I left the church, but the church will never leave me

A student discusses how her parents’ religious views and Catholic school education influenced her identity growing up.

For 13 years of my life, I went to Catholic school. 

From kindergarten to senior year of high school, my eight-hour school day revolved around prayers before homeroom, blessings after lunch, daily theology classes, weekly masses and monthly confessions. 

The uniforms we wore were a constant physical reminder that reverence was a virtue and individuality was a vice.

My teachers were prohibited from giving their opinions on contentious issues in the Catholic Church, like abortion rights or gay marriage. My favorite teacher, who was the only one brave enough to disobey the rules, left the year after I graduated.

We weren’t taught sex education. Rather, we were taught women on birth control emit a pheromone that makes men “less attracted” to them. Ironically, my teachers based this assumption on an experiment conducted on monkeys, in spite of them also refusing to teach us about the process of evolution. The hypocrisy astounded me. 

My white male teacher listed the answer to the question “men and women are equal” on a true or false exam as false. Despite having several attempts to take the quiz, I put true every time, refusing to sacrifice my morals for one extra point.

Most students who went to my school were Catholic, and those who weren’t were usually Protestant. The Protestants were perceived as outsiders, and the lessons we were taught in theology only emphasized that they were wrong in the eyes of the Catholic Church. When the rest of us received communion, I could feel the judgement falling on them as they remained seated in their pews.

My parents forced me to go to church every Sunday until I was finally old enough to get a job and work on weekends. My parents and grandparents still pester me to go to church while I live on my own, and I lie and say I do to appease them. 

When I lived at home, I always had a crucifix in my bedroom, looming above my door. It was as if Big Brother was watching, and I could not escape his perpetual gaze. 

The moment I felt I’d broken away from the church was when I went to prom with my best friend at her school. My school would not allow same sex couples, even if they were platonic. We both wore pant suits, making us the center of both negative and positive attention.

Though my high school days are far behind me, the effects of being taught the same anti-feminist rhetoric every day still linger.

I am not religious anymore, but I have to occasionally push back my internalized sense of humiliation, shoving its way from the back of my mind. 

At first, even the thought of having sex in college arose feelings of guilt within me. Because I was taught to not have sex until marriage, losing my virginity felt like I was losing a part of myself. 

But looking back, I realize I did not lose anything. On the contrary, I gained something: the newfound confidence I did not have as a scared little girl in Catholic school, fearful of eternal punishment from an imaginary paternal figure.

Marriage is another sacred sacrament in the Catholic Church that I began to wrestle with in college. In high school, we even had to do a project in which we chose one person in the class to “marry.” Only heterosexual partnerships were permitted, of course. 

When I was a teenager, I fantasized about the day I’d walk down the aisle in a white gown. My parents were always insistent that it be in a church, but as I approach the ripe old age of 22, I’m not sure I want it in a church. In fact, I’m not even sure I want to get married at all. Maybe the only reason I feel I must get married and have children is out of obligation. 

I have my parents to blame for my identity crisis too, as they enrolled me in Catholic school under the guise of it being a “better education.” But being fed the same propaganda for over a decade did not help me get into a better college. The only function it served was to stifle my growth and keep me sheltered, like Rapunzel trapped in her tower. 

Even if I am not part of the church anymore, the church will always be a part of me. 

I will always have that crucifix hanging over my head, and no matter how many times I take it down, it will mysteriously reappear. 

This is not a miracle — it’s a curse. To this day, I am unlearning misogynistic inclinations that were implicitly or explicitly instilled in me by my parents, priests, teachers and principals. And I will continue to feel the shame of being naked in the Garden of Eden after having bitten into the forbidden apple, in spite of how good it tasted.

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