TikTok is the social media platform of choice for Gen Z folks. Due to the pandemic, many young people have not been able to have access to sufficient social situations like high schools and colleges. Traditionally, educational and social settings were the places teens and young adults would develop their sense of style. Since society has moved towards becoming almost exclusively internet-focused, trends have popped up rapidly.
What inspired this post was a recent trend I saw on TikTok. You can follow the HippieCatholic on TikTok (@thehippiecatholic). The trend consists of young women wearing rosaries around their necks like necklaces. They always make sure to give the disclaimer that “they are not Catholic”, as if being an actual Catholic were a horrible thing.
This isn’t totally new. In the early 2010s, Tumblr was the platform of choice for edgy teens and 20-somethings to get fashion inspiration. Tumblr was one of the first places I saw youthful interpretations of Catholic art. People loved posting images under the hashtags #catholicaesthetics or #darkacademia.
These images usually depicted reimagined images of Our Lady of Sorrows, neon colored Jesus statues and Catholic aesthetic mood boards. There was a sense of grunge to some of these aesthetics, as many users juxtaposed the holy imagery with pictures of cigarettes and lonely roads. Some of the sacred images were also sexualized, unfortunately.
Religious women (sisters & nuns) were sexualized terribly on Tumblr. As a Catholic, this angered me. Religious sisters are the back-bones of Catholic communities and these Tumblr depictions were meant to degrade them. Religious sisters have asked to not be sexualized. To depict them in inappropriate ways disrespects them and women’s consent.
I was taught that it is disrespectful to wear a rosary around your neck. However, recently I have seen traditional Catholic influencers say that wearing the rosary around your neck is fine if it is done with devotional intent. Yet, many secular Gen Z influencers are wearing the rosary as if it were like any other long necklace.
Is this inherently offensive?
It is sometimes hard to differentiate if an artistic expression is meant to pay homage to Catholic culture or is meant to mock our faith. Anti-Catholic bias is still alive and well in the United States. A heterodox piece of fashion could be worn to call attention to injustice within the Church. But it can also be meant to be simply derogatory.
These debates on whether it’s disrespectful to use Catholic sacred art in secular pop culture exists in the realm of gray that is artistic expression.
First, we should examine what it is about Catholic aesthetics that appeals to young people, from Tumblr to TikTok.
Fast-fashion during the 2010s caused ecological disasters and propitiated poverty. Still, fast fashion was a necessity to the general American public because it was cheap. The United States was dealing with the Great Recession, which was kickstarted in 2008. The success of fast fashion is proof that poverty fuels more poverty.
As a reaction to fast fashion and the troubling economy, many young people began shopping at thrift stores. The thrift shopping trend was based on both protest and necessity, inspiring the “hipster” aesthetic heavily associated with the 2010s. Coming into the 2020s, thrift shopping is still just as popular among young people as it was in the 2010s. I think this is because fast fashion is thriving more than ever in the new decade.
I’m a thrifter myself. Thrift shops have wide ranges. You can go to one store and find mostly discarded LuLaRoe leggings. At another, you can find old dresses that can date back to the 1940s. Thrift stores that are marketed towards the general public often sell other items aside from fashion, such as kitchenware and home decor.
Thrift shops are surprisingly Catholic places. There’s even an entire Facebook group dedicated to Catholic thrifting! It’s rare for me to find a thrift store that does not have a section dedicated to abandoned prayer cards and notorious Catholic kitsch. These objects hold comforting energy for many. For me, they make me think of my grandmother’s house, which is the place my best childhood memories were made.
Catholicism is nostalgic. And if there’s anything Gen Z loves, it’s nostalgia. This is due to cultural circumstances that surrounded us growing up. One of these factors is rampant consumer culture, or as Pope Francis calls it, “throw away culture”. Consumer culture, driven by late-stage capitalism, causes trends to turn over rapidly. Gen Z became accustomed to toys being ripped from their hands before they really got a chance to play with them.
This is like buying an ice cream cone and having someone take it from you and throw it away before you get the chance to give it more than a couple licks, only to be given another. The cycle repeats endlessly. The consumer is never satisfied nor settled.
Growing up, I remember my friends’ mothers bragging to other mothers about how they secretly “threw away” their children’s toys because they were “too old” or “too cluttered”. Overhearing these remarks always made me nervous, so I’d stuff my most precious toys in weird places in my room, just in case my mom got any ideas.
