Journalistic Un-integrity — Part One






When the Washington Post printed an outrageous allegation about some Catholic priests in 18th-century Portugal, I emailed them several times, requesting a credible source for what I knew to be a fabrication. You might wonder why I got involved.




In This Article...

Against the Current

Who Knows Earthquakes?

The Story Has Legs





Against the Current

Ten years ago, I began to experience a call to turn back to the Faith of my childhood.

But before I could “revert” to the Catholic Church, I had to overcome the anti-Catholic secularism I had embraced for over 22 years. There were many questions that had to be answered to my satisfaction. Not only did I need to know the derivation of supposedly “unscriptural” doctrines like Purgatory, but I also needed to follow the advice and footsteps of the great John Henry Cardinal Newman and go “deep in history.” 

Was the Church the “enemy of science"? What about the “horrors of the Inquisition"? Those violent crusaders? Gold-hungry explorers and missionaries? I spent almost a quarter-century listening to, and believing, the discordant voices of her enemies. Now, with a mind open to the truth, and a willingness to go wherever it led, I allowed the quiet, steady voice of the Church to be heard above the din. For 10 years I’ve been studying the faith — doctrines, dogmas, disciplines, scholarship, good deeds, bad deeds, warts, wrinkles, saints and sinners. A 2,000-year history more exciting, fascinating and riveting than anything George Lucas or Steven Spielberg could ever imagine.

I’m still no expert, but I have become pretty adept at spotting the distortions and misrepresentations so prevalent in the mainstream media’s coverage of anything related to Christianity in general, and the Catholic Church in particular. I can’t say if this is the result of ignorance or malice on the part of the writer(s). I can say it’s almost a sure bet that if mentioned at all, and if at all possible, the Church will be cast in a bad light. So rarely is neutrality shown, and bias disguised, that any reasonable person can’t help but get the message: Christianity is “dangerous.”

This came home to me on New Year’s Day. My local newspaper ran an article by Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post entitled: “Seeking the Hand of God in the Waters.” The article began by recounting an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, that devastated Lisbon, Portugal, on All Saints’ Day in 1755. Almost 90,000 people were killed, many while still at morning Mass for the Holy Day. What did the Church do in the aftermath to aid her children? Mr. Vargas writes that, “Following the devastation…priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God's wrath.”

Priests roamed the streets, hanging people? Sadly, it would be easy enough to believe this, when the Church is so consistently represented as the Enemy. The trouble is, in all my study of accusations against the Church made throughout history, I had never run across this. One thing I’ve learned in studying Church history: if it happened, it would be embellished and written about in every history book from that day forward, while Church historians and apologists would rebut with their own explanations of the events and denunciations of the embellishments. In other words, history is not “silent” on the good or bad behavior, real or imagined, of Catholics. The wheat and tares are there for all to see. So, if priests ever roamed the streets hanging people, or were even falsely accused of doing so, someone would have written about it long before this.

Who Knows Earthquakes?
Voltaire’s satire of the Inquisition in Candide (1759) comes to mind. Candide and his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, undergo a series of misfortunes. First, they are shipwrecked off Lisbon on the eve of the earthquake. Then, they are arrested by an eavesdropping officer of the Inquisition who overhears them talking about the disaster, and surmises they don’t believe in original sin or free will. Candide is eventually let go after a beating, but Pangloss wasn’t so lucky. “Candide was flogged in cadence with the music…and Pangloss was hanged, though hanging is not customary.” [Emphasis added.]

Was Mr. Vargas taking seriously Voltaire’s satire? Maybe it was one of the false charges levied against the Jesuits, prior to their 1773 suppression, that I hadn’t read about? I recalled an account of some looters and an arsonist who were executed by civil authorities — maybe priests were present, just as they are at executions today. But that’s hardly the same thing. Just in case I missed it, I spent the rest of the day going over my history books. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I was pretty confident if it wasn’t even mentioned in my collection, it never happened. 

This was the period in Portugal, from about 1750–1773, in which the prime minister, later the Marquis of Pombal, began a severe persecution of the Jesuits. He regarded them and the Catholic Church as enemies of “material progress.” The Jesuits were well known for their schools, both lay and clerical. They were the confessors to the nobility, and the instructors of their children. 

