The Other Men in Black

I have a confession to make. I spend a lot of time on YouTube. I used to lecture my kids about the evils of television, calling it a “vast wasteland” à la Newton Minow, but I spend even more time on YouTube, which is worse. Sure, there are educational videos. You can learn about the French Revolution, take a particle physics course at MIT, get the latest news from Nairobi, and watch a royal wedding, which I did early Saturday morning, but it also contains a bunch of–what would be le mot juste?–merde. Pardon my français.

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)

I’m not talking about fake news, although in that regard I am a free marketer. Don’t censor anyone or any opinion. Let the public decide issues on their own after weighing the strengths and weaknesses of all arguments, even ridiculous ones. People aren’t stupid despite what elites around the world think. And for God’s sake stop feeding us high fructose news that is sickly sweet and addictive but empty of substance.

Even so, there are real loons on YouTube. I wouldn’t censor them or block their accounts, because they offer insight into how people can be fooled by bias and specious reasoning. Or no reasoning at all. Take the Jesuits, for instance. I bring them up, because I just came back from a week-long meeting in Rome with leaders of the order that included trips to the Gesù, their mother church in Rome, and the order’s archives. It has been interesting to see how they are characterized on YouTube.

The Jesuits were founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier who was wounded, experienced a religious conversion, and became a priest. By the time he died in 1556, the order had more than a thousand priests with missions in South America, Asia, Africa, and India. To this day, they are renowned for their work in education and social justice and their rigorous formation program. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, referred to them in his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, as “monsters of efficiency” in black cassocks. They are known as the “men in black” and their superior general as the “black pope.” Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope.

On the whole, I find Jesuits to be smart, generous, self-sacrificing, humble, and professional. By professional, I mean they resemble New Yorkers in their intolerance of merde. Think of Jesuits as New Yorkers who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. You can put your life in their hands; just don’t waste their time. If not monsters of efficiency, then maybe goblins.

Still, this does not justify portraying them, as I have seen on YouTube, as architects of the New World Order, the shock troops of Satan, accomplices of the Masons in a conspiracy of world conquest, the power behind an international cabal of bankers, or extraterrestrials from a distant star. Normally, I would say that this is the work of delusional or misguided individuals. The problem is that it’s all over YouTube. The videos are often slick, reflecting money and a great deal of technical if not exactly artistic effort.

How do you get though the bias and vitriol? One way might be to let people know about the schools, hospitals, youth centers, and urban and rural development projects the Jesuits are involved in on every continent. Unfortunately, bias doesn’t respond to facts, as is evident in the current political shenanigans in Washington, DC. So, what is to be done? Before any solutions are offered, we have to figure out the problem. There is something about conspiratorial thinking that attracts certain people. When you add the Catholic Church and men in black, it becomes even more compelling.

I don’t think this is about anti-Catholic prejudice as much as unease about the future. But then I have to ask, what else is new? This is why people looked to Jesuits in the first place–because they felt uneasy. It is a function of religion to help people cope with the unknown. And the unknown, like the poor, will always be with us. Can we deal with it without creating enemies that spring from our own unconscious? That’s precisely where these videos come from. Maybe they fill a need, maybe they help people. I would feel better knowing that they were done for entertainment or shock value.

This just might be a second wasteland.

You want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Feature photo of pope by Nacho Arteaga on Unsplash. Top photo, Ignatius’ bust; middle, his shoes; bottom, the room where he died. Photos taken by the author at the Church of Saint Ignatius in Rome, Campus Martius. 


  1. Nice pictures, Robert! I hope to make that trip one day. Catholics who hold strict, dogmatic beliefs in their faith are just as suspect as these authors of the videos. Any of Fr. James Martin’s Facebook posts have at least one person using “heretic” when Pope Francis says something challenging or even when Cardinal Dolan visited the Met Gala. US Council of Bishops had some unease at the beginning of Francis’ service as well. But, these videos are not from the same source of fear (loss of power or conviction), but more like a shadier Oliver Stone conspiracy film.

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