Gen Z is accustomed to invasion. We grew up with school shooter drills, retold stories of intruders who’d knock down the door to murder us. We grew up in the shadow of 9/11. We had the weight of adult expectations placed on our young shoulders. There was this thing called the economy. And the economy was bad. So, because this mysterious force called “economy” was “bad”, we had to work extra hard to get scholarships to go to college.
And if there was one mistake, if there was one leaked photo, one letter “t” not crossed, we’d lose it all.
The economy was a cruel king that ruled every aspect of our young lives. And this king had not a shred of mercy for anyone, not even the children. It is true that when there is economic struggle, religion can serve as an opiod of the masses, as the famous religious critic, Karl Marx, once wrote. But when the young turned to religion, particularly Catholicism, there was no refuge in the pews.
The Catholic Church, like the world, had been infiltrated by evil people who prey on children. Gen Z Catholic kids grew up with the sexual abuse crisis as common knowledge. It was a storm always rumbling in the distance.
Yet despite the instability caused by these countless scandals, the Catholic Church still offers something constant. Eternal life.
Gen Z longs for stability. What’s more stable than an institution that is 2000 years old?
I think this is why religious Gen Z folks are drawn to the Traditional Latin Mass. The Traditional Latin Mass is all about expressing grandeur and majesty. Incense fills the air and candles are lit in the corners of the church. The Latin language falls from the mouth like water from a waterfall. It feels so other-worldly, so mystical, so much older than the Norvus Ordo churches young people associate with the system that failed them.
It is not an accident that traditionalist influencers connect the sexual abuse crisis to Vatican II despite the fact that countless studies have shown that there’s no correlation between Vatican II and the scandals. The aesthetic association is powerful enough for young people to forgo going to Mass at Norvus Ordo parishes in favor of more traditional parishes.
A misconception older people have about Gen Z is that all Gen Z people are leaving the Church. This is not completely true. There is a certain demographic of young people that are leaving the Church. Those who are leaving tend to be progressive or liberal politically. They leave the Church because they’ve been poorly catechized and excluded by parishes. Yet there are other Gen Z people who are becoming very religious. These young Catholics tend to align their beliefs with right-wing politics. Their communities often discourage critical thinking and encourage extremist beliefs.
Young people have either decided to leave the Church completely or they have chosen to become/stay religious, but choose the most reactionary forms of Catholicism.
The Church, to them, is either too behind the times or too modernized.
Older people fail to realize that the internet has the ability to create immortality. Aesthetics and ideologies that have long been abandoned can be resurrected. Since Gen Z grew up with the Norvus Ordo Mass being the norm, of course the Traditional Latin Mass seems new. The rediscovery of old religious customs mirrors the act of thrift shopping; it is refurbishing what’s been discarded & recreating it to serve the modern era.
I don’t think that it is coincidental that Traditionalist Catholic influencers have chosen to wear rosaries around their necks just like the secular girls. I think this is clever marketing. They are aware that the beauty of aesthetics can spark entire social movements. The entire Traditional Catholic movement centers around the beauty of the Traditional Latin Mass.
Ironically, Traditional Catholicism was reinvigorated by the internet.
However, reinterpretations of Traditional Catholic art are often met with horrified reactions from Trads. Many Traditional Catholic podcasters reacted negatively to a picture of Our Lady, posted by recording artist, Audrey Assad, on Instagram
Our Lady was shown drawn with the Third Eye. The Third Eye is a spiritual concept derived from India. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the Third Eye is believed to be in the center of the forehead. It signifies spiritual awakening.
Trads called the artwork “diabolical”, “demonic” and “sacrilegious”.
According to Franciscan priest, Father Richard Rohr, the concept of the third eye is a metaphor for non-dualistic thinking.
Father Richard Rohr goes on to explain his thoughts on the Third Eye, saying:
“The loss of the “third eye” is at the basis of much of the shortsightedness and religious crises of the Western world, about which even secular scholars like Albert Einstein and Iain McGilchrist have written. Lacking such wisdom, it is hard for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into dualistic oppositions like liberal vs. conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.”
At first, it was hard for me to understand why so many Traditional Catholics were scandalized by Audrey Assad’s reimagined version of Our Lady. But when I step into their shoes and view the art from their perspective, I can see that their reactions come from a place of longing to protect what it sacred.
