How Catholicism Moulded My Identity, Even as a Sceptic

Aoife Smith
Jun 9, 2019 · 8 min read

When someone says the word Catholic, what do you initially think?

Image for post
Image for post
Image from Pixels

The majority will be consumed with images of war, chaos and bible thumpers, some will envisage magic and lies, of water turning to wine, forbidden fruit and spying snakes. Others, archaic ideas, of pro-life and anti-divorce, of celibacy and living in sin.

That’s certainly what ideas are tattooed in my mind, and I was raised an Irish, Roman-Catholic, as are most Irish people — to varying degrees.

Growing up, we follow a regimented routine of baptism, confession, first holy communion and confirmation to round it off. These Catholic events are linked so carelessly and unquestionable with our school curriculum, that it still seems strange to me when someone hasn’t been baptized, even now when I apparently have more maturity and worldly awareness.

Making my Communion and Confirmation plays in my memory of more closely resembling a social event, than a spiritual step. It was an occasion to wear a nice dress, see my relatives, eat a lot, and truthfully, get some money.

It isn’t until surpassing confirmation, arguably the final conception into Catholicism (aside from last rites, of course) that anyone begins to question the institution they so willingly and obliviously participated in.

In teenage years, the question is thrown about a lot; ‘Do you really believe in God?’ and on my part, was usually met with an uncomfortable shrug.

On multiple occasions, I provoked myself with the question; what do I truly believe?

And after at least ten years of self-interrogation, I still truly have no idea.

It feels impossible, to disembody thirteen years of ingrained, trusted Catholicism. It was beyond socialized, that it seemed obvious, as normal to me as speaking English, as learning Maths, as understanding History.

The blame that is rightly pushed onto religion as a source of toxicity in the world, only further distanced me from my raised religion, forcing me to dissociate with parts of my childhood and education.

A problematic time to question an institution is when you’re at the age that you believe you know everything and the opinion you obtain is all-knowingly and unchanging. It’s a juxtaposition, to pretend you are boundless while secretly in search of answers and security.

To further the burden of teen angst and false awareness is the underlying history of Ireland. Catholicism doesn’t simply play the part of a belief system but is a pillar to our identity.

In Ireland, the segregation and dispute between Catholics and Protestants are deeply rooted in our upbringing. To some, these simple, arguably irrelevant markers, define you as either Irish or a British ally. A neighbor, or an enemy. An age-old mindset that is still taken seriously in areas of Ireland, and Northern Ireland today.

Image for post
Image for post
A Scene from the show Derry Girls, where they discuss the differences between Protestants and Catholics

Out in the real world; discussing religion and god is sure to end in debate and arguments. A topic so grand would never enter a conversation limply. It is an all-encompassing topic with no right or wrong, no final word. The blame that is rightly pushed onto religion as a source of toxicity in the world, only further distanced me from my raised religion, forcing me to dissociate with parts of my childhood and education.

So, when I came across the term Lapsed Catholic, a previously buried and silenced intrigue in the matter illuminated, and I threw myself into this newfound terminology.

The definition is as follows;

‘A Lapsed Catholic is a baptized Catholic who is non-practicing. Such a person may identify as a Catholic and remains Catholic according to Canon Law’.

Bingo, I thought. I had finally discovered my perfect definition on the matter, my go-to explanation if the topic emerged.

Unfortunately, it isn’t so simple.

Delving further into the definition of a Lapsed Catholic, it becomes less relatable. A Lapsed Catholic could be someone who rejects Christian teaching, someone who falls into sin or someone who dissents from the moral teaching. Not exactly the harsh defining characteristics I was looking for, especially when baptism marks a spiritual belonging to Christ, which no sin can erase, allegedly.

Perhaps the problem is, that Catholicism is merely too black and white, to tolerate the multi-color of our modern world. It’s overly simplified, and the world is an intricate labyrinth.

We hear of terms such as anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Catholic or Christophobia but it’s rare that we discuss the discrimination against religion as a whole, or rather, the fear of discussing or identifying with a certain religion.

I think the collective power of religion relies on the fear of death; the fear of death itself and the fear of what is after. Believing in a higher power is an appealing safety net, a guardian angel that has your back if you absolve yourself from sin.

Though avoiding terrible acts out of fear of higher punishment is still immoral, in some cases it works. I wonder, would a world without religion really be much better?

Regardless of religious preference or views, death is terrifying and death anxiety is real. Even with my confusion surrounding religion, in times of fear or great stress, I find myself referring to whoever’s listening ‘up-there’, for help or guidance.

Whether this is an indication of a fast-paced, startling world with no comfort, or this directly stems from my ingrained Catholicism, I don’t know.

There is no denying that religion has caused a majority of sorrow in the world. Wars, abuse, terrorism, and discrimination.

