God Vibrations; or, a Return to Dimes Square

Steven Larkin at National Review wrote a piece today in response to Julia Yost’s New York Times editorial about “Dimes Square Catholicism,” which I covered in a previous blog post. That’s a lot of links for one sentence. If you read my earlier blog post (third link), I won’t rehash the Yost editorial or explain (again) what Dimes Square is, or what I think it is based on stuff I’ve read about it, or whatever. Instead, let’s focus on the Larkin article, entitled “Catholicism Is a Religion, Not a Vibe.”

Larkin is scandalized by the possibility that Dimes Square Catholics are insincere. In the opening paragraphs, he dismissively refers to the Dimes Square scene as “the New Right,” which…is kind of a stretch. “New Right” is a large term by which he presumably means not only Dimes Square kids (does Dimes Square itself even exist?) but also post-liberals and integralists and poseurs like J.D. Vance. At least, those are the people I think of when I hear the term “New Right.” Larkin writes:

First Things senior editor Julia Yost sees something in [the New Right’s Catholicism]. “Defiance of liberal pieties.” “This contrarian aesthetic.” Yes, the Church is a sign of contradiction to a world the New Right dislikes. And there’s the beauty, the tradition, the intellectual resources, and much more. All those things are good. But none of them are at the heart of Catholicism. How Catholicism’s new fans feel about that heart is harder to say.

Like I said, I don’t really think of Red Scare or the Dimes Square scene as “conservative.” Can privileged kids barely out of college who ironically (in the Kierkegaardian sense? in the “this is a joke” sense? who the hell knows) wear rosaries (are they really wearing rosaries? I’ve heard this happens, but I’ve only heard it from 30somethings who write for major media outlets, and I don’t trust them) around the Lower East Side and complain about “libs” be described as “the New Right,” or “conservative,” or committed to any coherent politics except that they’re really angry about lockdowns? (And who can blame them for that? Lockdowns suck.)

In short, I doubt the sincerity of Dimes Square conservatism, just as I doubt the sincerity of Dimes Square Catholicism. But, as I wrote toward the end of my Dimes Square piece, a person’s sincere Catholic faith can have many motivations. Catholic faith is multivalent.

Sure, I took Yost to task for accepting anyone, and especially anyone with a hip veneer or a semblance of cultural relevance, into the Catholic tent. But Catholicism’s tent is expansive (it is, after all, catholic). Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism doesn’t insist on 100% sincerity and certainty in one’s faith. Like Orthodoxy, Catholicism understands “faith” as something more like “faithfulness,” and so a person can be a faithful Catholic and still possess a multitude of motives and degrees of belief within their religious practice. These motives can include the fact that, whatever else, Catholics are really, really, really good at aesthetics.

On the whole, however, Yost’s excitement over Red Square Catholicism strains credulity, especially given that she’s an editor at First-freaking-Things. Larkin believes that “in her attempts to discredit the nonsense category of ‘authenticity’…[Yost] goes too far.” I agree that she goes too far, but I think Larkin goes a bit too far in the other direction. He writes:

A couple of years ago, Dasha Nekrasova, one of the hosts of the New Right–aligned podcast Red Scaresaid that “what’s so great about faith is that it doesn’t have to be grounded in rational thought. We are seeing a lot of people return to religion because everything feels so senseless and pointless, so why not be a Catholic?” Forgive me for thinking that the aim was to believe true things and not false things. Nekrasova apparently sees it differently. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or false. Turn your brain off, no reason required. Believe it because it makes you feel good. She and those like her ignore Paul’s bracing claim that “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain. . . . We are of all men most miserable.” He didn’t see his faith as some kind of empty status symbol. Neither should we.

This paragraph makes me want to defend Yost just a bit. Something can be true, and something can certainly be the truth, without being grounded in rational thought. Catholicism existed long before “rationalism” was even a thing. There’s a reason why Catholicism possesses such a diverse array of practices across cultures, why folk Catholicism is a thing. Those are the parts of Catholicism that, from my vantage, make Catholicism distinct.

Not coincidentally, those are also the parts of Catholicism that drive Protestants nuts.

And I sense more than a little Protestant literalism in Larkin’s piece. Like so many hyper-devout American Catholics, Larkin has a bit of a Protestant brain, probably because he (like me) lives in a Protestant culture. Such hyper-devout, traditionalist Catholics often demand reason, consistency, and meticulously systematic theology to justify their faith. But the overwhelming majority of Catholics who live and have ever lived didn’t ground their faith in, like, scholasticism. Most of them couldn’t even read.

I suppose Larkin and others would reject instances of folk Catholicism as anathema and heretical at best, positively demonic at worst. Folk Catholicism is certainly not Vatican-approved. Fair enough. But it wasn’t a bunch of literal-minded rationalists who converted 1/8th of the world’s population to Catholicism.

Larkin continues:

Yost also reports that “Anna Kachiyan, Ms. Nekrasova’s non-Catholic co-host on ‘Red Scare,’ has defended traditional religion on the grounds that ‘it’s supposed to introduce constraint into people’s lives.’” What is “traditional religion”? I’ve never encountered any house of worship devoted to “traditional religion.” Does it matter which religion, so long as it’s traditional? Apparently not. This is a stunning indifference to the truth about claims concerning the divine. An indifference, also, to the strictures of faith. They are apparently not for serving and pleasing the divine and fulfilling our humanity. The rules themselves are the point.

I’m sorry (not really), but I think it’s blazingly obvious what Kachiyan means by “traditional religion.” She’s talking about conservative strains of Christianity, which is what most people in the West mean when they refer to “religion.”

