Writer and political commentator Andrew Klavan sardonically dismisses the opinion section of The New York Times as “Knucklehead Row”. Klavan can often be right, but “Knucklehead Row” sometimes produces great journalism. A particularly insightful article was the recent “New York’s hottest club is the Catholic Church.” In a compelling essay, Julia Yost points out an intriguing trend in a midtown Manhattan neighborhood populated by a “pandemic-weary Gen Z — or Zoomer — crowd.” Yost comments on the phenomenon of young urban New Yorkers disillusioned with the dominance of secular progressivism turning increasingly to traditional Catholicism. Rather than a cynical ploy designed to thwart mainstream cultural trends, as Yost suggests, this development may be indicative of reality, or of traditional values genuinely reaffirming themselves.
Yost describes how, in Manhattan’s Dimes Square neighborhood, “the sensibility is more transgressive than progressive.” In a liberal stronghold like New York, espousing traditional values or heterodox political views might seem like an obvious way for young people to indulge their anti-establishment inclinations. Yost implies that these New Yorkers’ reactionary reversals are mere “fashion statements,” but I suspect there’s more to the story. The star of Dimes Square’s “contrary aesthetic” is the neighborhood’s embrace of Catholicism. Perhaps rather than a superficial response to an unwillingness to conform, Manhattanites’ interest in Catholicism and traditional values is the result of genuine dissatisfaction with the values and way of life offered by the secular liberalism.
Yost is quite right, however, in his assessment that young urban hipster intellectuals are eager to see themselves as leading the cultural vanguard. In 2020, the year of shutdowns and protests and riots associated with Black Lives Matter, Yost notes, “progressivism had come to feel hegemonic in the social spaces occupied by young urban intellectuals.” As a result, traditional values and morals began to develop an irresistible transgressive allure. Yost discusses the possibility that these new mainstream Catholics are “performing an act of drama,” but it seems equally plausible that converts are rightfully dissatisfied with the excesses and vacuity of progressive morality. What better place than Manhattan to be confronted with the pitfalls of secular liberalism?
Yost goes on to discuss skeptically whether many of the new Catholics are infidel trendsetters who have been lured into “religion” by countercultural podcasts or publications. Perhaps, as Yost speculates, these Catholics are just half-hearted traditionalists who are really more interested in obscure Catholic topics like sedevacantism or being fashionable in an acceptably heterodox way. There may be something to it, but I believe many young Americans are coming back to faith and tradition because they are looking for meaning and fulfillment in their lives. Catholicism may seem to offer safer answers than religious devotion to draconian pandemic policies, moral relativism or atheism.
Yost recognizes this, in that Catholicism is perhaps better equipped to give young people what they want than performative secular progressivism. In Yost’s words, Catholicism “again stands against political progress and sex and gender norms. It violates a liberal-progressive dispensation that many young Americans find both malignant and banal. Deep down, countless young Americans, even those like me who have been shaped by progressive environments and institutions, favor traditional notions of marriage and family as much or more than career advancement or adherence to the tenets of progressive paganism. . As much as they have a desire to be fashionable, young urban Americans also have a latent need to be part of something bigger than radical worship and the liberation of the individual. More than anything, the Catholic Church demands discipline that acts as “a test of sincerity that applies to Dimes Square and beyond.”
As a product of progressive environments who relatively recently turned to the Catholic Church for a more meaningful alternative, I was moved by Yost’s essay. Gen Zers, like people of most other generations in their youth, have a penchant for going against established cultural expectations and norms. What they also have is a dormant desire for greater meaning and fulfillment. As Yost puts it, however, the doctrine of the Church “will sort out the converts from the GNers.”
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