Before I moved to Washington, D.C., wrote for Playboy, and ran off with an ex-congresswoman—I wanted to be a Catholic monk.
Growing up deeply Catholic, those paradoxes aren’t as absurd as they sound. We even have clergy in the family. One of them, a friar named Solanus Casey, is nearly a Catholic saint. The Detroit holy man died in 1957 and was beatified by Pope Francis in 2017 after a Central American woman claimed he miraculously healed her genetic skin condition. (Technically, he’s one Vatican-confirmed miracle short of official sainthood.)
My ambitions of Holy Orders (the Catholic sacrament of entering the clergy) evaporated around the same time I soured on celibacy. But you get the ethos: I am among an exhausted group of individuals who call ourselves cradle Catholics.
We were born into Catholicism, many of us fell out of it by adulthood, and we’re the crowd actually in on the joke-not-told in articles like the recent New York Times column titled: “New York’s Hottest Club is the Catholic Church” or the Vox story from June which deemed Catholicism an “alt status symbol.”
The piece in the Gray Lady suggests the latest trend among the un-woke New York crowd is converting to Catholicism, but it’s more than that. Catholicism is hot right now among some unsavory people for precisely the wrong reasons. Every time you open Twitter, some trad-Cath (online echo-chamber parlance for traditional Catholic) is tweeting dusty dogmatisms that haven’t been relevant since the Spanish Inquisition.
Trad-Caths are a generally white, upper middle-class, urban crowd with a fetish for the “classical” church. In particular, they love the Latin Mass, a ritual which brings no added closeness to Christ—who spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and possibly Greek. But trad-Caths balk at the suggestion that Christ can be viewed as a historical figure.
Trad-Caths universally glamorize the church before the Second Vatican Council—also known as Vatican II—a conference in the 1960s in which the church belatedly endorsed some modern, liberal policies in the hopes of bringing itself out of the cruel and bloody Middle Ages.
One representative passage from the Documents of Vatican II expounds that “some nations with a majority of citizens who are counted as Christians have an abundance of this world’s goods, while others are deprived of the necessities of life and are tormented with hunger, disease and every kind of misery. This situation must not be allowed to continue.”
Those lines are official Catholic doctrine, but if recited today on Fox News they would be derided as rampant globalism. And they certainly fly in the face of the “America First” doctrine of the Trump-era nationalist right.
And as noted by the Times, some trad-Caths even ascribe to the idea of sedevacantism (this group loves inventing fancy nonsense-words) which holds that all popes since the Second Vatican Council are illegitimate. Other trad-Caths simply refer to themselves as “postliberal,” an ideology advancing no original ideas of its own but instead standing upon a rejection of modernism and liberalism.
There is no doubt that the trad-Cath movement is metastasizing and often dovetailing with Christian nationalism through the shared notion that “Western civilization” is at risk. In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, longtime trad-Cath Steve Bannon told attendees, “I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis.”
This fearmongering that “Western civilization” is under threat is a favorite talking point of Christian nationalists (not at all a new idea in America but one with a new set of spokespersons). The former GOP Rep. Steve King, an outspoken Christian and nationalist, was thrown off his committees after complaining to The New York Times, “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” Tucker Carlson, another Christian and nationalist has claimed the Black Lives Matter movement aims to “challenge Western civilization” and that “Western civilization is [George Soros’] target.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene—who rose to power and infamy as a QAnon-supporting GOP firebrand—has spent the past few months telling audiences that she’s a “Christian nationalist.” MTG, a megachurch-goer, is emblematic of the Christian nationalist movement which has been building in this country for decades, but coalesced behind Trump.
This vein of Christian nationalism was on display during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack—after storming onto the Senate floor, one of the rioters shouted “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” Moments later the group removed their hats as another prayed through a bullhorn: “Thank you heavenly father for being the inspiration needed…to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.” The Jesus Christ invoked by the would-be insurrectionists is the Jesus of the Christian nationalists.
A few days after the Capitol insurrection, Pope Francis told a Canadian news station, “This must be condemned, this movement, no matter who is involved in it." The current America First nationalism movement was built largely by a trad-Cath: Steve Bannon.
Of course, not all trad-Caths are converts (Bannon has reportedly been a Catholic his whole life). But nobody who grew up in Catholicism finds it “trendy” or “chic” or “camp.”
