I am the product of 14 years of Catholic education. From pre-K to my senior year of high school, I took required religion classes that ranged from Rebuttal of the Big Bang to Commitment or Die Alone, attended monthly school-wide masses that always ended in at least one girl passing out and was incessantly urged to incorporate the ideals of Catholicism into my not-so-Catholic lifestyle.
Beginning at the tender age of 3, I became familiar with the burden of Catholic guilt, and by the final year of my all-girls high school, had become acclimated to it. However, despite this specialized type of academia, I didn’t confront the truth of my spirituality until arriving on campus in September: I barely qualify as Catholic.
I may be able to recite the Apostles’ Creed by heart, but I didn’t actually know that’s what the hymn is called before looking it up two seconds ago (the browser tab is literally still open). Until the age of 13, I could mindlessly recite biblical responses, but then the Vatican decided to slightly modify them, and I never bothered to learn the differences. The book of Exodus and the “Passion of the Christ” were ingrained into my head, and I can still be called upon to regurgitate them when asked. But none of this makes me a dedicated member of the Catholic faith, and since arriving at the University, I have met people with half the exposure to Christianity as me, yet have twice the passion, three times the spirituality and four times the friends (whether that is religion’s or my personality’s fault is irrelevant).
Never before have I interacted with so many different faiths at once. Sure, a large percentage of my Catholic high school was Protestant, and a smaller, more noticeable percentage Jewish, but that was it. If anything, the student body left the school more religiously diverse than it was coming in: There definitely weren’t as many declared atheists my freshman year as there were my senior year. It was a mass religious conversion of born and bred Catholics to nonbelievers.
At the University, I have talked to students about faiths ranging from Hinduism to Evangelical Christianity, and I can’t help but notice an overarching trend in the people who demonstrate a compelling faith. Out of all the individuals I have met, those who share my background of lengthy Catholic education seem most likely to distance themselves from the faith, or simply give up on it.
In his standup act “Catholic School Sunglasses,” comedian Mike Birbiglia adeptly describes the effects of Catholic education, saying, “You can always tell who went to Catholic school as kids because they’re atheists. Because they really beat it out of you.” Those who have not are the ones who regularly attend church, a feat incomprehensible to me, yet easily practiced by many. Oddly, I can’t help but feel jealous and slightly intimidated by their passion and drive, while also feeling exhausted by most church-related activities.
In my English class, there’s a boy who, on the first day, humbly expressed how God is a major part of his life and how he recognizes and accepts all the love God has to give. Being the open-minded individual I am, I dismissed him almost immediately. But now, several weeks later, I have talked with him on numerous occasions and have grown to reluctantly respect, even slightly envy, this student’s incredible spirituality. He overflows with kindness and modesty, carries a Bible at all times and makes everyone (and by everyone I mean me) question their perpetual cynicism, all while never having experienced a day of Christian education.
I can’t help but wonder what causes this discrepancy. Christian education is meant to instill us with values and faith, and though I’m left with decent, manageable values, I can’t say the same for my faith. Patterns such as these are noticeable in the students I have met here. There are those who rarely attended mass before arriving at the University, but now attend it bi-weekly, and there are others who despite their previous distance from faith, now find themselves immersed in it. Although there’s an instant lifelong connection between survivors of Catholic education, these relationships are often highlighted by an absence of faith and nihilism.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, whenever I encounter someone else who attended a single-sex Catholic high school, I’m immediately able to bond with them. It’s a strange thing to bond over, a shared bitterness toward the ritualistic niceties performed daily at these schools, but it’s bonding nonetheless. Catholic education has caused my faith to deteriorate, while secular education has produced devout Christians far more spiritual than I could ever hope to be.
Despite this realization, I can’t help but acknowledge that a Catholic education provided me with a stellar education, regardless of the number of Bible passages I memorized to fulfill it. My back might still be a little sore from carrying this heavy Catholic guilt, but it’s nothing a deep tissue massage and years of therapy can’t fix. When it comes down to it, I’m doing all right.
Natalie Zak is an LSA freshman.