I always find it odd when age is front and center when it comes to these varying perspectives. Unless I ask or it comes to me in passing, I usually assume most of the people I talk to when I’m inhabiting this froggish persona are older than me. It is a strange affectation of being a younger millennial, I don’t associate with generation z in the slightest, although I share some of their frustrations at the world, but I didn’t have the maturity to appreciate the gravity of September 11th, 2001, although I distinctly remember watching the Pentagon burn and hoping my father walked out of it alive.
Yet, when it comes to reliving the older days of the internet, looking back on this digital ayahuasca we all ingest in on almost a daily basis (unless you deliberately log off from time to time or are an orthodox Jew,) it is like a fever dream. I can remember the left-libertarianism of /pol/ when the Tri-Force was the meme for gatekeeping newfags, meatspin, lemon party, Newgrounds being the place for videos before YouTube, the works. Yet I suppose when reading this small Thought Digest from Default Friend, something got stuck in my craw, and I am trying now to best articulate it. I certainly didn’t find it offensive, but I thought perhaps there was something missing to the analysis. So while I’m up against a heavyweight when comes to much bigger names on the internet, I thought I’d add my two cents on the issue and go from there. This isn’t meant to be a “reply guy” response or anything, but when a good thing to catalog is mentioned in the piece, my mind was wondering to the larger trend on some kind of macro scale.
But I’ll start with a few selected passages for you to read for yourselves, and then I’ll provide my remarks.
I remember one of the tells that someone was affecting Star Wars fandom was how they were pedantic about Star Wars trivia. It was like they had this idea in their head that every Star Wars superfan memorized a list of facts and was roving around correcting people. Their idea of Star Wars geekdom had been modeled after 1980s cinematic representations of geeks, as opposed to others in their immediate environment.
These new fans seemed to know a handful of obscure details, and they were frothing at the mouth to break them out, but they lacked a fuller knowledge of the universe. The cinematic universe, the literary universe, the universe of people who had been in this game for 30 years. With these new fans, it was like they’d repeat talking points they found on a forum somewhere, and they used this information to make it seem like they were in it deeper than they were. Like the kid who hasn’t read the book and overcompensates by talking too much or the literary critic who knows he can only worm his way into the scene through takedowns.
Of course, the people who’d call this pattern out looked insane. I should know; I don’t think there was a bigger asshole about being the “authenticity police” on this one (at least within the bounds of a South Florida middle school) than I was.
The response to people like me was, overwhelmingly, to let people enjoy things. So what if people who weren’t “truly” committed to the franchise started pretending to be? Who does it hurt if people pretend to like some movies? The answers to these questions belong in another piece, but I think you see where I’m going with this. The pillaging of Geekdom peaked with The Big Bang Theory, a near-unrecognizable caricature of what it meant to be a geek. (As an aside, even the geek/fan/nerd boundaries blurred during this period. No one seemed to realize that if you’re pouring all your energy into Star Wars, you’re probably not putting that same energy into your schoolwork.)
Anyway, I’m going to be an asshole again and say that I suspect that’s what’s going on with Catholicism on the Internet right now.
I didn’t think I’d be defending TradCaths, but alas, here we are. I will admit up front that there is a lot of what I like to call “Christian Spergery” online, in virtually every facet of Christianity on twitter. TradCaths, Orthobros, Prots, hell, there’s a whole twitter account called Sayings of the Online Elders which explicitly catalogues some of the zaniness. (Although, I’ll admit, I’d like to be on there one day.) And I should preempt any sort of criticism, wherein one might read this and say, “Aren’t you taking this a bit personal, Matt?”
Probably because I too am a convert, not to the Roman Catholic Church, but to the Orthodox Church of America. I’ve said before my brush with mortality, visiting other churches, and simply asking questions to people who were of the faith got me to where I was. No Jay Dyer clip or Patriarch Prime tweet got me to where I am now. The younger folks in my parish don’t use twitter, leaving me as the only digital person really there aside from them listening to Pageau or Ancient Faith Podcast. With that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll get to the thrust of Ms. Dee’s point down below, because this isn’t just a TradCath phenomena, but what I find to be a specifically online phenomena when it comes to religion.
If you’re unaware, in the last decade, and especially in the previous four or five years, Catholicism has become a meme, a subculture, and a perceived source of social capital online. The first time I saw Internet Catholics was around 2015, then I started noticing it a bit more acutely and in-person around 2018, 2019, and today, two years after the New York Times’ Weird Catholic Twitter Columbus-ing, we’re seeing Vox explainers about it.
Are we at peak Internet Catholic? That’s anybody’s guess.
Whatever the case may be, we have an influx of people who need to assert that they really are Catholic. And so, in-fighting between the new converts and the people within that milieu who haven’t converted rages on. The new converts need to assert their authenticity and dominance among one another by showing off esoteric knowledge (“only a real fan would know this!”) but also to prove to cradle Catholics that they’re not just hopping on a trend; they belong there.
Of course, many of these people don’t realize that their lack of humility is a tell in and of itself. The person who claims to be an expert in the first week of class is typically the person who scores the lowest on the exam. These new converts are much like those new Star Wars fans in the mid-2000s. Some will assimilate into the fandom, but most will get bored and move on.
