When I went to Catholic school, I didn’t really consider myself a Catholic. I hated the constant prayer, the not-so-subtle nods to purity culture, the sixth-grade religion teacher who didn’t support UNICEF because they provided condoms. In seventh grade, my mother was mortified to overhear me telling friends that I was “giving up religion” for Lent. But most of all, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a supposedly benevolent God when I had witnessed so much loss first-hand.
For the most part, I had little reason to worry too hard about my religious identity. Almost everyone I grew up with was some level of Catholic. Most of the people I went to school with were somewhere on the scale of agnostic; they had grown up Catholic but rejected the harsher parts of religious teachings. Most believed in God, but not everyone did. I was living in a religious community, but it was lax enough that I didn’t even notice it.
Besides, the schools I went to were relatively progressive for Catholic schools. In high school, I started a feminism club with some friends (though dealing with our administration as we tried to start this could warrant a whole different essay). No one ever told me that gay people were going to Hell, or that Hell even exists, for that matter. While I didn’t fully embrace Catholicism, I grew up understanding that it could be compatible with my political and moralistic beliefs, as progressive as they are and were.
That all changed when I got to college. When I started at Emory, it was the first time in my life that I wasn’t in a majority-Catholic environment. Back home, I didn’t even factor religion into how I identified myself—being “culturally Catholic” was certainly a given at school, but it even was in the Bay Area at large. If I told people at work that I was Catholic or that I went to Catholic school, they knew what that meant.
As I learned in college, this isn’t the case everywhere. I found myself having to explain myself more than I ever had in my life. Obviously this is a privilege that I’m afforded by being a white person from an affluent area, but it made me question my identity more than ever. I faced a choice: reject Catholicism completely, or become a spokesperson for it. Neither option felt particularly appealing.
After disclosing that I grew up Catholic, some of my fellow Emory undergrads immediately asked whether that meant I didn’t believe in gay marriage, or if I thought that people who have abortions are going to Hell. Soon after meeting someone, I was asked my thoughts on how much money and power the Vatican has.
To an extent, these are valid questions; gay people are still unable to get married in a Catholic church, and many Catholics do believe that abortion is murder. The Vatican has an insane amount of capital. I would be more than willing to discuss these issues with people who genuinely want to have a conversation. But these questions, especially coming from people I barely knew, in rooms full of non-Catholics, didn’t leave space for me to share my perspective. Instead, they boxed me into a corner to essentially defend myself, and the faith community in which I was raised, from all criticisms of the religion. And what’s more: I don’t think many of the leftists who asked me these things would be comfortable asking them of someone coming from a different faith tradition.
When I started hearing this sort of backhanded criticism of my religion, my immediate reaction was to protect myself and scapegoat my faith. In discussions about religion, I would quickly reassure those around me that “I’m really not that Catholic.” On Ash Wednesday, a major religious holiday for Christians, I mentioned to a friend that I’d have to leave dinner early for the service. She looked at me in surprise, and told me she didn’t think I was so religious that I would go to mass. I didn’t end up going.
Ash Wednesday was a bit of a turning point for me. I regretted not going to the service—the first Ash Wednesday mass I had missed in my life. I didn’t want to be the type of person to shy from her identity for fear of judgment. And what’s more, being away from Catholic school made me realize that for better or for worse, I missed the sense of community that comes from a shared belief system. Even if I don’t always agree with Catholic teachings, I believe in community, and I believe in the core principles I’ve taken away from the Bible: live to serve others, to love, and to forgive.
This all happened weeks before COVID-19 hit the U.S., leaving me little time to actually participate in person in my faith (I have little interest in Zoom mass or Bible groups). I have, however, started finding smaller ways to incorporate religion into my life. I keep a rosary near my bed, which I sometimes use as a sort of meditation when my nighttime anxiety is making it difficult to fall asleep. When I can, I try to discuss religion with my friends who are more practicing than I am, or who are similarly struggling with their faith. I’ve found my way onto the progressive Christian side of TikTok, which provides me with a better understanding of theology that’s compatible with my own beliefs, as well as humor about religion coming from people within that faith.
But most of all, I’ve decided to stand by my faith, to learn more about it, and to try to live by it, instead of rejecting it the second someone challenges it. I am by no means a model example of a Catholic, or even a fervent believer. But I am a Catholic, and I’ve learned to say that with my chest.
By Sheena Holt
Illustration by Shawna X. for The New York Times