After 21 consecutive years of attending one Catholic school after another, I made the deliberate choice to earn my Masters in Social Work-a predominantly secular degree-from a non-religious institution. Though I would not trade my Catholic education for anything, for I would not be either where I am or who I have become today without those schools, I know I had been partially secluded from some realities of society because of my Catholic lens. Certainly, I did not leave my Catholicism behind me when I walked onto to this new kind of campus, but I needed to be taught from a different perspective. After nearly two months at this non-Catholic affiliated school, I am fully living the tension of being Catholic in an anti-Catholic world.
From the time I wore a plaid jumper at St. Patrick’s elementary to the day I received my M.A. in Theology in the shadow of Our Lady’ Golden Dome, I was aware that the Catholic Church historically has not been well liked in the U.S. and still today has much more negative stigma than positive associations among both non-Catholics and former Catholics (“recovering Catholics” as they often refer to themselves). Jay P. Dolan’s The American Catholic Experience recounts the story of the Catholic Church’s role within U.S. society from the first missionaries in the Spanish and French settlements, to the establishment of Maryland as a Catholic colony, through the flood of European Catholic immigrants, and into the present. Though we rarely experience lynchings or have crosses burned in our yards any more (for the KKK began “admitting” Catholics into its membership in the late 1960’s), being Catholic is still not an easy path. Dolan argues that Catholics never really found their footing in the U.S. until the election of John F. Kennedy as president (which allowed most Catholics to transition from working to middle class), yet most historians believe that JFK won In Spite of his Catholicism. In 1928, Al Smith certainly lost the presidential election to Herbert Hoover because of his Catholic identity, and afterward Smith lamented that “the time hasn’t come when a man can say his beads in the White House.” Since the death of JFK, no man or woman has again been given the right to pray their rosary at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, and I don’t think that is coincidental.
The problem with us is that if we are truly Catholic, that is really living the Gospel of Jesus, we do not and should not align with either the religious right or the secular left. More liberal mainline Protestants see us as too entrenched in Tradition while conservative Evangelical Christians rarely recognize our salvation and think we worship Mary and the saints (which is NOT true). On the other side, secularists clump us in with all “Religious Fanatics” (i.e. Evangelical Christians) even though many Catholics greatly differ on issues such as Evolution (Catholics DO believe in evolution-as God’s way of creating), a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible (Catholics believe Scripture is the inspired Word of God but do NOT believe the Bible is literally, word for word, true), and issues of Salvation (Catholics do NOT believe that non-Catholics or non-Christians are doomed to hell).
So I continue to live in the tension of both trying to change the oppressive and outdated aspects of the Church I love while also defending the Gospel, Tradition, community, and beauty of Catholicism to a society that still refuses to accept us. Without a doubt, this modern Apologetics is another chapter in the 2000 year Catholic experience that I doubt will change soon. For though it was definitely easier to spend my days at a Catholic university surrounded by people who typically agreed with my same core beliefs, I am confident that I am living the Gospel better by being a voice for Christ and the Church in an anti-Catholic America by working to change our bad reputation in the way I live my life.
Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and has worked as a parish faith formation minister, social worker and in college campus ministry. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends. Her favorite saints are Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.