Within 24 hours of Cardinal Jorge Mari0 Bergoglio being named pope, I started seeing people sharing what was alleged to be a quote from him declaring that women were unfit for…well, almost everything other than being led around and told what to do by men. The “quote” that flew around Facebook among the ostensible skeptics:
Women are naturally unfit for political office. Both the natural order and facts show us that the political being par excellence is male; the Scripture shows us that woman has always been the helper of man who thinks and does, but nothing more.
And it was repeated. And repeated. And repeated. The first time I saw it, I asked for an original citation and the reply was, in essence, “The Catholic Church is a horrible, evil organization.” Well yes, it is. And therefore what? And therefore this quote is automatically accurate and there is no need to confirm it before passing it on? Is that what skepticism means? No, I don’t think it does. And it turns out there isn’t a shred of evidence to support this one.
As someone who has tracked down a lot of fake quotes over the years (and passed on one or two fake ones myself), a couple things come to mind. First, don’t presume that if you do a Google search and it comes up on a lot of websites then it must be legitimate. Those fake Founding Fathers quotes popularized by David Barton are on millions of sites, but that makes them no less fake. Second, if you look at dozens of sources and never see an original citation attached to the quote, or if you see different citations for it, that should raise a red flag. And third, beware of ellipses. They often, but not always, hide crucial text that can change the meaning of the quotes considerably.
Lastly, if a quote appears to be “too good to be true,” it may well be — but not always. A good example of the “not always” part is a quote from Christian Reconstructionist Gary North that I first heard many years ago:
“So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”
When I first heard this, I thought it was just too good to be true. I know that’s what Recontructionists do believe, but would they really be this blunt about a plan that puts their deceptions on display? So I did some research and the answer was yes. I found the original article where he said that, word for word. But it’s still a bad idea to presume that a quote, or any other kind of claim, about those we oppose or even actively despise is true even if we think it fits a pattern and even if we want it to be true because it supports our position.
Just because a claim lines up with what we want to believe about those we (rightly) consider our opponents, that is not a good reason to presume that anything they are accused of must be true. I’m not merely accusing others of this, I’ve done it myself. We all have, I imagine. But it’s lazy and unskeptical and we need to take a stand against it when we see it. We need to ask for evidence before we pass along a rumor. There are more than enough good reasons to criticize the Catholic Church and its leaders; we need not invent any.
Fake quotes are as bad when they come from our side as when they come from David Barton. Worse, perhaps, because we claim to be skeptics and rationalists.