‘Decadent’ Young People See Beauty in Catholic Tradition — Will Truth and Goodness Follow?
COMMENTARY: Many disenchanted young adults are professing a growing interest in the ‘weird’ aesthetics and beauty of traditional Catholicism. If history is any indication, the Holy Spirit may be leading them to something deeper.
Latin Mass attendees aren’t the only ones clamoring over the traditional elements of Catholicism. A recent New York Times article documents the growing interest in traditional Catholic aesthetics, ritual and practice among hip, young New Yorkers — some of whom might not even believe.
Borrowing a phrase from Bill Hader’s popular Saturday Night Live character Stefon, the piece argues that “New York’s hottest club” these days is the Catholic Church, attractive due to the “transgressive glamour” of its status quo defying traditionalism. Another recent article in Vox highlighted a similar trend, claiming that Catholic culture’s “alt” and “campy” sensibility “pairs well with this precise moment,” when young people are disillusioned with the drab cultural imaginary of secular humanism.
For some celebrities (take podcaster Dasha Nekrasova, provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, former Vine sensation Anthony Quintal and, most recently, Shia LeBeouf), an interest in traditional Catholic liturgy, art and moral doctrines has brought them down a path that may result in a formal conversion. Others, like Britney Spears and Kourtney Kardashian, have made waves for their interest in traditional Catholic aesthetics, if not beliefs.
Because motives are mixed, it can be tempting to dismiss this growing attraction to Catholicism’s “decadent” or extravagant elements as something disconnected from the actual Catholic faith — or worse, a sacrilegious appropriation of it.
Are people into Catholic art and ritual for the supernatural, or just the spectacle?
But a glance back at the Church’s legacy since the “disenchanting” waves of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution proves that this kind of interest is nothing new and, despite being somewhat bemusing, is something we would be foolish to dismiss wholesale.
Literary scholar Ellis Hanson has documented the many modern European artists and writers who turned to the Church as an antidote to the “sickness of the century” in his 1998 book Decadence and Catholicism. Late-19th century figures like the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde and the French novelist and art critic J.K. Huysmans were drawn to the “decadent style” in literature and art, which was particularly captured in what Hanson called “the textual bizarrerie of Catholicism” and the “the sheer excess of the Church — its archaic splendor, the weight of its history, the elaborate embroidery of its robes, the labyrinthine mysteries of its symbolism, the elephantine exquisiteness by which it performs its daily miracles” — these factors “[have] always made it an aesthetic … object of wonder.”
Not unlike the young people who are drawn to “weird” Catholic aesthetics today, the Catholic Church at the time was seen as a home for figures like Wilde and Huysmans, who felt rejected by “respectable society” for their unusual temperaments or emotional proclivities. These black sheep of late modernity — whose “conditions” were written off as morally reprehensible by puritanical Protestantism and were medicalized by scientific “experts” — found the metaphysical worldview of Catholicism to have more space for those who were drawn to experiences that were deemed abnormal or “against the grain.” As Wilde himself once famously quipped, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”
Catholicism was able to maintain a clear boundary line between sin and sanctity, while at the same time offering avenues to purify and elevate sensibilities that were deemed sinful or perverse, but contained a “half-truth.” As the century turned, there were several other notable public figures who found a haven in the aesthetic decadence of Catholicism, like Evelyn Waugh, Princess Margaret and her confidant Father Derek “Dazzle” Jennings (whose conversion was featured in Season Four of The Crown), Stephen Patrick Morrissey and Andy Warhol.
A Contrast to ‘Bourgeois’ Catholicism
Like the “decadent” Catholics of today, the sincerity of their forebears was questioned by more standard practitioners of the faith. Hanson cites T.S. Eliot, who accused the decadent Catholics of being “incapable of sustained reasoning” and confusing “aesthetics with religion,” and Jean Pierrot, who expresses concern that they were caught between “diffuse nostalgia for the supernatural and a rejection of orthodox forms of worship,” opting not “so much for genuine religious beliefs” but for “a sort of emotional and mythical reverie.”
These critiques are echoed by contemporary figures like Steve Larkin, who wrote in his National Review response to The Times’ piece that today’s practitioners of decadent Catholicism reduce the faith to an aesthetic “vibe,” and “misunderstand the Church’s moral teaching.” Another commentator, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hannah Gais, described the trend as a form of “performative traditionalism,” which reacts to modernity by reducing religion to “just another identity we can commodify.”
“Decadent faith,” wrote Hanson, “is often trivialized as a mere trend, a cultural aberration, or bad theater. It is said to be a heretical or insincere ‘perversion’ of Catholicism.”
But Hanson’s book seems to question such critics’ understanding of genuine Catholic orthodoxy, suggesting that they’ve replaced authentic Catholicism — with both its mysticism and its sensuality — with an Americanized version that is “sentimental, bourgeois and dull.”
