Are they beyond salvation?

The emergence of traditional Catholicism among Gen Z

Last year, traditional Catholics, or trad Caths, were brought to wider attention when The New York Times published the article “New York’s Hottest Club Is the Catholic Church.”

The piece, written by Julia Yost, senior editor at Christian journal First Things, centred around Manhatten’s Dimes Square scene, which Yost describes as a group of cool, hip young people discussing questions of theology, practising Christian rituals and donning conservative garb.

Trad Caths disseminate their message both through liturgical Latin and internet memes, discussing saints, scholars and sacraments. The trad Cath movement combines sanctity with sarcasm, creating an aesthetics-driven reinterpretation of the faith.

While Yost points out that some trad Caths may simply cosplay Catholicism as an act of transgression, she argues that there is a large contingent earnestly interested in reviving the faith among Gen Z.

In the past decade, popular celebrities have joined evangelical mega-churches, similar to Winnipeg’s Church of the Rock, with state-of-the-art technologies, a “down-toearth” pastor and a built-in Starbucks.

Where the trad Cath movement deviates from these mega churches is in its renunciation of the approachable in lieu of the distinctly unapproachable: the unknown and mystical.

Not unlike previous popularizations of Buddhism or vague pan-Indigenous spiritualism, the trad Cath movement often relies on the mystical and the magical shrouded in the unknown. But, whereas previous popularizations have clearly appropriative elements, Catholicism represents something that, for white people, blurs the lines of exoticism.

This mysticism is a far cry from my upbringing in the Catholic church. The heavy air of exoticism is in stark contrast to my memories of singing “great things happen when God mixes with us” in a retrograde elementary-school gymnasium to the tune of my Grade 3 teacher’s acoustic guitar.

My own association of Catholicism with corny singalongs is likely why I was shocked when I began to witness people around me discussing the faith.

My reaction to the movement was similar. I hypothesized that, in the face of modernity, a large swath of young people feel as if they do not have roots and are, in response, turning to a retrograde faith to gain some semblance of purpose. I saw it as a saddening reverse of the progressive values that seemed to be gaining widespread cultural acceptance.

Rightly, many have denounced the movement and Yost’s piece for attempting to cool the image of a group of reactionaries who are arguing for monarchism, a return to traditional gender roles, antisemitism and anti-2SLGBTQIA+ sentiments.

While these critiques are important, and the reactionary side of trad Caths is undeniably dangerous, I have been pointed in the direction of Simone Weil’s “Gravity and Grace,” the Catholic worker movement and Winnipeg’s own Geez magazine, which place Christian themes within progressive, leftist frames.

If it is true that young people are landing on Catholicism to provide them a semblance of control in the face of modern identity crises, maybe there is potential that the movement is not beyond salvation.

Patrick Harney is the comments editor at The Uniter.

Published in Volume 78, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 23, 2023)

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