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How Catholicism became a meme

One of the world’s most powerful religions is now an alt status symbol.

A display of Catholic memes, including one of Cher reading “Do you believe in life... ...after love?”
Do you, though?
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

When was the first time you realized Catholicism was … different? For me it was during my friend’s confirmation at a Lutheran church, filled with tall, stoic Scandinavians in a handsome but mostly featureless room. Protestants, it seemed, were allergic to the type of excess and drama that defined Christianity until Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, their services far more grounded in humility. This particular church had a female reverend, and it championed the liberal ideologies that were espoused in much of suburban Vermont: gay people and women deserve rights, divorce is fine, help thy neighbor. Their communion was actual bread rather than the flavorless circular wafers I was given at Mass. It was, from what I could gather as a Catholic teenager who did not spend very much time thinking about God, a cool church.

Belonging to a “cool church,” however, is no longer the status symbol it might have been a few years ago. A-listers like Justin Bieber, Chris Pratt, and the Kardashians have touted their affiliations with Protestant megachurches like Hillsong, Zoe, and Churchome that preach an Instagram-ready approach to traditional evangelism. Within the last year, Hillsong, the most influential of the bunch, has suffered a series of scandals stemming from its founder’s inappropriate actions toward women, as well as a Discovery+ documentary aimed at exposing its toxicity.

It is impossible to argue that the Catholic Church is any less sinister than anything Hillsong or its ilk have done. It is in fact very sinister, but it is the kind of sinister that Catholicism represents that makes it easy to argue that, at least aesthetically and culturally, Catholicism pairs well with this precise moment.

A year or two ago, I started seeing a bizarre trend on TikTok in which people argued the superiority of Catholicism with videos that juxtaposed Evangelical preachers and modernist churches with old, gilded Latin Masses. Around the same time came a buzzy fashion brand whose signature piece is a bikini top with the words “Father” and “Son” on each of the boobs and “Holy Spirit” on the bottom. This was also during the unfortunate resurgence of the Satanic Panic and the fortunate rise of Lil Nas X grinding on the devil, and the TikTok generation’s embrace of Old World fixtures like piano bars and red sauce joints. All this coincided with a larger aesthetic shift, a pendulum swing toward magpie “grandmillennial” home decor after a decade of post-2008 minimalism. Then last month, Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker — both former (?) members of Hillsong — held one of their three nuptials in what the New York Times called “a Gothic altar that looked as if it came from the set of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet” at a castle on the Italian coast.

Kyle Hide, a 31-year-old in Brooklyn, thinks about all of these things, all the time. They’re a co-founder of the popular Instagram account @ineedgodineverymomentofmylife, which documents surreal, absurdist memes about God, often with a Catholic bent. (Recent posts: a Dall-E AI-created image of Patrick Star being crucified, a plea for “an American Girl doll who saw Joan of Arc burned at the stake.”) Along with three friends they met on Twitter in the mid-2010s, Hide compiles bizarre imagery mixing internet culture with the divine, the sincerity of which their followers can never quite agree on.

The truth is somewhere in between irony and earnestness, but leans toward the latter. Hide was raised Catholic, even serving as a cantor in the choir. They now practice astrology and identify as a cultural Catholic, but in terms of spiritual belief, describe themselves as “more of a nothing in particular.” “I was trying to separate what I didn’t like about Catholicism from what is fun about it,” they tell me over coffee. “What motivates me is an awareness of God, or a provocation to make people think about their beliefs and a higher power.”

Before the pandemic, Hide says, the account only had a few thousand followers, made up mostly of the founders’ extended social networks. Now at 63,000, Hide attributes the growth in part to quarantine. “Being home alone without your routine makes you confront your faith, or other deeper things that society isn’t dealing with,” they say. Today, the @ineedgodineverymomentofmylife account receives daily orders from its merch store, making enough money for Hide to cover their rent.

@ineedgodineverymomentofmylife has found devotees of all types, from extremely online millennials and zoomers to, as Hide describes, “Christian dads with, like, Ezekiel 35 in their bios,” to religious academics. One of the latter group is Chris Stedman, a writer and professor of religion at Augsburg University, who’s also noticed a renewed interest in Catholic aesthetics among young folks, both in the “edgy, grungy” expressions of meme accounts or the “trad cath” (Latin masses, veils, etc.) aesthetics of fairy tales, angels, and royalty. “For people whose exposure to Christianity was a certain kind of Protestantism — bare bones, Kool-Aid for communion — you encounter the ‘smells and bells’ of a Catholic church and you might gravitate toward it,” he says. “It’s over-the-top, it’s colorful, it’s excessive, it’s campy.”

Fashion has always found ample inspiration in this aspect of Catholicism, which has influenced such a wealth of garments that the Met devoted its 2018 gala to the subject of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, which became the museum’s most popular exhibit ever. Popes have long been icons of fashion, unintentionally or otherwise, so too have Catholic schoolgirls and medieval paintings of saints.