Cultural critic Camille Paglia, who was raised by Italian Catholic immigrants, made a similar observation in her 1994 book Vamps and Tramps, commenting on the spread of a suburban “WASP-ish” sensibility through many Catholic parishes: Catholic churches [now look] like airline terminals — no statues, no stained-glass windows, no shadows or mystery or grandeur. No Latin, no litanies, no gorgeous jeweled garments, no candles — so that the ordinary American church now smells like baby powder.
A century earlier, Huysmans had similar concerns about the accommodationism of French Catholic culture during his own lifetime, lamenting how the Church was selling “its mystical soul to bourgeois liberalism and commerce.”
The “bourgeois-ification” of contemporary Catholic culture has impacted not only the artistic imagination, but the moral imagination, as well. Contemporary writers like Aaron Taylor have questioned what has become of the category of “bad Catholics”: those Catholics who knowingly broke — “even flouted” — the moral rules taught by the Church, especially related to sex, but never argued that the doctrines should be changed to conform to their behavior, all the while “maintaining a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices.”
Today, the fear of living in a state of tension, of humbly acknowledging one’s own moral blemishes, has effectively made it difficult to maintain the “bad Catholic” category; one is seemingly a good Catholic or not Catholic at all. St. Augustine’s prayer to “make me chaste, but not yet” rings hollow to today’s bourgeois sensibility that thinks it better to “normalize” sin than to admit that one is a sinner.
This copacetic flattening out of any tension or incongruities has taken its toll on the young people asked to live in the resulting society, just as it did in the days of the original decadent Catholics.
Psychiatrist Dr. Mattias Strand’s diagnosis of the main character in Huysmans’ most popular 1884 novel, À Rebours, could be applied to many young people today: “disillusionment, rootlessness, crippling feelings of banality and a deep-seated sense that [he] had been born into ‘a world which seemed not to need [him].” Philosophers and sociologists in the vein of Max Weber and Charles Taylor have attempted since the early 20th century to track the unraveling of an “enchanted” worldview into the increasingly secular one we live in today.
So what are we to make of decadent Catholicism today?
It is reasonable to question the moral integrity of the new wave of aesthetic trads, both in the past and today. Surely there are those who are there primarily for the ironic performance art of it all. There are the Wildes, Baudelaires, Verlaines and Warhols who won’t take the ethical implications of it seriously until near-death experiences.
But there are others whose interest in the aesthetic elements of Catholicism will morph from a mere performative gesture into a stepping stone to a solid, well-integrated life of faith.
As Tara Isabella Burton documented in her own New York Times piece, penned in May 2020, “[m]ore and more young Christians … see a return to old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping from the crisis of modernity and the liberal-capitalist faith in individualism.” As much as many may be initially attracted to Catholicism as a mere “vibe,” that doesn’t preclude them from developing a deeper and more mature understanding of what it means to live one’s life in communion with Christ and the Church.
Huysmans, whose novels contributed to the conversion of notable figures over the past century, including Servant of God Dorothy Day, also offers an example of how initial decadence can eventually lead to authentic conversion.
From his campy ode to aestheticism in À Rebours, to his dabbling in Satanic black masses in Là-Bas, to his conversion and becoming a Benedictine oblate in En Route and L’Oblat, Huysmans’ unusual spiritual journey reflects how, as Hanson writes, “hysteria and mysticism are symptomatic of a material age that offers no vent to the spiritual aspirations of the people.”
Thus, while not everyone who gravitates toward the Church for aesthetic reasons may become Catholic, we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand the via pulchritudinis, or “the way of beauty.” For those who feel alienated for having neurodivergent tendencies or unconventional aesthetic sensibilities that clash with the norms of our disenchanted age, the orientation to transcendent Beauty in the aesthetic elements of Catholicism, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar often asserted, can become an entryway into discovering a lasting source of Goodness and Truth.
Surely, when cut off from God, beauty can become an idol in itself that opens the door to self-indulgence. But I’d point to the imagery of the “wounding arrow” of Beauty, which can be seen in depictions of Sts. Sebastian and Teresa of Ávila — objects of deep devotion amongst decadent Catholics — that, as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, “strikes the heart” and “opens our eyes” to Christ’s love.
Ratzinger goes on to quote the 14th-century theologian Nicholas Cabasilas, who said that “when men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature … it is the Bridegroom who has smitten them with this longing. It is he who has sent a ray of his beauty into their eyes. The greatness of the wound already shows the arrow which has struck home, the longing indicates who has inflicted the wound."
Rather than dismissing the new brand of decadent trads, Catholics should seek to accompany them in recognizing the origin and implications of this arrow that has pierced their hearts.
Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in New Jersey. He also is the host of the “Cracks in Postmodernity” blog and podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @stephengadubato.