When you’re young, Catholicism is mostly dusty rooms, incense, a few robes, and a lot of rules. If you examine the trad-Cath converts, it doesn’t take long to understand what they find attractive in the religion—it’s the pre-liberal tradition of the church. Trad-Caths post photos of themselves in soaring cathedrals, gauche holy rooms decorated in the style of the Donald Trump school of interior design. All-gold everything.
Conversely, if you spend much time among left-leaning Catholics, you’ll eventually bump into that quote from Pope Francis: The church is a love story, not an institution. And the current pope, with his plainly Christian concerns for the poor and marginalized, is despised by the trad-Cath crowd. Bannon has complained that Francis is “constantly putting all the faults in the world on the populist nationalist movement.”
But the trend of converting to Catholicism isn’t about the “love story,” it's about the institution. Trad-Cath converts are attracted not only to gold but also to the unquestioning faith Catholicism offers. But this faith, with all its gold and tradition, can occasionally crush you. In Graham Greene’s 1948 novel, The Heart of the Matter, the Catholic protagonist eventually kills himself after receiving communion with a mortal sin on his soul. Graham Greene, of course, was a Catholic. He gets it.
Cradle Catholics comprehend the church at a deeper level because it became part of who we were before anything else. We were only children when the adults in our lives made a big deal of guiding us into a holy broom closet, and telling us to confess all the terrible things we’ve done to a man on the other side of a screen whose face we could not see. Most children haven’t done many terrible things, but the atmosphere of the confessional makes accidentally coveting the neighbor’s bicycle feel like a mortal sin. And sinful ideas are given paramount importance in Catholicism—they have to be confessed and prayed away. We learned that we would go to hell for lustful thoughts years before any occurred to us.
Those are only the complaints of the lucky cradle Catholics. The unlucky children raised in the Catholic church suffered genuine horror. The Catholic church’s sexual abuse scandals shook the faith of every millennial Catholic I’ve ever known. We had faith in the unquestionable authority of the Church in our lives and suddenly we realized that the same Church—the institution—could be profoundly evil.
Putting aside the gold, dogma, and abuses of power, there’s one crucial element of the faith—central to Jesus’ teachings—that the new trad-Caths seem to completely miss: compassion. A child raised in the faith usually understands the simple concept of compassion, even if they have no idea why the priest is speaking in Latin.
Most cradle Catholics understand Christ’s teachings (which were carried as an oral tradition for decades before they were ever written down) as the series of stories they are. A child can only comprehend so much, but the strongest images—Jesus choosing to stay at the home of the tax collector, Jesus stopping the crowd from stoning a woman—stuck with us.
And unlike the trendy trad-Cath converts, cradle Catholics have spent long periods of our lives questioning our faith (we even have a fancy name for this spiritual crisis—the dark night of the soul). But I’d argue that the dark night of the soul is necessary. I can’t see any value in faith that has not been examined, measured, and tested.
And it’s not just our faith—cradle Catholics have a Cartesian obsession with our own thoughts. Occasionally, that’s helpful. You will hear profound, mining-at-the-human-soul ideas in Catholic sermons. You will also yawn a lot. There are plenty of awful priests, and uninspired priests—but there are plenty of brilliant, soulful priests too.
The church is also still capable of being a force for good, especially in ways that are off-putting to right-wing nationalists cosplaying as Catholics.
In the spirit of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, much of Catholicism places enormous emphasis on giving to the poor. Sure, there’s a lot of gold in the Vatican and you have to buy a ticket to enter the Sistine Chapel but there are also still orders of Catholic clergy (the Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites) who take vows of poverty. Most Catholic churches host AA meetings. They run soup kitchens. And the story of Christ is beautiful.
In the Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s latest book, Beautiful World, Where are You, there’s a chapter built around a Catholic Mass in which she muses that she’s often “fascinated by the personality of Jesus in a sentimental way.” That personality is still relevant.
And so, when people ask me what I am, I tell them I’m a Catholic. And isn’t that all organized religion is? A label we put on ourselves and others.
Like most Catholics, I’m usually bad at sticking to all the rules. But my son is baptized. I go to mass on Sundays. Nonetheless, I would have made a terrible monk in any order.