Sins of Omission

Far-right Catholic media spreads COVID-19 misinformation.
A rally in New York, November 29, 2020 (G. Ronald Lopez/Alamy Stock Photo)

LifeSiteNews calls itself the number-one pro-life news website, a place where journalistic accuracy is “given high priority.” It aims “to dispel confusion and ignorance, enable constructive dialogue and help informed decisions to be made and appropriate actions to be taken for the good of all,” according to the “LifeSiteNews Principles.”

But when it comes to reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, LifeSiteNews is a superspreader of confusion, not an antidote. In tightly written prose, it mimics journalism by reporting on scientific data and studies, but so selectively as to be highly misleading. The takeaways from this skewed coverage include: don’t wear face masks; don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine; view the pandemic as a tool of the elite to achieve global political domination.

This is standard fare in far-right and anti-vaccine circles, but LifeSiteNews (which publishes a “Catholic Edition”) and similarly minded Catholic media appeal to their followers with the powerful additive of a common religious faith. Looking through some popular Catholic websites, I found that Catholic Family News will tell you the pandemic ended months ago. Another benignly named site, Catholic Parents Online, showcases a priest preaching that COVID-19 “is a man-made virus” and falsely claiming that it didn’t cause a large majority of the deaths authorities attribute to it. (It’s been viewed nearly 600,000 times on YouTube.) Church Militant bluntly urged churchgoers to rebel against wearing masks during services. In segments I listened to, other popular outlets such as the Catholic Answers forum at Catholic.com and Relevant Radio presented lopsided views of the scientific evidence that would lead their listeners away from the small sacrifice of wearing a protective face mask.

The inclination is to look away, but that would ignore the damage done. These sites alone garnered more than 6 million visits in January, according to data compiled by SimilarWeb analytics. A lot of bad information is being passed out by organizations that claim to speak in the name of Catholic orthodoxy.

To Dr. Paul Carson, a professor of infectious diseases at North Dakota State University who is active in Catholic medical organizations and a regular guest on the EWTN radio show Doctor, Doctor (which gave sound advice in the segments I listened to), it makes no sense. “This has been one of the most troubling things to me,” he said in a telephone interview. “My Catholic brothers and sisters who are normally adamantly pro-life cannot see this sort of denial and lack of sense of solidarity with other parts of the population, like the elderly.”

Carson, an advisor to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on COVID-19, said he hears Catholic friends minimize the danger of the virus by saying of its victims, “Well, they’re old and sick.” In response, he quotes St. John Paul II’s call for a sense of solidarity that “demands a readiness to accept sacrifices necessary for the good of the whole world community.”

“That’s what Catholics are about, sacrificing for each other,” he told me. “This is in our wheelhouse. This is what Catholics do.”

What they have done, Francis says, is take the idea of personal freedom “and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.”

Pope Francis writes much the same in his book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, based on his conversations with journalist Austen Ivereigh. “Some of the protests during the coronavirus crisis have brought to the fore an angry spirit of victimhood, but this time among people who are victims only in their imagination: those who claim, for example, that being forced to wear a mask is an unwarranted imposition by the state,” Francis writes. What they have done, he adds, is take the idea of personal freedom “and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.” Within the Church, the pope says, some priests and laypeople “turned into a cultural battle what was in truth an effort to ensure the protection of life.”

Pope Francis is anathema at LifeSiteNews, which elevates the renegade Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to nearly papal status. Through a series of letters that LifeSiteNews and other far-right Catholic media treat as major papal encyclicals, Viganò has pushed, in all its paranoia, the ideology that Francis has called out.

“Public health must not, and cannot, become an alibi for infringing on the rights of millions of people around the world, let alone for depriving the civil authority of its duty to act wisely for the common good,” says one Viganò letter, co-signed by LifeSiteNews editor-in-chief John-Henry Westen and several other members of the Catholic media. “This is particularly true as growing doubts emerge from several quarters about the actual contagiousness, danger and resistance of the virus.”