However, what if, we considered the number of people who don’t sin for fear of punishment in the afterlife? Isn’t God the original creator of karma?

A lot of human motivation, whether to act or not act, is inherited from the consideration of consequence. Though avoiding terrible acts out of fear of higher punishment is still immoral, in some cases it works. I wonder, would a world without religion really be much better?

Ireland has made strides, high leaps to leave behind the god-fearing state it once was.

Just over a year ago, abortion was made legal. Three years before, same-sex marriage was written into the constitution. Only since 1996 was divorce allowed and extra-marital sex, Living-in-sin, a child out of wedlock are normalized now.

Yet aside from these massive movements, the low attendance to church and the distance surrounding the topic, religion is still deep-seated, perhaps subconsciously, in our actions.

Image for post
Image for post
A scene from the beloved Irish sitcom, Father Ted

For someone to say ‘I prayed for you’ or the simplicity of the knowing statement ‘I lit a candle for you’ is still regarded a considerable indication of solidarity, even to the most non-believing. It isn’t an obnoxious gesture of faith, but one of love.

Ireland has had a troublesome past, with the great famine, the harsh British rule and the fight for independence. It’s a country so rich in history, and a big part of what connects us to that past is our religion.

Defining yourself as Catholic seems impossible if you are from generation Y or Z. It is a black mark of betrayal, for the modern ways and movements the younger generations are making.

Despite its promising intrigue, the term Lapsed Catholic doesn’t seem to hit the nail on the head either.

Faith is the unwavering trust and confidence in something you cannot see or prove, but base on spiritual conviction.

If there is anything our history has shown, it’s that religion can be burdensome and often carries many negative, complicated connotations. Yet I cannot deny the different perspective it has offered me, being raised Catholic. My identity is complex, and there is no definite answer to my religious beliefs, but this institutionalized religion has offered something.

Often, I don’t realize how innate my Catholicism is until I board a plane and find myself, secretly and subtly, saying a quick prayer to ensure a safe flight. When I change handbags, I make sure to transfer any religious emblems I have in those bags (medallions and prayer cards) as though they are some sort of guardian angel. If I’m in a foreign country and visit a famous church, I won’t leave without lighting a candle. Whether these actions are a result of anxiety or god-fearing conditioning, I’m not entirely sure.

Faith is the unwavering trust and confidence in something you cannot see or prove, but base on spiritual conviction.

Much of what we learn now, is planted in science. The science versus religion debate is a long one, with no real winners unless you are prominently planted on one side or the other. I myself, often lean toward the scientific perspective.

Image for post
Image for post

What my Irish-catholic upbringing has offered me, is more than just a brief bible education and a fear of sin. It’s given me a foundation for kindness and generosity, a capability to believe in more than I see. This doesn’t necessarily refer to a spiritual force that dictates the world, but rather in my connections and understanding of others. It has given me the capability to believe in things beyond the surface, to see the good in the bad.

To judge at face value, with unoffered second chances, is an understandable reaction. But it could be argued, that this is the reason for our dwindling social communications and connections, our growing ignorance and impatience.

It is difficult to say which came first, the internet or the rejection of God, but the two are intricately linked in our budding society today.

While the downfall of old-fashioned interactions is attributed to social media and technology, it isn’t a one fits all answer. It is a complex issue with an abundance of layers that is the source for this evolutionary glitch. It is the increasing dependence on our phones, the helpless comparisons, and the incessant documentation.

But it is also the busyness, the unhappiness, and the isolation. Perhaps people fifty years ago were happier, and perhaps this was an outcome of faith.

They had less bombarding news stories, more solitude, and peace. It is difficult to say which came first, the internet or the rejection of God, but the two are intricately linked in our budding society today.

The point is that young people shouldn’t be scowled for not believing and young people should respect their peers for believing.

I realize that I am selfish in my beliefs, I believe when it suits me, not standing through the process to fully gain from it. I have one foot in the door and one out, waiting for a depraved or questionable thing to happen so I can either seek out my faith or deny it.

Ultimately, like many others, I do not know what I believe. An after-life, a higher power, destiny, consequence, who knows?

But what I am certain of, is that regardless of so-called meaninglessness, I say a prayer when I am scared about something. I carry religious emblems, gifted to me by true believers, as a symbol of luck. I revel in the idea that my loved ones pray for me, and light candles at important times.

I believe in good karma and kind actions leading to consecutive rewards. I try to see the good in others, and I try to empathize with their inner, uncontrollable motivations. I trust in unity, in understanding, and in kindness.

Whether that directly links to a religious upbringing, I’m not sure I will ever know. But these ideal’s and affirmations, I am certain of.

And that is all that matters.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store