by Peter Franklin
Friday, 12
August 2022
Debate
07:00

Catholicism needs to get weird again

The Church is losing followers because it has become boring
by Peter Franklin
The Second Pope

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.

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Ray Mullan
Ray Mullan
1 month ago

I wholeheartedly agree although I would use ‘mystical’ rather than ‘weird’ which sits ill with notions of devotion much as terms like ‘fashion’ and ‘trend’ are similarly repugnant.

In decommissioning the Tridentine Mass, the patronising social engineers of Vatican II made the same error that Marxists always do, which is to assume that proles must have everything laid out as mundane and easy to follow functions. In doing so, they overlooked the vital sense of liturgy whereas, Protestant–stylee, the heap of interminable prayer in the vulgar tongue simply atomised the Communion — making boredom a test of faith as it is so concisely put above the line.

This, of course, is the perverse and special oeuvre of Marxism: at a stroke destroying the integrity of a Rite which one could partake of anywhere in the world regardless of language or cultural background.

But, as noted above and elsewhere on UnHerd, we have been here before: back in the ’80s and ’90s it was ‘a thing’ to spot pop stars like Robert Smith of The Cure and Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys attending Tridentine Mass at The Brompton Oratory in London. I did so, myself — attend Mass there, I mean, not the fanboy thing — and the effect of absolutely letting go of the everyday for an hour was, literally, a balm to my soul.

Fast forward to the lunacy of Wu ’flu when we had a sanitiser dispenser instead of holy water in the narthex, pews alternately blocked off with yellow and black crime scene tape, social distancing lines on the tiles, no choir and the celebrant ostentatiously sanitising his hands on the altar (face nappy and visor, to boot) before sharing Communion.

When they started taking bookings for the midnight Nativity celebrations (no more than fifty, mind), the Marxist defilement of Church Rites, for me, was complete.

Incidentally, I have also been beating my breast on the piece by Niall Gooch so please excuse me if I don the mantle of this week’s Papist troll.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ray Mullan
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago
Reply to  Ray Mullan

You got it!

Ruud van Man
Ruud van Man
1 month ago

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the UK. Christianity is falling off a cliff. Islam is uncompromising (to the point of lethality) and utterly confident in its claims. Touchy-feely Christianity (especially Anglicanism) tries to accommodate mutually exclusive positions. People like the confidence that Islam offers and ridicule the wishy-washy thinking emanating from the Christian churches. I feel fairly certain that if the Catholic church were to revert to its more dogmatic stance of yesteryear and reintroduce more of its old devotions (including the Latin Mass) it could see a resurgence in interest.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago
Reply to  Ruud van Man

The zeal that motivates a man to try to behead Salman Rushdie in front of an audience is the one that will carry the day in the end.

Andrew Blake
Andrew Blake
1 month ago

Peter, agree very much with your general point, and sorry to hear that your church has adopted all the anti-traditional trimmings. (Actually) Solemn Mass, and chant-driven Sunday Vespers, are available at my local Cathedral, and we’re all the better for it. While these services are in play ‘modernity’ goes on outside, and it can stay there.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 month ago

If Catholicism is getting too mainstream for you again, come over to Orthodoxy. We’ve never been mainstream in the West, and we’re still pretty weird. (And no, we don’t all do our services in Greek.)

Last edited 1 month ago by Brian Villanueva
David Werling
David Werling
1 month ago