Maybe this is where I’ll get to some of my thoughts on this piece. The online “Tradition Catholic” whether for better or for worse, is not yet at it’s peak, primarily for the two reasons of the money behind it politically, and demographics. Catholicism as a political force certainly has some names and money behind it, whether it be the discussion of Vermuele and Integralism, and the growing number of young men, usually on the right, who join the Roman Catholic Church and find it to be a viable political network for their own projects and endeavors. Demography on the other hand is obvious, given the growing number migrants from the Global South in the Western Hemisphere coming to America, raises an interesting question of its cultural staying power in traditionally Protestant America; although I suppose as the GOP moves towards a more multiracial platform with Whites and Hispanics I guess it’s anyone’s guess if it will win over the more hardened evangelical wing of the establishment right.
Yet that’s not the main point I want to get at. I don’t know if many will be “bored and move on.” Unlike the Bernie Bros or the SocDem, Social Democratic Populist movements and their ideologues (Hey speaking of Shoe!) Catholicism’s increase of fervent converts will probably be around for a while, although I hope they’ll come down from their stage cage. This is where I feel, especially as a Catechumen myself where the need to know “deep esoteric knowledge” does come into play. You can read up on the miracles, the lives of the Saints, the various disciples and names mentioned within the Pauline Epistles and feel like you know something. Really you don’t though. The flip side to this, which I feel has only been (and yes I know this is anecdotal) confirmed by the TradCaths online and irl that I’ve spoken to, along with former Catholics in my parish is that when you’re joining any high church tradition is that you’re surprised as how much you don’t know. Anyone who has converted to Catholicism or Orthodoxy will be overwhelmed at first just by how much there is to know, and the simple fact that there isn’t enough time in one’s life or space in one’s mind to know everything or the mysteries of Christ. The thing about the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy, despite their ecclesiastical and theological differences, is that both brothers in schism have a catechesis that does a good job at weeding out those who see it solely online, or God forgive me for saying this, LARP. The Orthodox especially, considering that it takes a considerable amount of time before one can enjoy the holy mysteries.
But I digress.
The reason why I took issue or at least thought that Katherine, who is a very talented writer, was off about this is because Religion, unlike politics has a much more transformative impact on the self than just a political figurehead or change in the political winds for your sails. This is about you soul. Bernie Sanders sure as hell isn’t going to run in 2024, making the Bernie Bro a vestigial, historical flash in the pan moment for an election cycle or two, but Jesus Christ is a little more eternal than that. If all the things that Katherine has articulated in her career, various internet histories, the coming and growing reaction to sex positivity, Tumblr, gender issues, and fandoms, then at least in my perspective she’s done a very good job at giving us a well done historiography on what the internet has done to us writ large. Many have become more vapid, more secular, replaced God for a political figure, new atheism, or some niche ideology we can feel okay knowing we’re a part of because “we’re on the right side of history.”
As I’ve written before, given the growing secularism that holds still, a fundamentally Christian framework within itself despite divorcing itself from the Gospel, doesn’t offer much for many despondent young men whose views may not necessarily jive with the pharmacological salvation of pills, weed, speed, debauchery, and being an “egg” in someone’s eyes just waiting to transition. Catholicism, due to its Western roots has been seen as both the spiritual and socio-political redoubt to many. It’s the reason why Traditional Latin Mass, while available in other parts of the world, has the highest number of those services available in the United States, according to https://www.latinmassdir.org/
I don’t think it’s just necessarily fandom, although twitter and other niche online spaces for the Christian Esoterica definitely gives room to it. Especially when one first takes a step into a larger world. To take from a fellow parishioner of mine, who was raised without religion, became Catholic, and is now an Orthodox Iconographer, said that when joining the RCC she was dumbstruck by just how much there was to learn, and the desire to gobble up every bit of it. With the internet acting as some kind of upper, are we not just seeing that sensation cranked up to 11 with meme culture, blogs, podcasts, and internet bloodsports? It’s pretty easy to spot a faker within the faith, and you’re right, those guys burn out and go away.
But if you talk to any of the guys who are converts, especially with the TradCaths, I think they’re not going away anytime soon. Sure, they might enjoy a Little Dark Age Edit here and there, or constantly get in spats with Protestants or my fellow Orthodox, but as much as the modern world may want to make fandoms out of Christianity I don’t think they’re equivalent to Bernie Bros other than perhaps on the online superficial level. After all, the one line she writes in here, that I think is worth pointing out in her own reflexivity and my own due diligence, is this.
I’ll also add that I recognize that this is internet minutia, but it’s important to bookmark nonetheless: it’s the behavioral pattern that matters, not the specifics.
But Ms. Dee wrote an excellent piece, and her work is good too. So if you’re not already following her work, you should. I just wanted to throw out my two cents because it is not often that I feel inclined to write up something because I read something on Substack the very same day. If this finds your way in your inbox or mentions Katherine, hello! I do not mean this to be an antagonistic polemic, but something I thought was worth adding to as Christian.
As for the rest of you: