Writer and political commentator Andrew Klavan sardonically dismisses the opinion section of The New York Times as “Knucklehead Row.” Klavan may often have a point, but “Knucklehead Row” occasionally produces excellent journalism. One particularly perspicacious piece was the recent “New York’s Hottest Club Is the Catholic Church.” In a compelling guest essay, Julia Yost remarks on an intriguing trend in a downtown Manhattan neighborhood populated by a “pandemic-weary Generation Z — or Zoomer — crowd.” Yost comments on the phenomenon of young urban New Yorkers disillusioned with the dominance of secular progressivism increasingly turning toward traditional Catholicism. Rather than a cynical ploy designed to buck prevailing cultural trends, as Yost suggests, this development may be indicative of reality, or traditional values genuinely reasserting themselves.
Yost describes how in Manhattan’s Dimes Square neighborhood, “the sensibility is more transgressive than progressive.” In a liberal bastion such as New York City, espousing traditional values or heterodox political views might seem like an obvious way for youths to indulge their contrarian, anti-establishment inclinations. Yost implies that these New Yorkers’ reactionary reversions are mere “fashion statements,” but I suspect there is more to the story. The lodestar of the Dimes Square “contrarian aesthetic” is the neighborhood’s embrace of Catholicism. Perhaps rather than a shallow response to a reluctance to conform, the Manhattanites’ interest in Catholicism and traditional values is a result of a genuine dissatisfaction with the values and lifestyle proffered by secular liberalism.
Yost is absolutely right, though, in her estimation that young urbanite hipster intellectuals are eager to perceive themselves as leading the cultural vanguard. By 2020, the year of lockdowns and Black Lives Matter associated protests and riots, Yost notes, “progressivism had come to feel hegemonic in the social spaces occupied by young urban intellectuals.” As a result, traditional values and morality began to develop an irresistible transgressive allure. Yost discusses the possibility that these new traditional Catholics are “performing an act of theater,” but it seems equally plausible that the converts are legitimately dissatisfied with the excesses and vacuity of progressive morality. What better place than Manhattan to be confronted with the shortcomings of secular liberalism?
Yost goes on to skeptically discuss whether many of the new Catholics are faithless trendsetters who have been turned on to “religion” by countercultural podcasts or publications. Perhaps, as Yost speculates, these Catholics are merely halfhearted traditionalists who are truly more interested in arcane Catholic subjects like sedevacantism or being trendy in an acceptably heterodox manner. There may be something to that, but I believe that many young Americans are returning to faith and tradition because they are searching for meaning and fulfillment in their lives. Catholicism may seem to offer surer answers than a religious devotion to draconian pandemic policies, moral relativism, or atheism.
Yost acknowledges as much, in that Catholicism may in fact be better equipped to give young people what they want than performative secular progressivism. In Yost’s words, Catholicism “again stands athwart political progress and norms governing sex and gender. It violates a liberal-progressive dispensation that many young Americans find both malign and banal.” Deep down, countless young Americans, even those like myself who have been shaped by progressive environments and institutions, favor traditional notions of marriage and family as much as or more than they do career advancement or compliance with the tenets of progressive paganism. As much as they have a desire to be trendy, young urban Americans also have a latent urge to be a part of something greater than the radical worship and liberation of the individual. As much as anything, the Catholic Church requires discipline that acts as “a test of sincerity that applies in Dimes Square and beyond.”
As a product of progressive environments who has 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, do have a fondness for running afoul of established cultural expectations and norms. What they also have though, is a dormant desire for greater meaning and fulfillment. As Yost says though, the doctrine of the Church will “sort the converts from the larpers.”