Last year, about a month after Pope Francis issued Traditionis Custodes limiting the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Mass, I received a text from a college friend. We’d once been very close, working together on our college newspaper, but had a falling out after he began identifying with the alt-right and developed an admiration for Milo Yiannopolous, the former Breitbart staffer who, after being deplatformed when a series of videos of him advocating pedophilia emerged, converted to Catholicism, began to identify as a “reformed sodomite,” and became one of Pope Francis’ most vocal critics.
I immediately thought of this friend—like Milo, a gay man turned traditionalist Catholic reactionary—when I read First Things contributor Julia Yost’s piece in the New York Times this week, “New York’s Hottest Club is the Catholic Church.” Yost’s piece highlights a group of right-leaning downtown New York podcasters and small magazine editors who have taken up Roman Catholicism as a transgressive, anti-bourgeois yet Decadent-inspired cultural practice that Yost, while pointing out Gen Z’s proclivity for performativity, refuses to pin down as mere posturing.
I will refrain from judging their sincerity, too, but I do think that the strain of reactionary Catholicism that so often pops up in the United States—whether from the anticapitalist “Red Scare” podcast hosts or the hypercapitalist Breitbart scene—belies an insecurity that aims to take shelter in a church that never actually existed the way they imagine it did.
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D., writing in Where Peter Is about Pope Francis’ recent critique of “indietrism” or “backwardism”, argues that while European traditionalists are solidly grounded in history and face the risk of failing to “notice that changes have taken place over the centuries,” Americans “are far more prone to look to the future and fix our gaze on a culture that never really existed but that we hope to bring into being. We have a nostalgia for ‘the perfect society.’” The solution, she writes, is that “The European mindset needs to be balanced by openness to the future, and the American mindset needs to be balanced by a true knowledge of the past.”
This lack of “a true knowledge of the past” is manifest not only in the young Americans who long for a pre-Vatican II era they never experienced and which, in reality, was not the way they imagine it being, with elaborate Tridentine high Masses every day and an unquestioningly obedient body of the faithful. It also appears in older conservative Americans who refuse to acknowledge—and in fact, resist—the truth of how doctrine develops over time. In just the last few days, the former EWTN staffers running “The Pillar” Substack have turned their focus to “investigating” the Twitter account of the Pontifical Academy for Life, after it tweeted that the controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae was not covered by papal infallibility. (This Twitter dust-up followed the academy’s publication of a volume of conference papers debating life issues.)
Then, of course, there is the “backwardism” of the wealthy conservative Catholics who have used their influence particularly in the media to undermine Pope Francis, as detailed in Go, Rebuild contributor Christopher Lamb’s book, The Outsider.
Again, I do not doubt these Catholics’ sincerity, but I believe their reactionary tendencies and their desire to construct an institution that has improbably not changed in 2,000 years is a sign of insecurity. It is much more comfortable to construct a museum-like church and assume the aesthetics of an imagined bygone era than it is to throw open the windows to let the Holy Spirit blow in, and to discern the Spirit’s call.
Back to my friend, the Milo admirer: About a month after Traditionis Custodes came out, he texted me to apologize. Although he was upset about the pre-Vatican II Mass being limited, he said, he had come to understand why the pope’s intervention was necessary. He recognized that the old Mass had become a proxy for opposition to Vatican II, and that he had participated in that opposition and realized now he was wrong.
This, to me, was a sign of spiritual maturing, of recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in illuminating where conversion was needed, and following that prompting.
In response to the Times’ piece about the Dimes Square traditionalists, former Commonweal editor and “Know Your Enemy” podcast host Matt Sitman tweeted, “One thing about religion I’ve realized from being an editor at a Catholic magazine and now doing KYE is that a lot of people wrestle with their faith in ways that are quiet, mostly private and not part of their influencer brand. You’ll never read about them!” Then added, “This is my impression from countless emails and conversations, and I’d wager that this group of people absolutely dwarfs whatever trend in NYC is being debated.”
Sitman’s account of quiet wrestling resonates with me, and certainly describes my friend’s eventual response to Traditionis Custodes. The work of the Holy Spirit is quiet and persistent and intimate; it can happen below layers of aesthetic preoccupations and in, as Madeleine Delbrêl says, “the ordinary people of the streets.” It is happening all the time.
What is thrilling, now, is that, since Vatican II, and especially with Pope Francis’ global synodal process, we are being asked to undertake that wrestling with the Holy Spirit, that discernment, together, rather than exclusively within ourselves. It makes sense that the Jesuit pope, the world’s spiritual director, is the one asking us to engage in discernment together. I pray that our faith will be mature enough—secure enough—to follow this call.
Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.