspiracy to varying degrees and who have made this known on social media. None has ever approached me personally or on-line to recruit me or to discuss their experiences one-on-one, nor have I engaged in any on-line comments or discussions with them, despite my strong concern about the subject. Social scientists—some of whom have been engaged in on-line chats with Q-anon adherents for months—observe that the members tend to create “new families,” very frequently online, instant camaraderie with individuals who share the same concerns and understand the range of emotions that drove them to identify with Q-Anon in its various forms in the first place.
I can say with certainty that Catholics have embraced the Q-Anon conspiracy to varying degrees, at least in some cases in the mistaken hope that the Pro-Life cause would be strengthened. Q-Anon emerged in social media around 2017 and appears to be a fear of a “deep state,” i.e., a perceived power force that would eradicate Christian identity and patriotic rights and values. Q’s outline of the specifics of the deep state conspiracy carries a certain shock value to anyone hearing them the first time—elements of pedophilia, child trafficking, cannibalism—and has become wedded to the Presidency of Donald Trump and the narrative of the 2020 stolen election, which is probably the reason for the Pro-Life attraction to an otherwise bizarre worldview. We would make better use of our time examining the underlying fears that would attract otherwise common-sense folks to a conglomeration of extreme beliefs.
It may be of some comfort to realize that radical interpretations of the present and future are nothing new. Waves of “anxious heightened consciousness” appear from time to time. Such highly potent emotional waves date to Biblical times, under the term Apocalypticism. The Books of Daniel and Revelation are two outstanding examples of extreme futuristic projections of order and deliverance from the evils of the world. Both books were written during persecution, Daniel during the Syrian desecration of the Jerusalem temple around 150 B.C., and Revelation during a local Roman persecution of Christians during the first century after Christ. Apocalyptic movements developed throughout history, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., at the fall of Rome in the fifth century [which inspired St. Augustine’s classic, The City of God], during the Bubonic Plague or Black Death in the fourteenth century, the fall of the sacred city of Constantinople in 1453 at the hands of the Turks, and during the “Wars of Religion” from 1524 till 1648. There have been countless smaller waves in the fine print of history.
In every one of these crises, witnesses and victims were forced to reconfigure the way they viewed the world, intellectually and psychologically speaking. This “refiguring” usually had positive and negative outcomes. The shock of the fall of Jerusalem intensified Christianity to embrace its Gentile mission to the entire earth. On the other hand, Christians interpreted the Jerusalem destruction as God’s final judgment of the Jews for failure to recognize Jesus as Savior, a mindset which justified persecution of Jews till our present day. Marjorie Taylor Green, the Q-Anon congresswoman from Georgia, recently claimed that the California wildfires were started by lasers from space under the direction of the Jewish House of Rothschild, the centuries-old banking establishment named after the extraordinarily successful family of Jewish financiers. Antisemitism is usually a significant component of Christian extremism.
Q-Anon adherents, for their part, look at the polar opposite of their world view as “woke.” A 2018 editorial from the Harvard Crimson describes the meaning of “woke” quite well: “The word "woke" implies that to support the liberal viewpoint is to be socially aware. Woke people are heavily informed and actively involved with liberal social issues. If you’re leading a Black Lives Matter protest, you’re probably woke. If you’re calling your congressperson to advocate for Planned Parenthood, you’re probably woke…. This biased nomenclature is rooted in a belief held by some on the left that people are only conservative because they are uneducated. If only people were smarter, more informed, more woke, then surely they would see the Democratic light and switch sides.”
While the details of the Q-Anon conspiracy are dangerous and groundless, it is important to look past the bizarre headlines to the needs of those who embrace the Q community, where their concerns are worthy of consideration and where there is need for fraternal correction for all of us. One can hopefully sense the fear, resentment, and frustration of basically decent people who for many years have been told in a variety of ways that their ideals and way of life are parochial and dumb. The dynamics of the Catholic Church in the United States are as good an example as any. With the advent of the reform council Vatican II [1962-1965] many of us who were privileged to study theology in seminaries and Catholic universities after the Council went into parishes “woke,” so to speak, with the attitude that everything new was good, and the old customs of Catholic devotion and worship were, ipso facto, bad. I confess that many of my pastoral stances were elitist, self-assured, and authoritarian. It is worth noting, too, that “Catholic woke” is vulnerable to the charge of conflating Pro Life with “anti-women.”
