From behind a hand-carved, wooden podium at the front of a colorful classroom, my fifth-grade teacher spoke. The students listened quietly, fascinated by her lesson: how to get to heaven.
"I used to be Catholic," my teacher said. "But it’s a lot harder for Catholics to get to heaven than it is for Protestants." She told us about the Sinner’s Prayer and how awful it is to confess sins to a priest, how questionable the Catholic mass is and how rarely the Gospel is preached in Catholic churches. While she suggested we steer clear of Catholics and their church, my heart pounded hard. My tiny, 10-year-old frame shook. Scared to speak but compelled to do it anyway, I raised my hand.
"I’m Catholic," I said.
With surprised eyes and a foot in her mouth, my teacher changed the subject. After school that afternoon—in my first year at the small, private, Protestant school where I would stay through high school graduation—I told my parents what my teacher taught us. The first time somebody challenged my church marked day one of my journey deeper into Roman Catholic Christianity.
My parents enrolled me in the Protestant school to protect me from the then-failing public school system in our city. Until then, I had lived under the egocentric assumption that everybody is either Catholic or Jewish. Suddenly, what I wasn’t—a Protestant (a concept I only knew existed for a week)—was what I had to be, or else come to terms with the high probability that I was headed straight to hell. So in case it turned out that Catholics could not, in fact, be Christians (or I wasn’t one of the few for whom it would happen), I said the Sinner’s Prayer in bed that night. But the first time somebody challenged my church wouldn’t be the last.
In my school’s Protestant history books, we read that Catholics worship Mary and saints (which, for the record, is not true, in case anyone still thinks it). When I visited a Protestant church where a schoolmate’s father was pastor, the pastor’s wife approached me after the service.
“Your church is of the devil,” she said. I was still in elementary school.
By middle school, it was common knowledge among faculty and staff that a couple Catholic kids—my brother and I—wandered the halls with the Protestants. Outside school, I studied church teaching. In school, I explained church teaching when opportunities arose. I talked Catholicism with my sixth-grade science teacher, the school’s only Catholic faculty member, whose Catholic Bible disappeared that year. He later found it hidden behind other books on a shelf in the school’s front office. Staff members circulated tracts that called Catholicism evil, and at least one guest speaker called the Catholic Church a cult.
One morning in high school, my Bible teacher—a pastor—required me and the one other Catholic in the class to debate with him in front of everyone: the Catholic Church’s teaching on salvation versus his. Afterward, he had each other student pick the argument he or she thought made more sense (which backfired on him when all but two of them sided with the Catholics).
It is not because I’m bitter that I still tell these stories (though some of them still do sting), but because they confirm a couple things I’ve been thinking since I was a kid: Both the Protestant and Catholic camps of Christianity can love and like the other better than we do, and the root of why it’s hard to get along is not the existence of doctrinal differences. It’s our unwillingness to admit that it’s OK for them to exist.
In total, I spent eight years a Catholic in a Protestant school. The day I graduated from high school almost eight years ago is the day I officially agreed to disagree. I decided to be done defending. But I never stopped spending time with Protestant siblings in Christ. The dialogue has never ended. And I have a confession to make: When a Protestant wants to talk Catholicism with me, I sometimes still shake like I did in fifth grade.
I shake when a Protestant asks me how I reconcile what we do at my church with what his or her church teaches, or when a Protestant reveals that his or her concept of Catholicism comes solely from Protestant sources. I shake when a Protestant tells me what my church teaches, as if to edify me, instead of asking what I believe. I shake because adrenaline rushes through me when somebody says they’d like to talk with me and I discover all they’d really like is to ask me if I realize I’m wrong.
Maybe I’m wrong to imagine any motive but love underlies it when somebody zooms in so close on what we don’t have in common. But if love is a goal—and I don’t see why for any Christian it wouldn’t be—I don’t detect any when what’s said is said with a smirk, or involves words like “lies” or “heresy.” Or when someone insists what they’ve read about Catholicism trumps what it’s really like to be Catholic. Or when someone never actually asks me what it’s like.
I don’t propose we pretend we’re all the same, but I think we owe what we have in common more recognition. While I still encounter Protestants who doubt my faith because I’m Catholic, most of my closest friends are Christians who are very active in very Protestant churches. Still, we encourage each other in our respective faiths. We get along. And we can agree on at least these things: Jesus is the only way to heaven, multiple roads lead to Him and Catholics can be Christians, too—a truth I guess I’m not done defending.
Arleen Spenceley is a Roman Catholic Christian, a journalist and a student working on her master’s degree in mental health counseling at the University of South Florida. Visit her blog at arleenspenceley.blogspot.com.