There was an article in the news this past week about some successful efforts to address the problems caused by misinformation in the media. According to the news article, the national educational curriculum in Finland for grades pre-K through 12 requires teachers to help their students identify misleading information in news media and social media.
There are only a little more than 5 million people in the world who speak the Finnish language (that’s about 25% of the population of Florida). This provides classroom teachers in Finland with an advantage not available in other countries; they can point out to their students that grammatical errors are often an indication that a news article was composed by a non-native author; these news items tend to be published for the purpose of spreading false information.
In addition to this unique advantage provided by the Finnish language, classroom teachers ask their students to examine the influence that social media and the circulation of popular rumors has on one’s interpretation of news reporting. The article in this past week’s news reported that many students were surprised to learn that the impression conveyed by a popular social media outlet about a recent political scandal in Finland was intentionally misleading, despite the publication of verifiable facts in the print media.
False or misleading information can cause confusion and fear in every aspect of one’s life, including religion. It’s possible, for example, for religious beliefs or practices to be used to give the impression that other individuals or groups are undeserving of respect. During Jesus’ lifetime, the Pharisees used their religious practices as an excuse to pass judgment on others; there are people today who do the same thing.
How, then, does one learn to distinguish truthful information about religion from misinformation about religion? Today’s Gospel reading contains John the Baptist’s summary of his ministry and provides reliable guidance for us.
John the Baptist practiced what he preached. He preached repentance and wholehearted obedience to God. His life was an illustration and embodiment of his preaching. He renounced all attachments except to his vocation to prepare for the Savior God had promised.
While John carried out his mission, he was constantly on the watch for the One Whom God had promised. When he encountered Jesus, John gave testimony about him and pointed others to him. Eventually, his own disciples shifted their allegiance to Jesus. When that occurred, John was happy to fade from prominence.
Faithful religion focuses on God rather than self. Truthful religion preaches, then practices this principle. The Scriptures describe Jesus as the Truth; we participate in Truth when we follow his teachings. He said that the call to repentance is always addressed to the hearer and never to the people whom the hearer dislikes or disagrees with. He said that we are to treat people in the way we want to be treated because no one, particularly God, respects a double standard. He said that the most effective exercise of power is to grant forgiveness.
The next time someone tells you that your religious beliefs or practices are false, measure both the criticism and your beliefs against Jesus’ teaching. Do the same the next time you are tempted to tell someone that their religion is defective.
Any statement or example that does not accord with Jesus’ teaching is misinformation, and all the baptized have an obligation to avoid accepting misinformation about religion and to avoid spreading misinformation about religion.
Each person in this country enjoys the right to believe whatever they wish and practice any religion they choose. I support fully these political freedoms. Once one makes a commitment to be Catholic, however, one has chosen to embrace only Catholic values and practices. Every Catholic, therefore, has an obligation to understand the Catholic Faith and to give witness to the Truth by living according to the Catholic Faith; anything other than that is misinformation.