Dr. Marty Was Not the Source
[Editor’s note: See *Breaking News at the bottom of this article for the beginnings of a response from the Washington Post.]
Hearing nothing back from them but a canned response, I continued to try to find a source for the allegation. As I noted yesterday in Part One, the Post attempted to lend credence to the allegation by inserting it into the text in such a way as to lead readers to believe the source was a credible church historian and author, Dr. Martin E. Marty.
But I contacted Martin Marty, Ph.D., told him I was trying to track down the source of the allegation, and asked him directly if he was the source. His reply was prompt: “No, I certainly was not the source of that.” In fact, according to Dr. Marty, the “priests roamed” allegation did not even come up during the course of his interview with Mr. Vargas, he was not familiar with this allegation, and he promised to check out his church histories, as well as Voltaire, to see if he could find the source of the information for me.
Dr. Shi then wrote: “If it turns out that the reference to hangings was inaccurate or even suspect (such as originating in Wikipedia), I will arrange for a correction to be printed.” He also wondered “if such a ‘rumor’ might have actually originated with Voltaire,” and wrote: “It raises very interesting questions about the origins of ostensible historical facts.” He checked a few books he obtained through inter-library loan. One author, T.D. Kendrick, in The Lisbon Earthquake, described “34 people being executed for looting after the earthquake, but makes no reference to heretics being hanged.”
I wrote to M.J. Anderson, who writes for Crisis Magazine. She asked Fr. George Rutler about the allegation. His response:
I am aware of no documentary evidence for priests hanging supposed heretics in Lisbon after the earthquake…. It may be that some people were hanged for pillaging, etc., but the hanging for heresy may be an ‘urban legend.’ It would be interesting to find a source, but the most reliable accounts (one by an English Protestant clergyman) make no reference, and they would have had they seen such.I phoned Bruce Clark, who writes historical novels and is my son’s history advisor at Seton. His comment: “Preposterous.”
I phoned Dr. Warren H. Carroll, and spoke with his wife, Anne Carroll, who is herself the author of several history books. Neither she nor Dr. Carroll had ever heard this allegation. Dr. Carroll advanced that maybe it was a trumped-up charge by the Marquis of Pombal, but he had never come across that charge in his research for his large History of Christendom. (The 5th volume is at the printers, if anyone is as excited as I am!)
In the meantime, a couple of sermons were preached, using the same “priests roamed the city hanging people” language:
• Rev. Mark Oakley, “Tsunami and God,” January 2, 2005.
• Rev. Phil Blackwell, of the Chicago Temple, January 9, 2005. This sermon directly linked Martin Marty with the allegation.
I learned about the second sermon from one of the editors of my local newspaper, who wrote to me responding to a letter I had written to them on the subject of this serious allegation not being credited to any source. She wrote: “It doesn't appear to be coincidence that Vargas's reference to the purported events of 1755 are mentioned in the same paragraph as a reference to Martin Marty, a Chicago professor, Lutheran minister and prolific author. Vargas had to have a source for this account, and I believe it was Marty.” She then pointed out the sermon preached by Rev. Blackwell, and added: “Marty clearly is the source of Blackwell's account.”
What’s clear is that a lot of people are mistakenly associating Dr. Marty with this specious allegation, which he finds distressing.
What They Want to Believe
I wondered if Wikipedia was the source. The language is the certainly the same remarkably so. According to a search of the article’s history, it originated in October, 2003, with the “priests roamed” line present in the nascent article. It would have been very easy for a journalist at the Washington Post to find the Wikipedia article in a Google search for information on the Lisbon earthquake. I requested of Wikipedia that a source be cited for this allegation. The person with whom I was corresponding claimed not to have written the line, that it was a “remnant” from a previous version; but she left it in anyway. She writes: “i dont have a reference though i dont find the allegation strange, considering the power of the Jesuits at the time and the religious fanatism of the time” [sic].
Interesting. Even though there is no reference for the allegation, it was consistent with the “religious fanaticism of the time” and therefore was left in the Wikipedia article. Nonetheless, the line in question was ultimately removed because I insisted a source be cited, regardless of whether biased feelings might like to believe the event occurred.
So, here is what we have:
• An incredible allegation is made on December 30th against certain priests of the Catholic Church by the Washington Post, for which no credible source is cited, nor can be found. It is made with no regard for the truth of the allegation, and in such an ambiguous way as to imply the source is from a well-respected author and historian quoted in the article, Dr. Martin Marty.
• The allegation is then picked up by many other writers, among them CBS News on-line, who publish their own version of the account, in virtually the same language as the Post article.
