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25 February 2021

What “weird Catholicism” reveals about the language of the internet

In the era of social media no institution, not even those most defiantly removed from the shifting winds of fashion, can entirely avoid getting weird.

By Justin E. H. Smith

When the New York Times Magazine ran its profile of the “Weird Catholic Twitter” (WCT) community in May 2020, extremely-online Catholics and non-Catholics alike came together in one of the internet’s periodic gestures of widespread, synchronised eye-rolling. One well-known Twitter personality, Connor Wroe Southard, wrote that this exposé was akin to the same newspaper’s description of the alt-right YouTuber Ben Shapiro as “the cool kid’s philosopher”. Another familiar voice of Twitter, Liz Franczak, exclaimed in a rawer spirit: “I cannot believe there is a Weird Catholic Twitter piece in nytmag.”

The general consensus was that the NYT, as a vehicle of mainstream liberal ideology, was late to the scene, and was corrupting the nature of the thing it was seeking to report on for a larger audience, as has always happened when a subcultural trend gains mainstream attention. But the arrival of WCT in such a venue also brought to a wider public a familiar lesson: that in the era of social media no institution, not even the ones most defiantly removed from the shifting winds of fashion, can entirely avoid getting weird. Everything is getting weird, even the church built upon a rock.

My interest here is personal. I am Catholic, but in a weird and uncertain way. 

My mother’s parents were both Scandinavian Lutherans. My father’s mother was a Southern Baptist, and his father was a free-thinking, hard-drinking ex-Mormon descended from the original Utah pioneers. For my first 12 years I was raised to believe that religion is something no one really takes seriously any more. I was happily ensconced in the modern secular values of my California Montessori school, until sometime in 1982, when a sex scandal that was never fully explained to me caused a mass exodus of families away from that bastion of progressive education. 

The local public schools being deemed substandard, my sister and I were relocated to Our Lady of the Presentation Elementary. I did not fit in well at all, and baptism appeared to our mother as a possible solution to my social awkwardness. I went through the appropriate training with the school’s Irish nuns, and soon enough was inducted into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, at the age of 13. I spent a year or so devoutly mumbling the rosary to myself, and worrying a great deal about the prospect of eternal damnation. Then I moved on to other things: a short-lived Beatles infatuation, and onward from there to the harder stuff, the rock ‘n ‘ roll with no angelic McCartney to conceal its true satanic nature. 

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So I was not born into it, not “ethnically Catholic”, as some secular Italian-, Irish- and Polish-Americans sometimes say of themselves. But nor was I of an age at which the conversion could really take permanent hold of my identity. Thirteen is a borderline age, one at which we do begin making decisions that have lasting consequences, but are still exploring the limits of reality, and are incapable of properly consenting to any external action upon us that changes who we are in an irreversible way. 

Am I Catholic? The issue stayed bracketed for many years. I would go on to commit sins so extravagant that JK Huysmans’ protagonist in Against the Grain (1884), Jean des Esseintes, would have winced to watch them, and all in the name of fun, freedom, and fulfilment. And then when I was 33 I had my sectarian identity forced back upon me in an unexpected way. About to be married in the Romanian Orthodox Church, I was informed that a preliminary step involved conversion, but that for some centuries an agreement had been met between the Western Roman and the Eastern Byzantine Christian that allowed an exemption for Catholics.

So I could “remain” a Catholic, but I had still, as another preliminary step, to go to a ramshackle, wooden, snow-covered Orthodox church outside of Bucharest, and to make a confession there to the young, sincere, poor, Karamazovian Orthodox priest. He gently inquired about my Catholicism, and I told him honestly that it was an accident – not in the sense that I fell by mistake into the baptismal font, but only in the sense that, as I had come to see things, following a distinction from Saint Thomas Aquinas, the baptism did not bring about any real change in my essence.

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Yet that confession, I would slowly begin to understand, was itself a sort of anabaptism, a reawakening into the mystery of Christianity, and a return to the awareness of myself as, fundamentally, a sinner, redeemable only by the grace of God. The young priest’s patient understanding of me, my predicament, of my circumstantial need to go through the motions, alongside his manifest inhabitation of a different reality, could not have been surpassed as a sign of the opposition between the sacred and the profane. He turned his back on the world, and was bathed in the light of another world. I wanted, and continue to want, what he was having. 