By the time Viganò released this missive in early May, there could be no doubt about the “contagiousness” and “danger” of the virus: 76,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the United States and 30,000 had died in Italy, home to many of the co-signers Viganò rounded up. Of course, those deaths have multiplied many times since then. The letter, published under the URL veritasliberabitvos.info (“the truth will set you free”) went offline after November 20, as the death count soared.

As the website made clear, Viganò adds his version of the Catholic faith tradition to the already inflammatory mix of false claims advanced by extremists who view COVID-19 as a prelude to a “world government beyond all control.” He places the fight under the triumphant banner of the Risen Christ, pictured on the homepage of the website.

 

That’s the outlook at LifeSiteNews, extending even to the question of when and where the public should be required to wear face masks. Its website features an anti-mask petition that has more than 110,000 signatures. “Healthy adults and children should not be forced—by the state—to wear masks when the risk of infection is low and the benefit of wearing a mask is highly questionable,” it declares, linking to a two-part series that LifeSiteNews managing director Steve Jalsevac published in late July as evidence.

The articles are accurate in showing that the number of weekly deaths from COVID-19 had dropped to low levels by July. But they were deadly wrong in citing—unchallenged—claims that there was no longer a reason to fear the virus, contrary to the dire warnings of public-health authorities. When Jalsevac’s series ran at the end of July, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States had just passed 150,000—a tally that would triple within a little more than six months, much as public health authorities warned. It was typical of the coverage LifeSiteNews does: it feigns journalistic accuracy, but misleads through omission.

Its coverage feigns journalistic accuracy, but LifeSiteNews misleads through omission.

“People will go out and cherry pick and find these things that aren’t supported in any way by the broader public health and medical community,” Carson told me.

LifeSiteNews is expert at this, time and again citing studies or raw data without the context journalists are supposed to seek out, especially in reporting on a life-and-death matter of public health. (LifeSiteNews didn’t respond to requests for comment.) I can see how a lot of people would be taken in.

For example, LifeSiteNews offers a “LifeFacts” page on “Unmasking Masks.” Under the headline “Spread the Truth,” it selectively cites peer-reviewed studies. They’re valid studies, but they shouldn’t stand alone. One listing refers readers to a 2005 study called “Disposable Surgical Face Masks: a Systematic Review,” which was updated most recently in 2016. It examines whether masks are effective in preventing clean surgical wounds from becoming infected during surgery. Marie Vincent, one of the researchers, told me by email that, published years before the pandemic, the study had nothing to do with COVID-19. “It does not at all suggest that it is unnecessary for the public to wear face masks to prevent transmission of coronavirus,” she wrote.

Then there is a Danish study that found mask-wearing reduced COVID-19 infections somewhat—but not significantly—in people recommended to wear masks outside their home. It’s on LifeSiteNews’s list of mask “LifeFacts,” and the subject of a long article that devolves into conspiracy theories. What the article could have used, however, was not a riff on Prince Charles and the purported global conspiracy behind the coronavirus crisis, but a phone call to the lead author of the study, who told the Washington Post that beyond self-protection, it was necessary to wear a mask to avoid transmitting the virus to others:

“We think you should wear a face mask at least to protect yourself, but you should also use it to protect others,” lead author Henning Bundgaard told The Washington Post. “We consider that the conclusion is we should wear face masks.”

Bundgaard said even the small risk reduction that masks offer “is very important, considering it is a life-threatening disease.”

Jalsevac’s article cites a May 2020 policy review for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of previous randomized control studies that found face masks had “no significant effect” on transmission of influenza. So why did the CDC (which posts the study on its website), and later the World Health Organization, recommend that asymptomatic people wear masks during the pandemic?

Benjamin Cowling, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Hong Kong University, told me by email that “there is plenty of evidence of other types (for example laboratory studies) that masks should work.” You can find these on the CDC website as well. Dozens of observational studies scrutinize the mechanics of how the masks function and how the coronavirus is spread. That’s why the CDC wants people to wear masks—based on the evidence. And, as Cowling indicated, it’s why the same scientists who did the May 2020 study also recommended to the WHO that asymptomatic people wear face masks, a position the WHO adopted in July.