I studied to be a Catholic priest for six years (from 1988 to 1994). I attended the Pontifical College Josephinum (Columbus, Ohio), while Blaise Cupich (currently the Archbishop of Chicago) was the school’s rector. I’m going to be frank. I left the seminary (only a few months before my deaconate ordination) because a openly and active gay man from my diocese was ordained a deacon even though the school and his bishop knew he was not chaste. It seemed like the height of hypocrisy, and to be honest it was pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I tried to stay faithful, though, and even went through a couple of decades of being a “traditional Latin Mass Catholic”, but it eventually became clear, especially after the election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope, that traditionalism was simply not respected and no longer reflected the reality of the institutional Church. The going joke, which isn’t really funny at all, is that the only people who get excommunicated in the modern Church are traditionalists (i.e. The Society of St. Pius X).
The problem isn’t an aesthetic one. Its a problem of substance. The trajectory of the 20th century Church was toward modernism. Modernism, lest we forget, was condemned as heresy in the early 20th Century by Pope St. Pius X, but the modernists were stubborn and efficient, using the liturgical movement of the mid-twentieth century to recruit priests, theologians, and bishops. The modernists rose to power at Vatican II, and substantially (in the philosophical sense) changed the nature of the Catholic Church.
When I was in seminary, we were required to take classes at local Protestant seminaries. I was nineteen years old, and had never been in a Lutheran church. When I saw the lay out of the Lutheran chapel, I told my friend: “Hey, they stole that from us.” He looked at me and laughed. “No… we stole that from them.” After that I realized that everything after Vatican II has been the Catholic Church appropriating all things Protestant, to the extent that today there’s no visible difference between a Catholic church, liturgy, etc., from mainstream Protestant churches. The sad fact of the matter is that if St. Charles Borromeo were to visit a Catholic church today, he wouldn’t recognize it as Catholic.
There’s no real difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, which begs the question: Why put up with all the Catholic baggage (celibacy, the papacy, etc., etc., etc…) if there’s nothing different or special about being Catholic? Why put up with the sex scandals, the conflicting messaging regarding abortion, and especially the ban on artificial contraception?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago
Reply to  David Werling

Homosexuals had the same effect on the Catholic church as Himars on the Russian army of today. Once gay men were waved into the seminaries and its bacchanals by Vatican II,its fate was sealed.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
1 month ago

I don’t know whether Catholicism is cool and will leave the New York Times to ponder that mystery.

As far as I can see, what converts and young Catholics want is reverent worship and moral clarity.

Ted Brennan
Ted Brennan
1 month ago

It was exactly for these reasons that I switch from Roman to Anglo-Catholic over a year ago. I have not regretted it for a single moment. The (Anglo) sermons are far more spiritual and thought provoking (perhaps ‘weird’ in modern parlance?), and thankfully the overly sentimental folk tunes have been banished. My old Roman parish was exclusively focussed on social issues, so much so that the newsletter started to look like the front page of the Guardian. The priest never shied away from letting us know where his political allegiances lay.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
1 month ago
Reply to  Ted Brennan

Thank you – wise man.

Peter Walker
Peter Walker
1 month ago

One of the minor mysteries of the RCC is where and why it lost its majestic aesthetic sensibility. The church of Brunelleschi and Buonarotti today can’t find its way out of a paper bag, artistically speaking. Example? The newer mosaics in Westminster Cathedral. The cathedral’s Edwardian mosaics were not bad simulacra of Byzantine originals. The new ones have the tawdry glitter of a Twix wrapping, and about as much force and power. Why is this?
It is only a minor puzzle, and for me the central rite of the Eucharist is as astounding as ever, but you do wonder why the modern clergy are uninterested. Creativity and beauty are aspects of the divine just as much as morality.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago

Looking around at churches to attend a while back after moving to Portland, a desert of secularism and all-around weirdness,we found nothing but the nicely described “modernist sheds.” Inside, where the altar would be in olden times, was a drum kit, keyboard and large screens for text and hymns that rendered bibles and such arcana unnecessary.The pastor, who spurned the title in favor of Chuck, his first name, was also on the keyboard and skins. It was all very sad.

Wyatt W
Wyatt W
1 month ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

While I’m more a fan of tradition as well, what is really biblically wrong about those things? Isn’t it just preference as long as they’re theologically following the Word?

Last edited 1 month ago by wyattwergin
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
1 month ago
Reply to  Wyatt W

Something deep and profound is lost when the mystery leaves the room like Elvis.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

The Church and the world are crying out for Ignatian spirituality, and for “men for others”. But what goes around, comes around. This Pope is already 85. His successor might be, so to speak, Clement XV, to whom an aversion to what might be seen as churches within the Church was not only sauce for the goose, but also sauce for the gander.

We all know the meaning of the dread phrase, “consultation exercise”. Lo and behold, in preparation for a Synod that no one would bet on ever meeting, practically every diocese in the Western world, and certainly every one in this country, has managed to produce the same document more or less word for word, in perfect conformity to the undergraduate experience of its signatories half a century ago. Why, it is as if they had been assembled by Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

Should it ever make it that far, then this would all be laughed out by Africa, Asia, and much of Latin America. The Global South leads, not only its own liberation struggle, but also that of the internal colonies such as those which rose up in 2019 against the imperialist yoke that expressed itself as the right wing of the British Labour Party, a faction that is symbiotically related to the liberal wing of the Catholic Church in what were once their common heartlands.