But fear of what one doesn’t understand can be blinding.
Unfortunately, many Catholics struggle with black + white thinking. It is baffling to them that someone who does not identify as Catholic would be drawn to Catholic aesthetics. But these assumptions ignore a truth Catholics already know: Catholic art is timeless. It enraptures themes that illustrate the universal human experience: themes of love, themes of grief, themes of wrath, themes of of joy.
The word “Catholic” means “universal”.
Many secular young people cannot bring themselves to be affiliated with the actual Catholic Church due to the evils it has committed. But many still wish to salvage pieces of comforting Catholic spirituality like rummaging for belongings after a fire.
There’s still power in these rescued relics of Catholic grandmothers.
There is a wellspring of inspiration that comes forth from Catholic faith and imagery.
It is a wellspring that artists of all beliefs draw from. Writers such as Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor took inspiration from the Catholic faith. Flannery O’Connor spoke extensively about being a Catholic writer in the South, a region which is known for its anti-Catholic bias. She is quoted saying:
“The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all” -Flannery O’ConnorTweet
Catholic imagery can be found throughout pop culture. The intent behind each usage of religious imagery is entirely individual. That is what makes categorizing such works difficult. What may be reverential for one artist could be irreverent to another.
For example, the rosary is worn as an accessory in the 1996 horror film, the Craft, which focuses on four teenage girls who practice witchcraft while attending a Catholic high school. This is a deliberate choice made by the filmmakers.
Deborah Everton, the costume designer for the Craft is quoted saying: “I was a little daunted at first, as a lot of it is very ‘Catholic school uniform’, but after thinking about it for a while I realised that I could make even the uniforms character-driven, and since they are actually in those uniforms most of the time, that was an important aspect of the film. I went to an all-girls boarding school, and the idea of a uniform was just a soul-crusher… It made girls realize they could work within the rules and still create an identity.”
Inverted crosses were worn mockingly as earrings to portray the girls’ rebellious attitudes against the main authority at school: the Church. This is an even more fitting metaphor when you consider that the inverted cross is not an anti-Catholic symbol, but is actually the symbol of St Peter, the first Pope. The Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Sure, these symbols are used to show the main characters’ mockery of Catholicism, but it also shows how powerless they feel.
The costume designer (Deborah Everton) goes into more detail about this, explaining that: “Nancy (Fairuza Balk) was possibly the most damaged character in the film, her clothes were like armor to her – she would scare people off.”
Dawning these religious symbols were a way for Nancy to call attention to herself, mocking God. Society often shames people who strive to seek attention, but sometimes those who beg for attention actually really need it. The character, Nancy, is very abused in the film. Patriarchy is a looming enemy in the Craft. Since the Catholic Church has a patriarchal power structure and only focuses on the masculine aspects of God, its symbols can be used to represent the patriarchy. But as the Craft goes on, we see that the patriarchy isn’t just a external force; it operates inside the female characters and pits them against one another for the attention and affection of boys.
The girls are both victims and villains.
The Catholic sacred imagery is used in the film to both signify the characters’ rebellion against their perceived society but also how they’ve decided to focus on external things like how they dress to ignore their true internal struggles It is always easier to blame others for our flaws rather than to place accountability one ourselves.
It is always more difficult to battle the dark forces within us.
One of my favorite musicians, Florence Welch (Florence + the Machine), loves using Catholic imagery in her music, especially in her second studio album, Ceremonials. Ceremonials is a fever-dream of an album, a fantastic reality of angels and demons. The battle is an internal one where both darkness and light fight to lay claim over the mind, body and spirit. There’s sensual lyrics that mirror the professions of the mystics:
“And the heart is hard to translate, it has a language of its own. It talks in tongues and quiet sighs. And prayers and proclamations in the grand days. Of great men and the smallest of gestures. In short, shallow gasps.” -Florence + the Machine, “All This and Heaven Too”
Paralleled by lyrics like this Welch’s debut album, Lungs: “Louder than sirens, louder than bells, sweeter than heaven and hotter than hell,” and “the saints can’t help now, I hunt for you with bloody feet across the hallowed ground.”
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, (Florence + the Machine’s third studio album) features songs titled “St Jude”, “Queen of Peace”, and “Various Storms and Saints”. The album focuses on recovering from addiction and awakening from the fevered state heard in Ceremonials. Florence turns to saints such as St Jude because he’s the patron saint of lost causes.
