Room for the “woo and the weird” in contemporary Catholicism?

In the past 11 years, it has become clear that the United States is the capital of the organised opposition to Pope Francis.

There is an institutional opposition that seeks to maintain the institutional status quo, a theological opposition that’s resisting “synodality”, the newest phase of the reception of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and a political opposition that sees very clearly the pope’s attempt to dis-align Catholicism from the various versions of the “America first” worldview.

But the United States is a big country with an ebullient religious and spiritual scene.

Everything here tends to be interpreted in a two-party and almost metaphysical division of everything – “liberals vs. conservatives”.

The country split between contrasting views of what it means to be “American”, is experiencing an identity crisis. This is a cultural phenomenon that the Catholic Church and the Vatican needs to take seriously.

Looking to satisfy a spiritual hunger

Tara Isabella Burton, an essayist with a PhD in theology from Oxford University, published a very interesting article last year in The New Atlantis. She discusses the rise of a “loose online subculture known as the post-rationalists”.

The piece is titled “Rational Magic.

Why a Silicon Valley culture that was once obsessed with reason is going woo”.

It examines a new online subculture that has emerged in the last decade in various quarters – online, social media, and the virtual world — where many influential Americans and Anglo-Americans with a spiritual hunger now congregate.

One of the most important places to look, in order to understand what is coming on our screens, in front of our eyes and in our brains, is Silicon Valley.

The people who people live and work there, or are connected with, have immense power to influence our culture in many different ways.

Burton says that a new elite has concluded that “rationality culture’s technocratic focus on ameliorating the human condition through hyper-utilitarian goals” has “come at the expense of taking seriously the less quantifiable elements of a well-lived human life”.

She points out that was becoming clear already the last decade.

“By the late 2010s, the rationalist landscape had started to shift, becoming increasingly open to investigating, if not necessarily the truth claims of spirituality, religion, and ritual, then at least some of their beneficial effects,” Burton writes.

Her essay does not address Catholicism directly, except for this disturbing passage:

There’s the rise of what you could call popular neo-Jungianism: figures like Jordan Peterson, who point to the power of myth, ritual, and a relationship to the sacred as a vehicle for combating postmodern alienation — often in uneasy alliance with traditionalist Christians. (A whole article could be written on Peterson’s close intellectual relationship with Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron.)

There’s the progressive-coded version you can find on TikTok, where witchcraft and activism and sage cleansing and “manifesting” co-exist in a miasma of vibes.

There’s the openly fascist version lurking at the margins of the New Right, where blood-and-soil nationalists, paleo bodybuilders, Julius Evola-reading Traditionalists like Steve Bannon, and Catholic sedevacantist podcasters make common cause in advocating for the revival of the mores of a mystic and masculinist past, all the better to inject life into the sclerotic modern world.

What transpires from online culture is a phase of disenchantment with progressive faith in technology and with the promises made by the new masters of the universe since computer technology and the internet changed our lives.

This is how Burton describes it:

The chipper, distinctly liberal optimism of rationalist culture that defines so much of Silicon Valley ideology — that intelligent people, using the right epistemic tools, can think better, and save the world by doing so — is giving way, not to pessimism,exactly, but to a kind of techno-apocalypticism.

We’ve run up against the limits — political, cultural, and social alike — of our civilizational progression; and something newer, weirder, maybe even a little more exciting, has to take its place.Some of what we’ve lost — a sense of wonder, say, or the transcendent — must be restored.

This particular disillusionment with technocracy and rationalism, and its openness to the transcendent, is not a return to traditional Christianity.

Burton says it is also a refusal of a naïve secularism that is “no less full of unexamined dogma, tinged with moral and intellectual unseriousness”.

Core message of Vatican II is non-negotiable

What Tara Isabella Burton writes here is extremely important, not just for the United States and its Catholics, but also for Pope Francis and the Roman Curia.

