August 12, 2022 - 7:00am

Is Catholicism becoming cool again? According to the New York Times, America’s cultural capital is home to a thriving sub-culture of fashionista papists.

For hipsters, with their playful penchant for the old-fashioned (think: beer, beards etc), the Church is the retro mother-lode. Furthermore, in its baroque incarnation, the Catholic aesthetic provides a glorious antidote to minimalism, whose skeletal fingers are still wrapped around modernity’s throat. 

Julia Yost — the author of the NYT piece — fears that, ‘faith, to these trendsetting Catholics, may be partly a pose — a “LARP,” in internet slang.’ LARPing, by the way, stands for live action role playing, in which people dress up and play games in real world settings. So are people just playing games with Catholicism?

Sometimes, yes. A prime example was the 2018 Met Gala — when the theme that year was “The Catholic Imagination”. Katie Perry graced the event as an angel, while Sarah Jessica Parker appeared to have a small shrine perched upon her head. Most notoriously, Rihanna rocked up in a dress that combined full papal regalia with corsetry and a mini-skirt — a look that captured front-pages the world over. 

And yet, as Niall Gooch points out for UnHerd, there’s also a long history of genuine conversions among the literati and glitterati. As he explains, it’s not just the dazzling aesthetics that have led so many to make the journey from Bohemia to Rome. There’s also the uncompromising contrast between Catholic doctrine and secular relativism — and, ultimately, the offer of salvation to a society that can neither admit nor satisfy the need for it. 

Nevertheless, I look upon the hipster converts with amazement — not because I’m not a Catholic, but because I am one. Specifically, I’m an English Catholic — brought up in a Church that has deliberately stripped itself of its aesthetic and doctrinal richness. Not for us the musical legacy of Gregorian chant or the towering achievement of sacred classical tradition. Instead, we get the dispiriting pap of the modern “folk mass”.

The English Church is less to blame for its architecture. After some unpleasantness in the 16th century, it found itself relieved of its old buildings — and in most areas it wasn’t until the 20th century before it could start building new churches. Thus many of us find ourselves worshipping in modernist sheds. 

There’s rather less excuse for the preaching — or the lack of it. While outsiders might assume that we endure weekly fire-and-brimstone sermons from raging Irish priests, the reality is altogether different. Imagine an extended Radio Four Thought for the Day slot — minus the oratorical ability. The Church may have two thousand years of profound theological thought to draw upon, but what the average churchgoer gets is 10 minutes of meandering vagueness on peace or some other uncontroversial subject. 

Of course, the essentials are still there in the seven sacraments. And the most challenging doctrines of the Church, though rarely mentioned, are still on the books: they have not been — and cannot be — removed. 

Nevertheless, in presenting itself to outsiders the Church has systematically un-weirded itself. For the most part the gaudy exterior has gone, replaced with a dull facade. If LARPing is about escaping into a more exciting parallel world — then the contemporary church has pioneered the anti-LARP: a carefully constructed, but less diverting, version of modernity. 

If the Church wants to grow again then it must stop making boredom a test of faith.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.