And I’m also sorry (not really), but a writer for National Review shouldn’t be allowed to insist that religion isn’t about “the rules”—that it’s rather about humbling serving God and “fulfilling our humanity”—when “the rules” are 99% of what conservative Christians emphasize whenever they express their faith to the culture at large…especially whenever they attempt to twist secular law to match their religious statues.

Again, Larkin:

Nekrasova herself claims to be a sedevacantist (one who believes that the current pope is not legitimate). Sedevacantism is not Catholicism, of course, but jumping from one to the other shows that the whole thing is a bit of a put-on. The point is not complaining about the new rite of the Mass, or various documents from Vatican II, or anything else that has happened in the Church since the ’60s, on the grounds that they have betrayed the Catholic faith. Complaining about them is part of a general expression of disgust with the modern world (and maybe with the pope having leftist inclinations now) in which the specifics hardly matter.

Not much to disagree with there. Sedevacantism (a word I’m sure most Catholics know intimately and could absolutely spell correctly) is not Catholicism. I only wish conservatives would invest as much energy making this point—that disgust with liberal modernity and disgust with secular culture is not, in and of itself, the heart of Christian faith—to all those radtrads and integralist writers at First Things and The American Conservative who don’t live in Dimes Square. Maybe Larkin could start with the ones living in Budapest. Larkin is, after all, a writer for The American Conservative, so he might know one or two.

But one’s fellow conservatives aren’t nearly as appetizing a target as are cool kids in New York.

Larkin continues:

Indeed, I suspect that [Nekrasova’s professed faith] is more of an aesthetic pose than an actual belief, much as her initial interest in Catholicism was. Does she really have detailed arguments about, say, why the rite of ordination post–Vatican II is flawed?

To repeat my earlier point, does any average Catholic have a detailed argument for why they believe anything they believe? Travel back to the time of Aquinas and ask any Catholic peasant about their faith. Are you going to get a doctrinally sound answer? And if not, is their faith inauthentic?

And Larkin’s insistence that Nekrasova offer a doctrinal account of her beliefs is doubly crazy considering he pretty much makes this exact point a few sentences later:

New York Times profiles of the most Twitter-visible Catholics may make you think that Catholicism is the religion of an intellectual elite. It’s not. It’s the religion of about 1.3 billion people, most of whom are neither intellectual nor elite. And that’s fine.

I’m glad Larkin thinks that the faith of 1.3 billion non-intellectuals is “fine.”

Really, this kind of media treatment almost makes me miss the days when Catholicism was the religion of illiterate peasants, kept in darkness and superstition by their priests.

At least Larkin isn’t one of those medieval-fetishists I’ve written about before. He only “almost” misses the Catholicism of the Middle Ages.

To be fair, Larkin makes some excellent points in the article, including:

Whether it’s a pose or a belief, it indicates another problem with “Vibes” Catholicism — it is mediated almost entirely through spending time online (a recurring problem for the New Right).

And:

…Catholicism [is] a literary religion, one dedicated to the creation of beauty. … But it’s also the religion of a plethora of terrible art and kitsch. 

And:

These new “Vibes Catholics” also misunderstand the Church’s moral teaching. In a recent profile, James Pogue describes Wet Brain, a podcast co-hosted by Honor Levy, as “a window into a world of people who enjoy a mind-bendingly ironic thrill by tut-tutting each other for missing church or having premarital sex.” I have heard any number of moral condemnations in my life. I have made some myself. None of them had the purpose of giving the person making them “a mind-bendingly ironic thrill.” In the case of premarital sex, I suspect, the motivation is to eat a cake and have it too — to enjoy the thrill of doing something illicit without actually having to believe that what they’re doing is wrong. This kind of Catholicism enables its practitioners to condemn the libs for their failure to abide by the Church’s moral teachings while they themselves also fail, and, for that matter, don’t really try.

It should go without saying that this is not the way people talk about things they actually think are wrong; it’s the way “libertines” (Levy’s word) talk about things they don’t. It is true that some of the teachings of Christianity are countercultural. It is not true that the main purpose of Christianity (or any religion) is to be countercultural and shock the libs. Some of these Catholics haven’t even gotten that far. Pogue quotes a friend: “It’s a good thing I have a girlfriend because casual sex is out.” Well, that’s good, but the Catholic sexual ethic, and Catholic ethics in general, extends beyond “don’t have casual sex.” I would say that of course a profile couldn’t resist dwelling on the sex stuff, but in this case the people being profiled can’t resist it either.

And just one more, I promise:

The attraction to Catholicism is entirely an attraction to its perceived reactionary nature. There’s just nothing there, save maybe the desire to shock the libs.

Maybe that’s all right, Yost says. After all, the Decadents (a late 19th-century aesthetic movement) intended to horrify with their own interest in Catholicism. And they were also perceived as insincere at first. One problem: Men like Wilde and Huysmans were great geniuses. Where is the comparable level of artistic achievement among this crowd? (Memes don’t count.) Early returns are not promising.

Larkin calls “authenticity” a “nonsense category,” and that too is an excellent point. But in this article, he seems very concerned with what Catholics really, actually believe in the heart of hearts. Sincerity is a recurring theme for him. After Dobbs, he wrote an article in The American Conservative about “Barstool conservatives,” his moniker for Republicans whose commitment to conservatism is skin-deep, “late-arriving Republicans” like him are” who “are ignorant of the history and influence of the pro-life movement.”

I know I just wrote a blog post railing against so-called Christian Nationalists whose Evangelical credentials are pretty thin. But obsessing too much over another person’s lack of sincerity or authenticity is, to get aesthetic about this, “a bad look.” Most of us, after all, are nowadays pretty embarassed by those early 2000s authenticity-fetishizing Williamsburg types.

As for Dimes Square, well, apparently they have some decent restaurants. But of course they do—it’s New York.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.