My own mellowing over age came with a greater appreciation of the liberal arts tradition of Catholic education, a wisdom I missed in my first flyover in my 20’s. As this past week has marked “Catholic Schools Week,” consider that Catholic Education at every level, and has—where it has met its mandate--enriched its students by immersing them in liberal arts education. Thanks to the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas and his confreres in the 200 universities of Medieval Europe, Catholic education embodies a vision in which full creation is united in the glory of God and the service of mankind. All the arts and sciences, if carried to their frontiers at any point in history, take us to the infinity of God, whether that be the complexity of viruses in the laboratory, the endless lessons of history, or the mystery of human behavior in Shakespeare on the stage. The term “renaissance man” may be dated and sexist, but its truth is as contemporary as ever. The broadest view of worldly wisdom produces a prudence and caution that guided the work of Aquinas and the body of Catholic scholar-saints.
Aquinas understood, too, the moral imperative of learning. We cannot spin opinions out of the air and proclaim them true without grounding, nor can we create an internal universe out of “alternative facts.” The Eighth Commandment holds us to the obligation of bearing true witness, by such standards as Church Tradition, history, due process, and peer review. Due process is appeal to legitimate authority; the riot at the Capital on January 6 was caused, among other reasons, by a failure of some to accept the judgment of duly authorized state officials and courts of law throughout the country on the matter of the 2020 presidential election. Augustine, in his City of God, was a staunch defender of legitimate civil order. By contrast, it is peer review that assures us of the safety of the various Covid-19 vaccines now in use; a claim for any new drug must stand up to strenuous testing by other independent research centers and government agencies entrusted with this responsibility. [Peer review accounts for the delays in the release of newer vaccines, to test for safety before public release, delays which can be frustrating but necessary.]
Even the best educated and best intentioned among us fall prey to hubris, the pride of worshipping the supposed infallibility of our own intellects, an important symptom that our adult learning and reading is self-centered, not God-centered. Aquinas himself once referred to his lifelong body of work as “straw.” The principles of Catholic education across all disciplines puts a person in a classroom, a library, or a reading den for the purpose of being awed. A useful devotional and instructional guide for any adult Catholic is Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina  by the Cistercian monk Michael Casey. Casey speaks of reading with humility. I reviewed this book on Amazon in 2011 when I was “unwoking” and I made this observation:
Casey instructs his readers to embrace Lectio Divina [spiritual reading] with humility. I tend to read critically or pragmatically [as in, can I use this material in a class?] The author advises us to approach the text purely for its own sake, its access to the wisdom of God. We read for grace and guidance, for introduction to a world of the Holy Spirit that to some measure will be foreign to all of us. Casey is cognizant of the human tendency to rebel against new ideas as well as to avoid any trace of the ancient as "irrelevant," that favorite curse word of 1960's Catholicism. He calls to mind that the theology of both Hebrew and Christian Scripture is in fact backward looking, toward the saving deeds of God. A Christian who is not historically minded does not know himself.
Casey goes on to discuss the skill of selecting appropriate works for study. I see a lot in the Q social postings about “doing the homework” and “reading for yourself.” I commend the energy but with one critical caveat: One of the most important fruits of liberal arts education is discernment in self-study, i.e., making sound judgments on the selection of persons, texts, resources, and public discourse one chooses to engage. Reading is not the same as reading judiciously. The monks, of course, would be guided by their abbot and the senior members, and for those of us with liberal arts backgrounds this is one of the skills imparted in research and composition. The rapid transmission of information on social media suggests to me that the skill in separating sources like wheat from weeds is a discernment that desperately needs reinforcement. I can only speak to the arena of institutional religious life, which suffers division and misinformation in the same way that civil society does. I do wish that parishes provided more input on religious reading in Catholic adult education; for example, I always integrated instruction on publishing houses and respected mainstream authors [peer reviewed] in my courses for catechists and church personnel, and I began the Catechist Café some years ago as a resource for adult Catholic education along these lines.
I have been asked by friends if there is some way to meaningfully connect [or more often, reconnect] with family and intimates enveloped in Q-like conspiracy fears and advocacy. I must admit I am at a loss myself, and I do my share of “tiptoeing” with various members of my family. It can be grating and wearisome. There are cultlike characteristics to some Q-Anon adherents, and the certitude and anger are hard to endure at times from the outside; there are none more fervent than the recent convert. It is probably not wise to respond in kind. Jesus prayed that we would all be One. I will risk the charge of naivete with my belief that pain and fear are the fuel for extremist beliefs and behavior and make allowances for that. Remember that all conspiracy theories eventually break the hearts of their sincere adherents. For anyone in pain and disillusionment, the porchlight should always be lit for the homecoming of those who have been through a great deal.