My wife and I got married, we came back to my part of the world, and I went about my secular life more or less as before. Social media emerged as a window onto the lives of others, even as I aged into a phase of ever-diminishing contact with the real people behind the profiles. That isolation intensified, as it did for everyone, with the pandemic. And now I see and know the world almost exclusively through pre-pandemic memories, and through the window of my computer screen.

That window has cracks in it, and distorts what’s on the other side. In the particularly fractured world of Twitter, where every interest finds an identity group to congeal around it, where there is “Philosophy Twitter” (my own profession-based home), “Equestrian Twitter”, “Knitting Twitter”, it is not at all surprising that I should eventually have discovered signs of a “Catholic Twitter” moving across my screen. 

***

It is somewhat more surprising that a significant portion of these signs should have come more specifically from “Weird Catholic Twitter”. This is a difficult movement to characterise. The NYT columnist and devout Catholic Elizabeth Bruenig notes that what makes the denizens of Weird Catholic Twitter weird is their single-minded obsession with analysing and criticising the finer points of ritual, for example whether the priest should face the parishioners or face away from them during certain key moments of the mass. I would add, crucially, that WCT is also charged up with a spirit of irreverence that borders on sacrilege, and that however much it reinforces the collective character of the Church, it is also in parallel a forum for the expression of wildly individualistic personalities. One prominent representative of the community, a Twitter-user known as “Good Tweetman”, has compared WCT to Beavis and Butthead on a bus full of nuns. For a long time, the genre-defining account was run by someone known as “Woke Space Jesuit”. When he disappeared from Twitter in 2018, the cascade of “RIP to a great one” messages confirmed his status as a high priest of the never-ending social media charivari.

Bruenig’s characterisation and my own are not as different as they might at first seem. I recall years ago an academic talk on Norwegian black metal as a phenomenon explained by the absence of a Counter-Reformation in Scandinavia. That is, Catholicism and “dark” rock subcultures alike fill the yearning that some people have for incense, dripping candles, archaic flourishes, and pompous spectacles of commanding men in outrageous costumes. In the parts of Europe where, in the 16th century, Martin Luther imposed a form of Christian faith that is the religious equivalent of Brian Eno or Kraftwerk, it is not surprising that an opposite musical culture flourishes in parallel that lets it all hang out. Yearning for some old-fashioned liturgy, I mean, in the music hall or in the newsfeed, is perfectly compatible with sacrilegious posturing.

I have never shared much in the Counter-Reformation spirit. In music I like raw shredding and psychedelic freak-outs, not theatricality. On Twitter I confess to being somewhat too old and out of it to follow the multiple layers of irony and self-distancing in the work of a typical extremely-online youth, and I generally end up feeling put off and excluded when I try to interpret the ebullient shitposts of any subculture that does not recognise me as one of its own – which by now is every subculture.

This might not be a problem for the Twitter of Pepe avatars, anti-xenoestrogen activists, white-supremacist bodybuilders, or whomever else. But Catholics might do well to ask whether weirdness, a mode of existence brought into wide focus only in the early 20th century, and popularised by the American writer HP Lovecraft, suits their worldly mission. 

Seen from another angle, the rise of WCT may perhaps be explained as a necessary adaptation to the media environment in which we are all forced to communicate now, where weirdness is often the most valuable currency. The gospel of Matthew tells us that “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (18:20). Yet it is not clear that this reassuring point of scripture translates smoothly into the digital sphere. Is a surge of user engagement a “gathering” in the biblical sense? Is it possible to come together, in the spirit, but virtually? 

It is not that I am hostile to weirdness tout court. It occurs to me that my favourite Catholics, my models of what it is to be Catholic, were all pretty weird themselves, often to the point of being borderline non-Catholics. Even on her deathbed the 20th-century philosopher and convert Simone Weil continued to make discomforting noises, for the priests surrounding her, about the Upanishads, and how they contain the truth too. The French historian and Jesuit Michel de Certeau knew how to make even the feminist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva swoon, and though he died in 1986 his charisma and swagger are still the talk of some circles in Paris. The German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher descended into the crater of Mount Vesuvius, and, as he recounts in his Mundus Subterraneus of 1665, encountered the most remarkable goblins and imps there. The curiosity and openness of the Jesuits, the hermeneutical flexibility that has shaped their encounters with non-Christian peoples throughout the world, remains a model and ideal for me.