In a piece for i-D magazine, Biz Sherbert argues that the most recent wave of Catholic aesthetic reclamation comes after the last several years of public reckonings over cultural appropriation. More white people now understand that to wear a feathered headdress or a bindi will cause negative social consequences. Therefore, Sherbert writes, “alt white kids have had to adapt and look for new ways to differentiate themselves from the sea of normies and basics. Trendsetters began to avoid ripping off styles from people of color … their pursuit of Otherness now took place within the strict limits of familiar, quaint horizons.”

What better way, really, to denote oneself as an “other” than to embrace the undeniably beautiful, but also sort of malevolent motifs of the Catholic church? Chicano youths in ’30s and ’40s Los Angeles wore rosary beads as rebellious fashion statements, as did goths and punks in the ’70s, who also looked to motifs like Celtic crosses and Day of the Dead altars. Today we have brands like Praying, which sells the aforementioned Holy Trinity bikini, along with baby tees that read “God’s favorite” and “Want not.” “It’s a way of using nihilism to move past nihilism,” one of Praying’s co-founders told High Snobiety. “What we’re trying to do is say things and show images that have two meanings. A lot of the time, these meanings are competitive. They can be ironic or completely sincere.” So far, Praying has been spotted on Olivia Rodrigo, Charli XCX, Megan Thee Stallion, Rosalia, and Jennifer Coolidge; it’s also been knocked off by Fashion Nova.

Catholicism “coming back” sounds a little bit like fill-in-the-blank trend reporting; you take one thing that’s literally thousands of years old and decide that, suddenly, young people are discovering it. Even that justification barely tracks — only 17 percent of Catholics are between the ages of 18 to 29, and one-third of young Catholics say they expect to attend Mass less often post-pandemic. One curious statistic, however, is that the percentage of self-identified Protestants in America is down 10 points in the last 10 years, while the Catholic share has stayed basically the same. It’s highly doubtful this has anything to do with memes or changing tastes in fashion — more likely it could be a reflection of many Evangelical Christian churches’ fervent embrace of Trumpism or a symptom of declining religious affiliation in general.

Yet it could also be because Catholicism connotes a specific culture as much as it does a belief system, a uniting identity for many American immigrant communities — Latinos, Italians, the Irish. Protestantism, meanwhile, is the foundation on which the country was built; along with whiteness, patriarchy, and capitalism, Protestant ideology cements itself into nearly every aspect of American life. However much power the Catholic church currently wields (a lot) and has wielded throughout history (a lot), in America, it will always be, to some degree, alternative.

While Protestant places of worship have often strived to seem welcoming and familiar, like a business conference or a sports stadium, walking into a Catholic church means leaving behind everything about the secular, hyper-commercialized urban life that I and many other Americans lead. Though I often spent Sunday Masses as a kid zoning out or trying not to laugh at our notoriously terrible organist’s singing abilities, I remained fascinated by the pageantry of it, the robes, the incense, the insistence on displaying the most realistic and therefore horrifying crucifixes possible. I loved that in CCD classes we didn’t have to memorize the Bible and instead learned about the saints and martyrs and how evil sex was (which, of course, made it sexier). In my freshman year of college at a Jesuit university, I loved reading Thomas Aquinas, who to this day makes one of the most convincing cases for the existence of God.

A Baroque style fresco painting, very Catholic, with dense imagery of  people and the sky.
Pretty, right?
Getty Images

“Catholicism is nice because it involves a whole body of work outside of the Bible — it’s a very aesthetic, literary religion,” the Red Scare podcaster and provocateur Dasha Nekrasova, a practicing Catholic, told Interview magazine. “What’s so great about faith is that it doesn’t have to be grounded in rational thought. We are seeing a lot of people return to religion because everything feels so senseless and pointless, so why not be a Catholic?” Some have viewed Nekrasova and her particular crowd as, the New Statesman described, “a scene that practices transgression for its own sake … flirtation with reactionary concepts such as the abandonment of ideals of social progress, Catholicism, and an admiration for the aristocratic past.” Essentially, it’s the argument that this particular brand of social conservatism is a reaction to annoying “wokeists” and little else.

Neither Stedman nor Hide see it that way, though. “I think a lot of us are experiencing the benefits and the power of being able to leave or reject institutions that aren’t serving us and go our own way,” says Stedman. “Anytime there’s some significant technological advancement, there is gain, but there is also loss. It’s really natural to say, ‘I’m going to try and reclaim this older way of doing things.’”

Or perhaps it’s just about the pretty cathedrals, and maybe that isn’t so terrible, either. “The church I grew up in was so elaborate and beautiful, and there’s something spiritual about that, too — decoration, ornamentation,” says Hide. “The purpose of it is to supersede all things, and there’s something comforting about that.”

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