What history records, even secular history, is that it was the dedication of the Jesuits to the study of science, their observations and careful documentation of the Lisbon earthquake, just before, during, and after, that is recognized, even today, as the beginnings of seismology. It is why scientists know what they do about the Lisbon quake. In fact, Jesuits have so dominated this field that it became known in the 20th century as the “Jesuit science.” Regardless of their scientific contributions, they were removed from their schools. Teachers devoted to Enlightenment principles and state supremacy were put in their place to ensure a future of rationalism and absolutism. The Jesuits were accused by the marquis, without any evidence, of many things — roaming the streets hanging people wasn’t one of them. Far from “roaming the city hanging people,” these priests were unjustly imprisoned, their property confiscated, their reputations calumniated and one even executed by the Portugese civil authorities.

After checking numerous books, encyclopedias, and having friends do the same, I was satisfied this was a specious charge. I would have totally dropped the matter had it not been for the fact that my local newspaper again carried, on January 15, the same mediocre-at-best article by Mr. Vargas.

The Story Has Legs

Twice was too much. A Google search of the phrase: “1755 Lisbon priests roamed city hanging people” turned up quite a few articles, using the same phrase. Here’s only a small sample:

• From WIKIPEDIA, the free, on-line encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute, with or without footnotes: “1755 Lisbon earthquake” “...priests roamed the city hanging people suspected of heresy on sight, blaming them for the disaster.”


• Kenneth Nguyen, a staff writer for “Fairfax Digital, The Age Online”, writes on 12/30/04: "…Catholic priests roamed the city, blaming heresy suspects for the disaster and hanging them on sight."


• Jim Stewart, “CBS News Correspondent,” January 6, 2005: "...priests roamed the streets hanging whomever they felt had incurred the Lord's wrath."


• Darius Nikbin, Science Editor, “Felix Online,” January 6, 2005: "…religious priests roamed the streets hanging people, accusing them of heresy and blaming them for the earthquake."


• Jeff O’Connell of the Galway Advertiser, January 6, 2005: "...priests roamed the city hanging people suspected of heresy on sight, blaming them for the disaster."


• David Shi, historian, writer, and president of Furman University, Greenville, SC, “Greenville Online,” January 8, 2005: "…priests roamed the streets, hanging heretics on sight."

I contacted all of the writers by email, requesting a credible source for their allegation. Dr. David Shi was the only one kind enough to respond. His source was Martin Marty from the Washington Post article.


Of course, the Washington Post, a credible media outlet, would have to have a credible source for such a serious allegation, wouldn’t they? And Martin E. Marty, Ph.D., is certainly a qualified and credible church historian. The larger context of the Post article shows the ambiguous way in which the paragraph containing the phrase in question was written, which could easily lead one to believe that Marty was the source of the “priests roamed” allegation. Here is the pertinent part of the article, with emphasis added to show where Dr. Marty is quoted:

Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, has written his 55th book, When Faiths Collide, which he says should land in bookstores this week.


He's been an ordained Lutheran minister since 1952.


”It's only natural to repose yourself in the will of God,” he says. ”If you're a believer, then you must believe that God, somehow, is a presence in all of this. But God didn't tell anybody that you go through life without disasters.”


Still, talk of religion's role in the disaster irks Marty. Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God's wrath. That event “shook the modern world,” he notes, changing people's idea of a benevolent, all-caring God.

The way that paragraph was written, it was quite natural for Dr. Shi to conclude Marty was the source.


Or so his research assistant believed. But, as we will see in part two, Dr. Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, is not the source. The Post has done a grave injustice to Dr. Marty by their placement of the “priests roamed” allegation in the midst of Marty’s quotations, leading more than a few people to conclude Marty is the source. When you see the extent to which this particular allegation has proliferated, you will see that the Post has also done a grave injustice to Catholics and to every person of goodwill who values journalistic integrity.


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Theresa E. Carpinelli is a homeschooling single parent and the host of Truth Matters, a program of Catholic evangelization on Living Bread Radio, WILB AM 1060 in Canton, Ohio.