It is true that the scientific evidence regarding masks is complex and that, early on, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public-health authorities opposed having the general public wear them (because there weren’t enough masks for medical personnel, and it wasn’t clear yet that asymptomatic people could transmit the virus, Fauci has said). For journalists, it calls for careful reporting that puts individual studies into context, and certainly not a default to theories about global political plots.

 

One might expect that media describing themselves as pro-life would resolve any doubts in favor of preserving human life. But the coverage I observed on LifeSiteNews and other far-right Catholic news websites is so slanted that anyone relying on it would be terribly misled on what the science shows.

It’s such contorted logic: the “spiritual” people are the ones willing to risk spreading a deadly disease to avoid personal inconvenience.

They’ve struggled to come up with a moral basis for their battle against the public-health authorities. One strain of thought in far-right Catholic media is that unlike godless, materialistic liberals, “for conservatives, there are values worth more than life itself,” as a LifeSiteNews commentary on the mask controversy put it. “More important, there is life after death. There is no frantic effort to avoid all risks of death but rather the reasonable weighing of threats, taking measures that do not blot out the permanent things that are so necessary for life.” It’s such contorted logic: the “spiritual” people are the ones willing to risk spreading a deadly disease to avoid personal inconvenience.

Of course, from early on, the controversy around masking and other anti-coronavirus health measures has been heavily politicized. A large swath of conservative Catholic media buys into the claim that the pandemic was used to embarrass President Donald Trump as he campaigned for reelection. That COVID-19 could do so is Trump’s own doing: the pandemic offered him the opportunity to show the leadership he’d failed to exhibit in the first three years in office, to be virtually a wartime president. Instead, he continued his erratic style of leadership, to disastrous effect.

The Trump-as-victim narrative is explicit in “Mask Mania: Emblem of Loyalty to the Party of COVID,” which the traditionalist Catholic Family News published in September. Written by Christopher Ferrara, president of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, it began with a colossal error:

By every objective measure, the COVID-19 pandemic is over. In fact, it has been over since late May, although the lying media and their Blue State governor accomplices have been laboring mightily to convince the gullible masses that the `pandemic’ is worse than ever, conducting what is easily the biggest Psyop in the history of disinformation.

What the data on the CDC website actually show is that the deaths came nowhere near to ending in May. They dropped from 38,155 that month to 17,092 in June, but then shot up to 30,961 in July and 29,693 in August. December’s monthly total of 92,325 deaths was more than triple that.

Nevertheless, Ferrara explained, the pandemic was over because “once peak deaths are reached, an epidemic rapidly wanes toward zero. Every time.” He concluded, “Politics, and politics alone, is behind the mask mania that has suddenly gripped the nation.” (Ferrara didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

With the death toll approaching half-a-million in mid-February, Church Militant commentary went so far as to call for churchgoers to refuse to wear masks during services. “Too many people—Catholics especially—are just accepting at face value the words of child-killers and those who helped get them into power. You have a duty to stand up to this wherever you can, especially in Church. Just simply refuse to wear a mask in the House of God.”    

I asked Gloria Purvis, a Catholic pro-life speaker and writer who formerly hosted EWTN’s Morning Glory radio show, why some Catholic pro-life activists are doing this.

“What has happened—I see this sort of infection, as I call it, pervading a lot of commentary—is people allow politics to influence their faith,” she told me. “So too often COVID was placed in a position of either you’re with this side or against this side...instead of a perspective of love your neighbor.” 

She said it makes no sense that someone who is supposed to be pro-life would shrink from the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask to protect others; in a small way, wearing a mask is doing a corporal work of mercy.

Purvis, who works with women experiencing crisis pregnancies, said they often choose to give birth despite great financial difficulty they face. “In comparison, to wear a mask?” she said. “I mean, that’s so small.”

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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