Yet when asked by interviewers, Welch clarifies that she is not Catholic. She does go on to explain her connection to the religion by saying, “I went to Catholic schools and the first songs I remember liking were hymns.” Florence + the Machine’s music explores themes of mental illness, love, heart-break and female rage all through the conduit of Catholicism.
Catholic school holds a place of nostalgia for many lapsed Catholics. I’m a public school kid so I went to Wednesday night CCD, but some of my close friends growing up went to Catholic school. We love films like Ladybird because Ladybird accurately portrays how growing up Catholic is like, in all its awkwardly wholesome glory.
But there are many people forced to grow up Catholic or who grew up in Catholic communities who have built up resentment towards the religion and feel trapped by it because it has such strong ties to their cultures.
It’s not hard to forget that Ireland is very culturally Catholic. And it’s not hard to forget Sinead O’Connor’s renouncement of Pope John Paul II. She tore up a picture of John Paul II and said “fight the real enemy” on SNL. This was years before the general public recognized the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. The renouncement cost O’Connor her career and her reputation. Since then, O’Connor has converted to Islam. She says she does not regret what she did because she was “young” and had “things to get off her chest” as a survivor of sexual abuse herself.
Sinead O’Connor’s decrying of Pope John Paul II is still notorious in Catholic circles. I think Catholics should reevaluate their anger and understand that O’Connor spoke from a place of pain and anger at the Church. She is accountable for her actions but I think there is room for forgiveness for her as I believe Christ would forgive her.
Art is supposed to make you uncomfortable.
I’m an artist. I write music, screenplays, and I write creative fiction and nonfiction in addition to creating online content for the HippieCatholic. I’ve been able to connect with other artists within the entertainment industry. I even had the pleasure of meeting Hozier, a musician who is well-known for his hit song, “Take Me To Church”.
Hozier described himself as an activist artist using his music to criticize political and religious issues. When I conversed with him, he informed me that while “Take Me To Church” was a protest song calling attention to the homophobia in the Irish Roman Catholic Church, he actually doesn’t hate religion. I asked him if he liked religious podcasts and he said he did. That was when I recommended that he listen to Michael Gungor’s podcast, The Liturgists.
Hozier and I’s conversation was brief because I was there on music business, not HippieCatholic business. At the time of this conversation, my YouTube channel was very small and I was too embarrassed to mention it to him. If any of you would want Hozier to be interviewed on the HippieCatholic (by some miracle) maybe send him my work.
Hozier is not the only artist I’ve met who comments on the institutional Catholic Church. I’ve met many others who are critical of religion, but use religious themes in their music. These artists have expressed to me that they do not hate the Catholic Church. Instead, many of them say they are hurt by the actions of the Church, but they cling to positive memories they have towards the Mass, Mother Mary and sacramentals.
Many artists and designers convey their complicated feelings towards the Catholic Church through their respective artistic mediums.
Gen Z is drawn to Catholic aesthetics because of the promise of stability the Church offers. But the feeling of betrayal that was caused by the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church continues. As news breaks about another sexual abuse scandal, about more bigotry contrary to the Gospel message, more progressive young people flee.
We’re exiles of our faith.
Gen Z experiences feelings of collective”hiraeth” in regards to the Catholic Church. “Hiraeth” is a Welsh concept that describes a feeling of homesickness for a home you can’t return to, no longer exists, or that never was.
This exiled feeling of longing results in secular young people returning to symbols of their spiritual homes, though not returning to those homes. Because to them, those safe places no longer exist, if they ever existed at all.
The young carry pieces of these forsaken spiritual homes with them. Sometimes around their necks, sometimes in their pockets, sometimes hanging from dashboards. When they look at a crucifix, they see both pain and solidarity.
Do I think it’s disrespectful to use Catholic imagery in secular art & fashion? It depends.
It would be naive of me to say that all heterodox Catholic art is appropriate. However, it would be equally naive for me to argue that all secular pieces utilizing religious imagery are doing so out of disrespect for Catholicism.
Instead of demonizing young people for being drawn to Catholic art, I challenge you to use the art as a conversation starter about Catholic beliefs. Don’t cast yourself as the Catholic villain young seculars have come to know all too well. Share your faith with love while respecting the boundaries of others.
Contemplate that though we have done nothing to seek the Divine, God pursues us always and will often do so in the languages we know.