American Catholics are really excited about Britney Spears’ announcement on Instagram that she is “Catholic now.” An article on the website ChurchPOP noted: “Whether or not Spears’ announcement is serious, let us continue to pray for her. Our Lady of the Rosary, please pray for Britney Spears!” Catholic social media influencer Lizzie Reezay of the popular YouTube channel “LizziesAnswers” (225,000 subscribers) in turn declared: “She twirls in a blue flower dress…. This is amazing, let’s pray for her journey.”
In one sense, it is exciting (if it’s true). But it wouldn’t necessarily be exciting for the reasons we (or Catholic media) might be inclined to think—say, that her conversion might incite heightened interest in the Church among her fans; or, perhaps, that a former teenage sex icon might become a voice for chastity and Catholic teaching on sexuality.
No, it would be exciting because it is wonderful news whenever anyone becomes Catholic, be that person brilliant or uneducated; wealthy or poor; famous or unknown. As Christ Himself says: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Yet Confirmation services don’t typically elicit much euphoria or media attention (though perhaps Britney’s will!).
It’s easy to get wrapped up in celebrity culture, whether explicitly Catholic or not. I couldn’t tell you George Clooney’s partner’s name, but I can tell you that the couple are expecting twins—because I saw it on the front cover of a magazine at the grocery store the other day. There are many well-documented reasons for this sociological phenomenon.
We often feel like we know celebrities and have some connection with them simply because we regularly see them in newspapers, magazines, movies, on the nightly news, or on our favorite television show. When beloved actor Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020, many treated the news with more concern than if they had heard that a family member had contracted the virus. God forbid anything should happen to Forrest Gump, Captain Phillips, or Woody!
Knowing about celebrities also makes them personable to us, perhaps because we, too, would like to feel special or in the limelight. Do any celebrities hail from your hometown? Professional athletes, Olympians, a Broadway director, and even an astronaut all claim my old high school in Virginia as their alma mater. (So does the initial accuser of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. She was a classmate of mine—and no, I don’t have any comment on her!).
Christians (including Catholics) are not immune to this. As my friend and fellow writer David Mills recently noted on Facebook, “Christians love to identify themselves and the Faith with worldly success. That suggests at least a little, repressed, doubt about it. They want the validation of having a famous, successful person endorse it.” There is a certain kind of relief that comes with having our religion affirmed by a celebrity. If Stephen Colbert is Catholic, it’s got to be OK, right?
Certainly, some of this is at work in regard to the news regarding Britney Spears. And as much as it is an infatuation with hype and famous personalities—and less about Christ continuing to build His Church—the more it reflects the degree to which we as Catholics have become vulnerable to the ephemeral, narcissistic news cycle of celebrity culture. This is good neither for us nor for the superstars we celebrate.
For one, just because a Catholic is a celebrity doesn’t mean their thoughts on Church teaching or various theological or liturgical controversies are any more valid. People are typically celebrities because they are beautiful or have athletic or artistic talent, not because they are brilliant or morally exceptional. Yet how many people, Catholic or non-Catholic, have decided that extra-marital sex, contraception, homosexuality, or transgenderism are morally permissible because some so-called Catholic celebrity like Lady Gaga has said so? It is essential to remember that it is the ecclesial hierarchy, and not Hollywood, that wields magisterial authority.
Secondly, celebrities, just like us, are sinners. Indeed, the seductions presented to famous people are often far graver than those we daily face in our homes or in our jobs. Frequent travel with adoring fans, loads of cash, and constant, excessive praise would tempt even those with strong integrity to surrender to lust, greed, and arrogant pride. And in celebrating celebrities, we may find easy excuses to take the same moral shortcuts we see them take—“Hey, she wears those kinds of outfits, why can’t I?”; “He does indulgent things with his money, so I should too.”
Alternatively, our own faith in Christ and His Church may collapse when those we idolize choose to apostatize. Moral or religious failings by those in the public eye are tremendously scandalous and harmful, as the ongoing fallout from former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Cardinal Angelo Becciu makes strikingly clear. The more that we place such persons on a pedestal, the more damaging it will be both for the Church and her witness in the world.
I cite those two clergymen because the problem with Catholic celebrity culture is not limited only to actors, athletes, and musicians but extends even to those in our little Catholic subcultures. I know Catholics who devotedly devour any and all content produced by their famous Catholic “thought-leader,” whether it’s Bishop Barron, Matt Fradd, or Fr. Michael Schmitz. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a fan of such persons, as long as their content is orthodox. (I personally see no reason or evidence to think the above three are not, in case you were curious).
But relying too heavily or exclusively on any Christian celebrity risks unhealthily narrowing our understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic Church. It also potentially threatens our own Catholic faith if that celebrity suffers a moral failure, goes off the theological rails, or even apostatizes. As a former evangelical who was deeply fond of Ravi Zacharias—whose egregious sexual sins were hidden until after his death—I know such things are a real threat.
If the news is true that Britney Spears is Catholic, it would truly be something worthy of celebration—as well as our prayers. But perhaps it would be better if we were more excited about the little victories the Holy Spirit is securing in our own families, communities, and parishes. For our Lord’s way is not that of the celebrity: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
[Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons]