Millennial Catholics and the Fight against Extremism

Young, motivated believers find themselves in a precarious position, balancing between the extreme tendencies of any faith and the secular millennial world of material idolization, substance abuse, and mutual sexual objectification. Examining how different people and groups become radicalized provides a lens into this special position, how orthodox Catholicism in particular, but any faithful traditionally-rooted religious tradition, can testify to a more loving, more peaceful, and more fulfilling life. In other words, although our religions are different, millennial Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, and other traditionally-rooted religious groups are in a unique position to simultaneously combat the excesses of Western secular life and the violent religious and ideological radicalization rising across the West and Middle East.

Secular depictions of radicalization are often confused and find the roots of violent discontent solely in racism, sexism, or xenophobia. These issues are undoubtedly factors, but are not the complete picture. If we want to combat radicalism and propose healthy alternatives to contemporary cultural discontent, we must understand why people turn to violence. A recent New York Times piece addresses the xenophobia supposedly experienced by three British teenagers who fled to join ISIS: “A lot of young Muslims…feel that Islamophobia is a very prevalent thing…And then a group comes to them and says, like, ‘This is where you come,’ this is where they will be complete. ‘It’s a home for you.’ That appeals to them.” Feelings of alienation cut across religious, political, and racial lines, so that some ex-neo-Nazis report feeling their culture under attack. As another Times article notes of Swedish ex-radical Robert Orell, “The immigrants who had bullied him at his school were now, in his view, bullying his culture as liberal politicians stood by.” Clearly, a feeling of persecution or “otherness” motivates a retreat into religious or ideological seclusion, often culminating in a desire to do violence to one’s persecutors.

Xenophobia and marginalization play a part, but are not the whole story; rather, we must examine what mainstream culture offers millennials to see why youth turn to extremist religions and ideologies. If they are abandoning “normality,” we should ask why so many are blending contemporary culture with a sort of conservatism. Many aspiring radicals look just like any other millennial. They might watch popular TV shows, haunt social media, or otherwise fit in with mainstream culture. One of the British girls mentioned above, Amira Abase, never stopped seeming normal because of her radicalization: “In her posts, under the name Umm Uthman Britaniya, typical teenage commentary about fashion, school and her favorite soccer club (Chelsea) increasingly mixed with posts inquiring about how to learn Arabic quickly and what behavior is Islamic and what is not.” Likewise, Robert Orell “drifted into a group of soccer hooligans with links to neo-Nazis” before fully embracing the ideology. He fell in with the hooligans only after meeting them through the local punk rock scene. Those who become radical might feel that they are outsiders who need a place to belong but they also project an implicit critique of their surrounding culture. Teenagers rebel; these teenagers, however, rebel not just by transgressing norms, but by retreating into ancient, or at least old, traditions. Where they turn is as important as the fact of their turning. Conservatism takes on a transgressive function.

Certain strains of millennial Catholic subculture also express this rebellious discontent with the culture, sometimes indicating telling, and ultimately helpful, similarities with their non-Catholic counterparts. As many sources have noted, the number of Latin Masses offered in the West is up, as are the number of attendees. Even articles critical of, or inquisitive about, the trend admit that it has had a particularly large impact on millennials: “Benedict’s decision to loosen the restrictions on the Latin Mass greatly enhanced the religious devotion of many Catholics. Latin Mass Catholics often partake in frequent confession, fasts, feasts days, and adoration…[now there exists] a subculture of young Catholics skeptical of contemporary Catholicism and the reforms of Vatican II.” Accompanying this trend is a quasi-hipster element: savvy at social media and fashionable, but not unfaithful. Just as Amira Abase and her friends were noted for their intelligence as well as their seeming “coolness,” some within these circles are trendy in their interests. As an Aleteia piece observes, one Latin Mass churchgoer was a “24-year-old in skinny jeans…with craft beer in hand.” Liturgically-conservative Catholicism is not just for the stodgy.

The similarities between actual radicals and their discontented Catholic counterparts run even deeper. Pages like Catholic Memes have become popular for their often conservative, but also funny and current, takes on issues. Though clearly with a different purpose in mind, Jihadist websites have been quick to capitalize on memes and other facets of internet culture to further their goals. As the Times reports, “A recent post linked to an Islamic State account paraphrased a popular L’Oréal makeup ad next to the image of a girl in a head scarf: ‘COVERed GIRL. Because I’m worth it.’” Some Facebook pages like “The Earl of Grey” represent an element within this movement, which jokes about violence. The rallying cry of the First Crusade, “Deus Vult” [God wills (it)], is now an anime-inspired meme. There is no violent Catholic outlet that parallels ISIS, but the idea of, at least theoretical, religious violence is present. Even within older orthodox Christian circles many feel persecuted, leading some to call for authentic renewal. Although one could argue that they are overreacting, what matters in this analysis is their perception of persecution, not its existence At base, then, these are feelings similar to those experienced by Jihadi radicals and other disaffected youths.

These similarities, however, do not make all subcultures equal; millennial uneasiness with the prevailing culture often manifests itself in conservative movements against the mainstream that are non-violent. Whether they be non-Jihadist, conservative Muslims; Latin Mass Catholics; or Orthodox Jews, many youths do not feel at home in the modern West. They just get less attention than their violent counterparts because of their peacefulness; they are seen as outliers. Nevertheless, these groups shine out as beacons of a millennial life that engages the culture without becoming violent. For many, the culture is a failure. Women turn to mantillas and hijabs, protesting a seeming dearth of respect within the world of contemporary feminism. They raise large families in perceived opposition to a culture unwelcoming to new births. Men grow beards in defiance of supposed emasculation. Many would argue that their secular counterparts feel the hollowness of life around them as well, hence their increasing desire to get lost in subcultures, have no-strings-attached sex, and otherwise busy themselves to their dying day. In their hearts, they acknowledge what Kierkegaard wrote long ago in his Journals:

Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household. One keeps this anxiety at a distance by looking at the many round about who are related to him as kin and friends, but the anxiety is still there, nevertheless, and one hardly dares think of how he would feel if all this were taken away.

While this discontent might seem horrible, it is actually a normal part of the human condition and presents an opportunity for millennial Catholics (and other millennial believers) to engage the culture, steering people away from violence, and leading some to faith. Engaged Christians who understand the listlessness felt by those who turn to anger and, too often, violence are in a position to demonstrate how religious belief can lead to a sense of overpowering love and devotion, not unjust fury and needless conflict. That deep sense of otherness could be converted from the theology of rape enshrined by ISIS into feeding the hungry, tending the sick, and other forms of charity. Instead of letting uneasy youth think that there is nothing holy or giving left in the West, young Catholics are in a position to stand up, proudly rooted in a tradition simultaneously ancient, continuous, and organic. Just as right Catholic social action does not adhere to simple political binaries, so right Catholic theology defies both the violent extremes of millennial disaffection as well as the hollow idolizations of secular culture. The faithful can affirm the failings of their time and place without arguing for its violent destruction. Mainstream news outlets often fail to see the source of this discontent because they do not understand religious zeal or the existential uneasiness found in believers’ hearts. And where they have failed, believers must succeed; we must set ourselves between the extremes of our day, calling for the calf and the young lion to browse together, for the beating of all swords into plowshares, all spears into pruning hooks.

Chase Padusniak is a graduate student in English at Princeton University, where he specializes in medieval literature.