ROME – When World Youth Day opens in Lisbon, Portugal, one week from today, it will mark the latest edition of the most massively successful version of a “politics of identity” in organized religion today, a clear and indisputable way of proclaiming that Catholicism isn’t sliding toward extinction but remains alive and well.
To be clear, organizers of World Youth Day always take pains to insist that they don’t want to it be an identitarian exercise in any negative or exclusive sense, stressing that it’s open to anyone. At the same time, there’s also no missing the point that it’s the biggest public expression of Catholic symbols, vocabulary and practice on the planet, often dubbed the “Olympic Games” or the “Woodstock” of the Catholic Church.
So far as we know, the first use of the phrase “identity politics” dates to 1977, when it was coined by the Combahee River Collective – a group of Black lesbian feminists and socialists, who wanted their unique perspectives and experiences to claim a place at the cultural table.
Quickly, the concept of a politics of identity spread to a variety of other groups, many of which regarded themselves as rebelling against a set of cultural norms and biases they associated with the sway of organized religion. Nowhere was that more the case than with the Gay Pride movement, which by the mid-1980s had turned their rallies into one of the most high-profile exercises in identity politics in the world.
In truth, however, to the extent these assertions of identity treated religion as the dominant social ethos, it was a reaction out of time.
By the early 1980s, secularization already had transformed religious faith from a culture-shaping majority in Europe and North America to a subculture itself, one whose members in many ways also felt besieged, misunderstood and, increasingly, even persecuted, much like their counterparts in the Gay Pride movement, though obviously representing wildly different sets of values and aspirations. It’s part of what the future Pope Benedict XVI meant by quoting Arnold Toynbee to the effect that the destiny of organized religion, at least in the developed world, was to be a “creative minority.”
That was the great intuition of Pope John Paul II, who recognized that Catholicism needed it own politics of identity, especially in the West, not merely to arrest a gradual decline in visibility and influence, but also to challenge a growing cultural mindset that sees religion as a purely private affair that shouldn’t be paraded in public.
To which WYD was, in effect, John Paul’s version of Johnson kicking Berkeley’s rock: “I refute it thus!”
Today, World Youth Day is on a short list of the largest regular gatherings of humanity in the world, rivaled only by events such as Hinduism’s Kumbh Mela festival and the Arba’een Pilgrimage in Shia Islam – both of which, by the way, also make the point that religious faith is hardly on a global endangered species list.
Before proceeding, let me be 100 percent clear: I am not comparing WYD to a Gay Pride rally in order to make some sort of snarky statement about a “gay lobby” in the priesthood, or about closeted gays and lesbians in the Church, or about raunchy behavior by delegates to a World Youth Day, or anything of the sort.
For the record, I covered both the 2000 World Youth Day in Rome, which drew an estimated two million people, and also the World Pride Roma rally in 2000, which attracted somewhere between 500,000 and a million. The two events came about a month apart, in early July and early August respectively, and I can testify from personal experience that the demographics and agenda of the two crowds were unmistakably different.
What they had in common, however, is that people in both venues seemed electrified by the chance to be part of a vast throng, all expressing pride in the same basic set of values and symbols.
Many young Catholics I’ve spoken to at World Youth Days over the years say that back home, they’re sometimes considered outliers for going to church on a regular basis, or praying the rosary at school, or refusing to have sex or to drink and use drugs, or for dressing modestly, or for whatever other markers of Catholic identity they embrace.
In similar fashion, if you talk to many young LGBTQ attendees at a pride rally, they’ll tell you they feel misunderstood by their families, or schools, or workplaces, or sets of friends, and that sense of isolation is often the hardest part of their experience.
For both cohorts, therefore, the chance to spend some time in an environment in which they are the clear majority, in which their values are reinforced and celebrated rather than mocked, and in which they can finally “be themselves,” is often life-changing experience.
Gay Pride rallies around the world have become cultural mega-events, as have World Youth Days, and at more or less the same historical moment, because both respond to the perceived need of different groups to create such public displays of pride and belonging.
During the Panama World Youth Day in 2019, the two worlds actually collided. A small group of LGBTQ couples and supporters gathered outside the massive Del Carmen Church, which had been a meeting point for protests under Manual Noriega, saying they wanted to take advantage of the spotlight created by the Catholic youth festival to assert their own existence and identity.
Of course, one key to the success of World Youth Days is the presence of the pope, who galvanizes the massive crowds the event always generates. Indeed, one could make the argument that a World Youth Day is simply the largest and most multi-layered version of the impact of papal travel generally, which is always a chance for local Catholics to embrace, solidify and proclaim their identity publicly.
Not accidentally, papal travel in the sense we know it today was also pioneered by John Paul II, who was, in some sense, therefore, the Pope of Identity Politics.
Next week in Lisbon, that legacy once again will be on display. For many participants, the chance to celebrate Catholic identity in the company of like-minded youth from around the world will be the highlight of the event – in effect saying to the world, “We’re here, we’re loud and proud, and we’re not going anywhere.”
If that reminds you of anything, the similarity probably isn’t entirely an accident.