Faith-based

Why Shia LaBeouf’s Conversion to Catholicism Is So Scandalous

The Latin Mass, which the actor claims attracted him to the practice, is deeply controversial.

Shia LaBeouf, in a beard and blue suit, scratches his face and smiles.
Shia LaBeouf at the premiere of Amazon Studios’ “Honey Boy” on Nov. 5, 2019, in Hollywood. Valerie Macon/Getty Images

In an interview with a popular Catholic bishop published on Youtube on Thursday, Shia LaBeouf announced that he was converting to Catholicism. His spiritual journey, he explained, had come about during a dark part in his life when he was suicidal and grappling with intense shame and depression. LaBeouf was exploring his role as an Italian mystic priest for the upcoming drama Padre Pio, to be released next week, when he decided to convert to Catholicism himself. He was inspired partly after, in preparation for filming, LaBeouf lived briefly in a monastery with Capuchin friars in Northern California. “When I walked into this, my life was on fire,” LaBeouf said in the interview.

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In 2020, LaBeouf had been accused of abusing his ex-girlfriend, FKA twigs. (Her lawsuit against him will go to trial in 2023. LaBeouf has called the abuse allegations false, though he has said his failings were “fundamental.”) Catholicism, with its teachings on sin, confession, and forgiveness, gave him comfort. “It was seeing other people who have sinned beyond anything I could ever conceptualize also being found in Christ that made me feel like, ‘Oh, that gives me hope,’” LaBeouf said in the interview.

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Though this was not even the major Shia LaBeouf news of the week—his part in the ongoing drama with the film Don’t Worry Darling has certainly been juicier—for the active Catholic community on social media, it’s been big. Almost all of the commentary has focused on one specific element of LaBeouf’s story: that he converted, in large part, because of the Latin Mass. “While we were practicing Latin Mass, I was having genuine emotional experiences,” LaBeouf said in the YouTube interview.

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The response to that comment from right-wing Catholics and conservative Catholic media was gleeful. One editor of a traditionalist Catholic newspaper said LaBeouf was speaking “truth to power.” A reply to a tweet from an account called “Catholic Manhood,” described LaBeouf as “Latin-pilled,” in a positive way. Other tweets professed to “be moved” and find “hope” in LaBeouf’s transformation from “a Hollywood Liberal to Traditional Catholic.” The whole thing was taken as a major victory for orthodox Catholics. So what is the Latin Mass, and why was its role in LaBeouf’s conversion so celebrated?

The traditional Latin Mass is at the center of an ongoing controversy in the Catholic church: the small, conservative group promoting it claims it is a beautiful and true expression of the faith, while more progressive Catholics—and Pope Francis—see it largely as a breeding ground for reactionary beliefs and conflict in the church. The TLM, as it’s called by those who celebrate it, refers to the “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite that makes up the rituals and prayers of the Mass and which was in use until the 1960s, at which point the Second Vatican Council took place and ushered in the “ordinary form” (Novus Ordo, or NO).

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The overwhelming majority of Catholics attend Novus Ordo Masses; indeed, the overwhelming majority of Catholics today have likely never seen anything else. But traditional Latin Masses have a small but highly enthusiastic faction in the church. The main difference between the two rites is in style and not substance: In the extraordinary form, priests recite prayers in Latin instead of the vernacular; they celebrate the Mass facing the altar, with their backs to the congregants; there are no female altar servers. Proponents of the TLM describe it as solemn, beautiful, ancient, mysterious, sacred. Traditionalists believe that the Latin Mass is key to reviving the faith among young Catholics.

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It’s not surprising that LaBeouf, who grew up in a mixed Christian and Jewish household, would be compelled by the TLM. While there’s no good data on what attracts people to Catholicism, most observers would agree that converts (at least those driven by a personal impulse rather than those converting for family reasons) tend to be more traditionalist than cradle Catholics. This makes sense: if someone was drawn into Catholicism specifically, it would track that the elements that differentiate it more strongly from Protestantism—the rituals, the antiquity, the mysticism—would be a significant part of that appeal.

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There’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying the Latin Mass. (With the caveat that some traditionalist groups, such as the semi-legitimate Society of Saint Pius X, incorporate fully outdated parts of the pre-Vatican II liturgy into their worship, which can include explicitly anti-Semitic elements.) In the interview, LaBeouf explained that he was drawn to the Latin Mass because it was “immersive” and felt “almost like I’m being let in on something very special.” Fair enough!

But the traditionalists who love the TLM can be deeply toxic. “Trads” embrace traditionalism that goes beyond the language spoken in services. Many of them reject the reforms of Vatican II altogether, and stick to uncompromising positions on gay marriage, divorce, and the dress of women and their role in society. Their extreme counterparts, the radical traditionalists, or “Rad Trads,” often go further, idolizing the crusades, making vile comments about Jews and Muslims, and spreading conspiracy theories that decry the infiltration of the church by evil forces and accuse Pope Francis of being an antipope or even antichrist. The Rad Trad community flourishes on Twitter and Reddit and Discord, trafficking in memes about the saints and feminists and monarchism.

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These highly engaged traditionalists may be small in number (most Catholics are blissfully unaware of the “liturgy wars,” as this debate is called). But they are well represented among clergy, including bishops and cardinals. And over the course of Francis’ papacy, their dissent has grown increasingly loud, to the point that many liberal Catholics began to worry that the culture wars in the church would lead to schism. The controversy came to a climax last summer when, in an effort to crack down on the “division” sown by the traditionalists, Pope Francis laid down strict rules for when and where the traditional Latin Mass can be conducted. The outcry that followed was intense. Pope Francis has not backed down from his position; In June, he said that those who “call themselves guardians of traditions, but of dead traditions” were “dangerous” to the church. Traditionalist Catholics have continued to claim to be martyrs.

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Shia LaBeouf, in his interview, gave those traditionalists ammunition. In the interview, he said he hadn’t felt as much spiritual connection in modern Masses with guitar playing and priests who crack jokes—a common complaint made by the traditionalists. He also complained he had felt the Novus Ordo Mass was trying too hard. “The Latin Mass affects me deeply,” he said. “Because it doesn’t feel like they’re trying to sell me a car.”

LaBeouf may not be aware that he is diving into a culture war by speaking about his love for the Latin Mass. And his larger interview shows he did bring nuance to the topic. The quote-tweets joyfully sharing the “sell me a car” line left out the part where he agreed “you don’t want to be exclusive, either, which is what Latin Mass feels like sometimes.”

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But his ignorance is a little hard to defend, given that he did acknowledge at one point that “I don’t want to get too far into this, because then you get into controversy.” There’s another reason it seems LaBeouf knows exactly what side he’s taking: he told the interviewer that he had sought guidance from Mel Gibson in his conversion process. Gibson is not just an unabashed anti-Semite; he is also someone who speaks at traditionalist Catholic events, builds churches for disaffected orthodox Catholics, and makes friends with radical right-wing priests. (His father, Hutton Gibson, was a leading proponent of the idea that all popes since Vatican II have been antipopes.) In fact, in the interview, LaBeouf said that Gibson was the one who had shown him where to find the illicit Latin Masses.

As an individual on a religious journey, he should certainly find an expression of the faith that works for him personally. But he should also realize: Far from being a refuge from scandal, his embrace of the Latin Mass will likely plunge him head first into another controversial debate.

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