• Dr. Martin Marty, to his dismay, is falsely being associated with the bogus allegation.
• I suspect the source of the allegation is a Wikipedia article, dating to 2003, for which no reference exists, and which was therefore subsequently removed.
• Several Internet sites, and even a rather “anti-catholic” school curriculum that used the Wikipedia article, still have the allegation posted on their sites, and included in their text books.
• Internet blogs and discussion groups too numerous to count are putting forth the bogus information as true. In one, I found a discussion of this as the “Catholic Church’s response.”
Hey, Washington Post! Fix This Already, a program of Catholic evangelization on Living Bread Radio, WILB AM 1060 in Canton, Ohio.
The extent to which this bogus historical allusion has proliferated demonstrates effectively the willingness of a great many people to write and to believe outrageous claims about Catholics, with little regard for the truth. There’s nothing new in that Jesus said the world would hate us. But when one reads in the Washington Post the type of fiction that used to be confined to the pages of Jack Chick publications, one can’t help but take notice. Coming so close on the heels of Dan Rather’s use of a rather “suspect” document in his reporting, and the implications it had for CBS News, one would think the media giants would start to get the message. One would think that they would be alert to any charges that they had gotten their facts wrong and be quick to make a retraction or correction, lest public confidence in them erode even further.
Instead they have been dismissive of communication from this concerned reader. After three email submissions to the Post, and two to their ombudsman, I still have yet to received an answer to my query: “What is your credible source for the outrageous allegation that after the 1755 disaster, ‘priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God’s wrath’?”
Two submissions to CBS News on-line received no response, not even a canned one.
I have heard nothing from any of the other authors whose email I could find.
Dr. Shi and Dr. Marty are the only ones who responded to my query. Both responses were immediate, demonstrating their commitment to scholarship and integrity.
I believe the Washington Post should cite a credible source or else own up to this calumny, and the author(s) of the original Wikipedia article should either divulge a credible source, or stop including unreferenced allegations in their work.
I am always very sad when the Church is calumniated. But the saddest part of all is not the calumny against the Catholic Church she’ll survive, as she has for over 2,000 years. Nor is it the misrepresentation of Dr. Marty. As he told me, it bothers him to be mistaken as the source of this “evident piece of fiction,” but says, “those who know me know I don't do anti-Catholic anti-Christian rumors.” He’s a truly wonderful man, and he’ll survive this.
The saddest part is what it says about the scholarship and integrity of some in the field of journalism, and some media giants, like the Washington Post, and CBS News.
I’m still waiting for a response to my query, the credible source upon which hangs, for this writer, the integrity of the Washington Post.
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Theresa E. Carpinelli is a homeschooling single parent and the host of Truth Matters
* Breaking News
After yesterday’s article came to public notice, and after the article above was already written, Jose Antonio Vargas from the Washington Post contacted me. He said that he only learned of my attempts to contact him on Friday, February 4. He told me that he had found the charge that “priests roamed the streets hanging people” on several different websites, and that he had intended to verify it during his conversation with Dr. Marty, and thought he had.
Since Dr. Marty was unaware of the allegation before I emailed him for the first time on January 22, he was certainly not made clearly aware of Mr. Vargas’s intention at the time of their conversation. As Dr. Marty wrote, “There's no way a historian is going to agree to a bill of particulars about an event of 250 years ago from a nation whose history he has never studied without checking sources.”
Mr. Vargas has expressed great concern over this matter, and indicated that anti-Catholicism was in no way his motive something I am inclined to believe, as his distress over that aspect of it seems most genuine.
Still, I have confirmed what I set out to confirm: There is no credible source for the allegation that “priests roamed the streets hanging people” after the 1755 Lisbon disaster. In addition, I have found that:
• Mr. Vargas did not originate the allegation.Mr. Vargas has not been served well, nor have readers of the Washington Post been served well, by the sloppiness of their communication system. The Post should correct its method for notifying its writers when there is a problem with an article. It should not have taken over 3 weeks for my query to get a response.
• Dr. Marty was not the source of the allegation
• The information came from less-than-credible Internet sources, one of which was Wikipedia. Wikipedia may be the original source, since many of the sites that Mr. Vargas further informed me he used also listed Wikipedia as their source.
I stand by my position that the Post has a duty to print a retraction. In the interest of justice, it should also be sent to every newspaper around the country that picked up Mr. Vargas’s original article. Even though the information was “out there” long before Mr. Vargas published it in the Post, it was not “in the Post” before this. Now that it has been published in the Post, it has been picked up by many more outlets than it would have had it remained on the less-than-credible Internet sites.