It's taken nearly 2,000 years, but Catholicism is back in fashion
I don’t think even my closest or most loyal friends would accuse me of being at the cutting edge of fashion, in any sphere: intellectual, sartorial or cultural. As I write this I am wearing a twenty-year-old shirt; my favourite band is Dire Straits, while many of my political opinions are, as they say, not appropriate in this day and age.
However, it appears that I may after all have been an early adopter of this season’s hot new trend out of New York, namely Catholicism. I entered the Church in 2006. Now, a mere decade and a half later, this opinion piece in the New York Times claims that hip young gunslingers across NYC are showing up to Mass and Confession, praying the Rosary (a Catholic devotion dating back centuries), and adopting decidedly traditional views on abortion and divorce. This is supposedly an act of youthful rebellion against the insipid, shallow moralism of contemporary progressives.
We should probably not put too much stock in this supposed mini-revival, as the author herself recognises when she notes that full-blooded Catholicism is a demanding way of life, not merely a means of sticking up two fingers at a suffocating liberal consensus — fun as that is — or adopting a transgressive new aesthetic. The whole point about the kind of micro-trends that journalists love to identify is that they don’t last very long.
All the same, no matter how small the absolute numbers, we should not underestimate the enduring appeal of serious, crunchy religion to people who have become discontented by the triviality and emptiness of modern consumer societies. The NYT article mentions the Decadents, a loose association of late Victorian painters and poets which included Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, many of whom ended up becoming Christians as a repudiation of the excess of their early lives. Bosie Douglas, Wilde’s lover, converted to Catholicism a few years before the First World War, as did Wilde himself on his deathbed.
Later, there was another wave of intellectual conversions between the wars, including the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and the writers C.S. Lewis, Siegfried Sassoon, and T.S. Eliot, and ever since there has been a steady procession of erstwhile atheists or nominal believers finding their way to the Christian faith after the realisation that the alternative worldviews on offer — whether rooted in art, politics, or social reform — were unsatisfactory. Malcolm Muggeridge and Sir Kenneth Clark, two notable Catholic converts of the later twentieth century, had both had complicated personal lives before their reception, as did the American activist Dorothy Day.
You need not be a believing Christian to understand the reasons why people might become alienated from a society which manages to be at once both insistently libertine, and cruelly unforgiving in the application of an ever-shifting and vague moral code. We have blended the worst characteristics of Cavaliers & Roundheads, without their compensating virtues; we have indulgence without joie de vivre and tolerance, and grim censoriousness without moral seriousness.
I suspect that, whether or not they ultimately persist in adherence to Catholicism, what draws those young New Yorkers to the very ancient faith is its combination of rigour and mercy; a sense of weight and grandeur, coupled with a deeply humanistic understanding of our weakness and failures.
Some things never go out of fashion.