Across the English-speaking West, at least, wherever they have both been strong historically, then the liberal wing of the Church and the right wing of the notionally leftish party are essentially and effectively a single entity, vicious and corrupt, sexually depraved in general and pederastic in particular, violently anti-intellectual, the colonial oppressor at home in league with the colonial oppressors abroad.

Mercifully, that is a vanishing world, although it is all the more spiteful for its knowledge of its impending fate. It has all been burned as per, but over 50 priests, mostly young or youngish, independently wrote to me in prison, often saying exactly what they thought of, well, let’s not. On my release, there were emails in my inbox from three times that many, including from every diocese in Great Britain and from every continent except Antarctica. And that was just the priests. Then there were the political activists, also mostly young or youngish. In both cases, I was surprised that a lot of those letters ever reached my cell.

I had had no idea until then, having always assumed myself to have been a romantically obscure figure who might at best have hoped to have become influential in death, but it turned out that my decades of beavering away in the cause of Catholic orthodoxy as the only reliable basis for the radical politics that in turn followed inescapably from it had not gone unnoticed.

I had known that I had had at least played some part in the conversions of a certain number of orthodox Catholics to the struggle for economic equality and for international peace, and of a few activists on the Left to Catholic orthodoxy. I had also been told from time to time that meeting or reading me had crystallised what people had already been thinking. But it came as a complete revelation that I was so valued by hundreds, most of them younger than I was.

If you know anything about either Catholic orthodoxy or radical politics, then you must have taught yourself, since you would certainly never have been introduced to either of them on a school curriculum, and probably not even as part of the formal content of a university degree. The rising generation has never known life without the Internet, and since the same or similar disaffection would lead its members to go in search of what turned out to be each of Catholic orthodoxy and radical politics, then it is not surprising that a certain number of them are arriving at both. They then begin to formulate a synthesis. To my utter astonishment, I do appear to be an influential figure in that phenomenon of the age.

Be in no doubt that we are the future, one way or another. 50 years’ time is the very latest that I might remotely realistically be alive. Here in Britain, for example, either we shall have won by then, or we shall have been driven underground or into exile, those of us who were not in prison or martyred. And 50 years after that, and 50 years after that again, and so on until we had prevailed.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

my favourite ‘ lateral’ Catholic tale, from a certain Old Amplefordian Scots Guards officer many moons ago during the Belfast marching season, had the loyalist Orangemen cheering ” Dont mess with the SAS”, when they spotted his ‘ straight wings’…. His comment ” They would hate to know that they are cheering a Pape Taig, but they simply can’t be that thick not to know that David Stirling was one too”!!!

Molly Bennett
Molly Bennett
1 month ago

WHY DO “THE KNOW ALLS” PROFESS TO SPEAK FOR THE MAJORITY ! MOST CATHOLICS I KNOW ARE WELL INFORMED INTELLIGENT PEOPLE WHO HAVE CHOSEN THE PATH THEY WANT TO FOLLOW !!!!!!, FOR THOSE WHO DONT RECOGNISE THE WORD……FREEDOM……IT MEANS YOU ARE INFORMED AND INTELLIGENT ENOUGH TO MAKE A DECISION OF YOU OWN CHOICE !!!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago

Time for a female Pope, a Mama not a Papa. That should do the trick.

Ray Mullan
Ray Mullan
1 month ago

Charles, assuming grim irony I upped your count.

Mortal despair tends to trump humour and I sense a great many grumpy Catholics about.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago
Reply to  Ray Mullan

The Ancient Roman position of “Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, “greatest of the Vestals”, arguably carried almost as much prestige as the ‘Pontifex Maximus’.
Perhaps it is time for a sort of duopoly to keep the Coven of Gorgons that so plague this planet at bay?
I completely agree! the loss of the Tridentine Mass was an utter disaster and should be returned forthwith, for what is a Church without the ‘voice of authority’?

Ray Mullan
Ray Mullan
1 month ago

Perhaps it is time for a sort of duopoly to keep the Coven of Gorgons that so plague this planet at bay?

You’re mad, you are. Quite insane. Save yourself and find solace in Corinthians I, 14:34 — that or a few stiff whiskies and some bedrest or possibly both. Come back and see me in a week if the symptoms persist.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago
Reply to  Ray Mullan

Wilco!