This is especially true for dealing with sensitive issues, such as the culture of the current generation of young priests and seminarians, the movement for “the reform of the liturgical reform” and the so-called “Traditional Latin Mass”.

To be sure, there are hotbeds of an unapologetic anti-Vatican II sentiment spiked with sectarianism and neo-Gnostic vibes to be found in the techno-apocalyptic Catholic right.

As I wrote already at the beginning of 2010, what’s at stake are ecclesiological issues on which the teaching of the Church must be firm.

When dealing with the core message of Vatican II, no negotiation is possible.

In the United States, however, the movement to perpetuate the so-called “Traditional Latin Mass” is a rejection of Vatican II.

It is also linked to libertarianism, a key cultural attitude present in much of America, including religious America.

The Old Mass proponents, in fact, in see Vatican II and the current pope as part of a technopower that is oppressing their genuine religious quest.

This attitude looks similar to that which shaped Marcel Lefebvre’s traditionalism, but it’s not quite the same.

This is why it’s a movement that will continue underground, and at the same time to be hosted in rooms close to people in power in the United States.

A “legitimate weird” that can be acceptable

But there is also a post-rationalist hunger for the weird that is not exactly the same as the nostalgia for the “smells and bells” from an over-idealised past most of our contemporaries never knew.

It’s something that the institutional Church struggles to discern and distinguish.

On the one side is the “openly fascist version”, driven by provocateurs like Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and the traditionalist Catholic convert Taylor Marshall.

On the other side are those who embrace a “legitimate weird” for which there must be space in the enlarged tent of a synodal Church.

This post-rationalist disenchantment with secular modernity and re-enchantment with the transcendent is more a Werner Herzog-like fascination with the wild and strange, the numinous and the primal.

It is less about the heresiological view of Christianity à la Cardinal Gerhard Mueller.

It’s also very different from the techno-optimism of some post-ecclesial, trans-humanist Catholic theologians.

They are not just in the United States.

If you want to understand the success of the post-rationalist turn, just look at the success of the Italian publishing house Adelphi Edizioni and the titles of its books on religion (one of them, a collection of esoteric essays by the late Cristina Campo, was recently translated into English).

Without a doubt, Catholic theology is also struggling with this new subculture, maybe even more than the institutional Church.

The language of academic theology is deeply shaped (if not dominated) by the social sciences and a religious studies approach.

It is less literate about philosophy and history.

Thus it has become difficult to capture the healthy instincts and even unconscious deep theological insights that come from these apparently marginal, but influential voices.

A more capacious and less polarised Church

The attitude that this post-rationalism charts — a realism laced with reference to the transcendental — takes experience into account and recognizes (in the language of Thomas Aquinas) that grace perfects nature.

It is a useful and serious critique of the wholesale objectification/quantification of everyday experience.

It also converges, not just with Pope Francis’ strong critique of the technocratic paradigm, but also with Vatican II theology both in its ressourcement and aggiornamento versions and especially in their interaction with critical theory.

To those who don’t know the different faces of the vitality of the Catholic tradition, these woo and weird post-rationalists look like natural candidates to qualify as traditionalists – different and opposed to a dynamic, but Enlightenment-derived idea of the tradition.

But that would be a simplistic answer.

Acknowledging the validity of some points of this contemporary culture “going woo” entails some conversions in how we look at non-conformist Catholic voices, including, for instance, some of seminarians and younger priests.

But Catholic theological academia is not always open to giving a voice and or listening to those who express such “diversity”.

The Church needs to be more capacious in its theological culture, lived expressions, and liturgical life. This capaciousness must not be, as often said in academic jargon, “less Catholic”.

But just the opposite. It should be more Catholic.

A certain passion for the weird and the woo in Catholicism has never been and never will be everyone’s cup of tea. But recognizing that there is also space in the tent for those Catholics from whom it is may be the first and most necessary step towards addressing polarization in the Church.

  • Massimo Faggioli is a Church historian, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University (Philadelphia) and a much-published author and commentator. He is a visiting professor in Europe and Australia.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.


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