I love, too, the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius, Teresa of Ávila, and others in the Spanish Renaissance, who a century before René Descartes provided a path to lucid self-knowledge through meditative reflection. And I see some hints of a love of nature in Saint Francis of Assisi, to which I respond well, even as I regret the pervasive side-lining of moral consideration for animals, plants and the environment in most strands of Christian tradition. This will no doubt make Weil’s unorthodoxy seem tame by comparison, but just as certain as I am that the commandment “Love one another” extends to all other human beings, I am no less certain that it extends to bears, fish and plants. Accordingly, I respond with great intuitive sympathy to “heathenish” belief systems, that is, to indigenous representations of the human spirit as forged within, and fully belonging to, its natural ecology. I wonder whether I could ever, or should ever, expurgate that sympathy in favour of a religious commitment that takes my own spirit, and that of other human beings, as something the true nature of which exists eternally apart from nature.

***

Plainly, if I am a Catholic, I am a weird one, too. But what strikes me when I compare weird Catholics of the past to those who have adopted that label on social media is how much less flexible these latter are, how, for all their proclaimed weirdness, they are mostly preoccupied with the enforcement of official doctrine, even if their interpretation of this doctrine is often highly idiosyncratic. As for myself I find I respond better to some points of dogma and theology than to others. What is most attractive to me about Christianity is the doctrine of original sin, in virtue of which I can look at the most wretchedly evil person, the murderer or rapist, and see him as my equal and my kin. This is so much more profound an anthropological model than anything proposed in the past 500 years of secular humanism, all of whose variants seek in some way or other to account for the difference in our fates by differences in how well we conduct ourselves in this life. In a mundane sense, there are indeed some things we can do to improve our lot; from the point of view of eternity, however, “There but for the grace of God go I” is a singular and unwavering truth. 

So I understand original sin. I do not, to be honest, understand how Christ’s crucifixion “pays for” this sin and redeems the sinner. I do not understand the Trinity, and least of all the Holy Spirit. I keep half-expecting the ghost character to be phased out, like some unloved player in a sitcom. 

Some would say that the lack of understanding is appropriate, since here we are dealing with “mysteries”, and every faith needs those. Yet when I check in on the WCT “Discourse”, what I find, notwithstanding the general safety-in-irony strategy, is a positive relish for dogmatic affirmations and denial of uncertainty. The believers of WCT will tell you, for example, that they “literally believe in the hierarchies of the angels”, or that “Christ was literally born of a virgin”. But the expression of more certainty than is warranted is a form of pride, and pride, as we know, is a sin. 

It may be that while this drive to dogmatic affirmation is intended as an expression of devotion, it in fact follows the broader logic of social media discourse that pushes members of all of its many communities (equestrians, knitters, Trumpists, Catholics) perpetually to up the ante, to affirm commitment to whatever it is one is committed to in ever bolder ways. This logic is, surprisingly, compatible with irony; in fact, the two go hand in hand. To declare that one literally believes in angels signals hardcore commitment to the community, but also highlights the peculiar polysemy of that adverb, which these days, those in the know, does not literally mean “literally”. “I am literally dead”, you might also find someone writing on social media, as a way to say they find some joke or meme very funny. And yet, they live.

But you cannot shitpost your way through a confessio fidei. That the profession of faith in social media so often takes such a form is the surest sign to me that what I am seeing on Weird Catholic Twitter is not, to say the least, a coming together in His name.

It is not there that I should be looking, anyhow. There is a modest little Catholic church right next to us here in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. It mostly serves the Haitian community, and in pre-pandemic times I would sometimes see the parishioners streaming out, sharing handshakes and greetings with the kindly priest, radiating love. I suspect most of them would be nonplussed if you were to ask whether they “literally” believe in the hierarchies of angels. 

Knowledge puffs up, St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, but love builds up. At best the internet can spread knowledge, but most of the time it is too caught up in vain posturing to do even that. Perhaps I will pay a visit to the Église Saint-Georges de la Villette, in the spring, around Easter time, when the vaccine comes and the world is reborn.

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of philosophy at the University of Paris. He is the author of “Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason” (2019) and “The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is” (2021)