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The Two Popes and Fake News

January 13, 2020

I shared some thoughts on the new Netflix film The Two Popes. While I would agree that it is a good film, but we have to be careful not to assume that everything that it portrays is factual.

We have to remember that it is a work of fiction.

I would like to clarify that I do not think that the filmmakers are intentionally trying to deceive. I believe that they believe that they took certain freedoms in order to make the story (in their opinion) more dramatic.

I also want to repeat that I think that every film depicts a particular point of view; it is impossible to make a film that is not biased. The Two Popes shows clear biases. Some choices are artistic; some merely show the bias of the filmmakers.

But, I pointed out last week that there were two factual errors that I think are problematic: One links Cardinal Bergoglio to Argentina’s dictatorship and the other implies that Cardinal Ratzinger was complicit in the cover up of the Marciel affair.

These two errors, I believe are harmful.

I also think that the film’s biases – portraying Benedict as the strict conservative and Francis as the hip liberal are problematic given the present state of the Church where the word schism is being thrown around. I believe these portrayals of Benedict and Francis are very harmful for Catholics who do not check facts and rely on social media to reinforce their own opinions and ideas.

Promoting falsehoods (intentionally or not) has been around for a long time. Promoting them at the speed that we can today is a very new thing.

Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II said many things that would have raised eyebrows if taken out of context. But no one tweeted them. That’s the challenge that Pope Francis has.

Not only does social media perpetuate the spread of misinformation but it is creating a generation of people who are incapable of critical thinking. We just accept what is shared on a post or tweet if it sounds true; more so if it’s something that reinforces our biases. The more it’s shared or the more likes it has, the more it must be true.

Many politicians will bank on this as they prepare for their next election.

What makes things worse is that because of the way the algorithms work, the less likely it is that we will ever read an opinion that we do not share or like. Social media also encourages emotional reactions – likes, loves, angry faces and thumbs up and down – instead of critical thinking.

We need to build up a world of critical thinkers.

As we look back on 2019, the year that I am going to dub “the year of fake news”, and look forward to 2020, let’s resolve to be better. Don’t believe anything that you hear or read in the media. There are some news outlets that are more credible than others, still, if you intend to retweet, repost or share, I suggest that you double check. If you can’t fact check it, don’t share it. (Here’s a really interesting article from Forbes about critical thinking in the world of new media.)

That will take a lot of garbage out of the airwaves.

The Two Popes is a good film; so is  The Da Vinci Code. So was The Deputy, the 1963 play by Rolf Hochhuth which promoted the false idea that Pope Pius XII was silent or indifferent during the Holocaust. It’s a good play; it’s not fact.

I will never tell you not to watch a film or play, or to read a good book. A good story can be a good story even if it is full of factual errors. That is why we call them fiction.

This is why I would never say that a film can be classified as “fake news”.

But it is “false news” if people assume that everything in the film is factual. Even in the most accurate historical film, that is never the case. A film is not “fake news” because it is not intended to be news. The filmmakers may also not have the intention of deceiving. But if the film has the same effect of misguiding or misinforming, intentional or not, what’s the difference?

But I will not fault the filmmakers; We have to be careful not to take their content as truth.

Truth is found in the Catholic Church. Jesus Christ is Truth.

In 2020, let’s resolve not to share what we do not know is true. Here’s a great suggestion to help you consider what you should share or not: Always remember to T.H.I.N.K. before you share:

If it’s not TRUE, HELPFUL, INTELLIGENT, NECESSARY or KIND, it’s best not to share.

Let’s make 2020 a year to T.H.I.N.K. and help build up the Church with Truth.

And don’t just take my word for it. Go and do your own research and come up with your own well-informed opinion.

Here are some reviews of The Two Popes you should check out, if you haven’t yet done so:

Word on Fire
The Catholic World Report
The  National Catholic Reporter
America Magazine

And this one from Time that helps separate the truth from the fiction.


The real Pope Francis chats with the real retired Pope Benedict XVI during a meeting at the Vatican June 30. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters )


From → English, Opinion

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