Emily Stimpson, bless her, once swatted down a story I’ve heard my whole life. Stimpson says:
[T]he election of our wonderful new Holy Father, Pope Francis, has triggered an avalanche of people talking about the first Francis and his injunction to, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”
But see, here’s the thing. St. Francis never said that. We don’t know who did. But it wasn’t Francis. It’s not in any of his known writings. It’s not in any of his companions’ writings. It’s not in anyone’s writings about Francis for the first 800 or so years after his death.
Someone invented the quote and put it into poor St. Francis’ mouth. And ever since then, people have used it as an excuse to not evangelize with words, to not have the uncomfortable conversations or say the unpopular things.
I have also learned, to my great relief, that there is no compelling reason to believe that St. Francis ever wrote the spiritually flaccid “Make me a channel of your peace” prayer.
We can assume that these misattributions were honest mistakes: somebody once upon a time said something that somebody else liked, and somebody else said, “Hey, that sounds like something St. Francis would say,” and somebody else took it to mean that St. Francis did say it, and so on, like a centuries-long game of telephone. But no matter what the intentions, sloppiness with attributions can lead to real trouble, especially if the person to whom the quote is misattributed has some influential heft.
Even if you’re sure you have your attribution right, quoting people rightly can be tricky. A few days ago, someone posted an inspirational image on Facebook. Before a backdrop of cattails in the sunset, it said in golden script,
“It is in God’s hands. One must be content to leave it there. One must have Faith.” — C.S. Lewis
Something about that chewy use of the impersonal “one” made a gong go off in my head. Did C.S. Lewis really say that? The sentiment was too vague to be called false, exactly, but it sounded . . . chewy. So I looked it up, and it turns out the quote is from Perelandra, where Elwin Ransom has been transported to an unfallen planet ruled by an unfallen Lady and her absent husband. To Ransom’s horror, Hell has sent a representative to try to tempt the Lady into defying God. It describes the thoughts that go through Ransom’s mind as he figures out what to do next — what God (Maleldil) wants from him. The quote in question is in bold:
He, Ransom, with his ridiculous piebald body and his ten times defeated arguments – what sort of a miracle was that? His mind darted hopefully down a side-alley that seemed to promise escape. Very well then. He had been brought here miraculously.He was in God’s hands. As long as he did his best – and he had done his best – God would see to the final issue. He had not succeeded. But he had done his best. No one could do more. “‘Tis not in mortals to command success.’ He must not be worried about the final result. Maleldil would see to that. And Maleldil would bring him safe back to Earth after his very real, though unsuccessful, efforts. Probably Maleldil’s real intention was that he should publish to the human race the truths he had learned on the planet Venus. As for the fate of Venus, that could not really rest upon his shoulders. It was in God’s hands. One must be content to leave it there. One must have Faith ….
It snapped like a violin string. Not one rag of all this evasion was left. Relentlessly, unmistakably, the Darkness pressed down upon him the knowledge that this picture of the situation was utterly false. His journey to Perelandra was not a moral exercise, nor a sham fight. If the issue lay in Maleldil’s hands, Ransom and the Lady were those hands. The fate of a world really depended on how they behaved in the next few hours.
So, yeah, Lewis said that, in the same way that Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true”: through the mouth of a character who’s immediately proven wrong. It was not a recommended course of action; it was an illustration of the sort of lies we can tell ourselves when we’re trying to get out of something. Attributing the shorter quote to C.S. Lewis without context is only half a step above the Hollywood promoter who prints posters that say, “Critics say ‘[Y]ou’ll love this movie! It’s full of … good scenes!”‘” when the critic’s actual words were, “If you’re a grade A moron, you’ll love this movie! It’s full of nonsense, and has no good scenes!”
And of course, some people don’t even bother to be technically accurate. Have you heard the story that Pope Francis, when handed the papal mozzetta, said waspishly, “Wear it yourself! The circus is over.” That quote turned out to be made up out of whole cloth, either by someone who really did regard Benedict XVI as some kind of bling-happy, medieval vulgarian, or by someone who maliciously wanted to portray Francis as someone who saw Benedict that way. Either way, there is no evidence that Francis said it — and, more importantly, there is no evidence that he is the kind of person who would say something like that.
As Shakespeare once said, there’s the rub. Consider the purported source. Listen to your spidey sense. If you see a quote by a famous person, and it either sounds the tiniest bit “off” to you — or, conversely, if it makes you think, “Oh man, that’s exactly the kind of thing I knew he was thinking all along, and now we’ve got him” — then think, and do a little research, before you forward it to all your friends!
As Marie Antoinette once said, “Famous people say enough stupid things on their own without you making stuff up.” Well, I bet it sounds better in French.
This post originally ran in a slightly different form in The National Catholic Register in 2013.