When my grandparents enthusiastically voted for John F. Kennedy, reconciling Catholic life to the American mainstream seemed possible. Today, in the wake of Roe and Obergefell and Occupy, it does not. Catholics must now discard the idea of an aspirational centrism, and embrace the role of unashamed dissent.
On the left, it is already happening. Even as the Catholic Democrat is dying, a new kind of Catholic leftist is coming into being. The most prominent of these is the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig, a writer who is merciless in her criticisms of Republicans and Clintonites alike. She has been attacked by conservative Catholic “tradbros” for her economic views, and by operatives close to the Clintons for her opposition to abortion. (This latter group is said to be behind her husband's recent firing.)
Alongside Bruenig is a freewheeling group of young people who ask questions such as, “What would a Catholic Marxist look like?” They gather on a private online discussion group called the “Papal Octopus,” a reference to an anti-Catholic cartoon that shows a Romish cephalopod encircling America with its tentacles. On Twitter, these young “tradinistas” run an ongoing inquisition, promoting an alternate conception of Catholic politics by scourging anyone naïve enough to retweet a defender of free love or free markets. They are also woke on racial matters. As others slumber in the face of systemic injustice, they say, “Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion.”
Unafraid to defend Catholic dogma, they tend to think little of Amoris Laetitia but admire Laudato Si’. When an editor at a Catholic journal proposed to the other members of the group that Catholics needed to line up behind Tim Kaine, he was met with arch dismissals—not just because Kaine was insufficiently left on economic matters, but also because he was insufficiently dogmatic on sexual ones.
The motto of the tradinistas might be, “Win the class war, win the culture war.” How it is to be won is, in good Marxist fashion, a matter of dispute. Some, after chiding Herbert McCabe for his doctrinal failings, echo his calls for open class struggle. Others seek to overturn the order through lives of quiet virtue. To them, Theodor Adorno’s observation in Minima Moralia that “The long since frigid libertine represents business, while the proper and well brought up lady represents yearning and unromantic sexuality” suggests the possibility of silent subversion.
It has been hard not to notice that whereas John Paul II spoke of “the culture of death” and Benedict XVI of “the dictatorship of relativism,” Francis instead condemns “the throwaway culture.” His enemy is the same as his predecessors’, but he pays more attention to the economic and material realities that ensnare us in vice. By doing so, he avoids the suggestion that sin stems from a simple lack of personal virtue or mistaken idea left us by Ockham. If welcoming this change places one on the left, I am there alongside more than a few other young Catholics. When it comes to the tradinistas, I think I'm not a contra.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things. This is excerpted and slightly adapted from an article published in the September 23 issue of The Catholic Herald. The tradinista manifesto has since been published.