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Confessions of a Catholic Kiwi schoolgirl

Baradene College, ranked the top Auckland secondary school by NCEA pass rates in a recent analysis by Metro magazine.

A Baradene old girl looks back in conflict, and questions whether there’s a place in her life for Catholicism now she is a mother herself.

My 1980s childhood was very Catholic. We went to church every Sunday without fail, even when we were away at the beach, even on weekdays if we were at home sick or during the holidays. Decades of the rosary before bed, grace before meals. To this day, if I am travelling overseas, my mum does a sign of the cross with her thumb on my forehead before I leave.

Baptism, first communions, confirmations were all celebrated with family gatherings. Both my parents came from large Catholic families, so there was no shortage of rellies. My family was more observant than most of my friends were, but most people I know went to Mass on Sundays in the 80s and 90s, tapering off as we moved into our teens. Apart from me. I was frog-marched along until I left home to go to university.

No one of my generation goes on Sundays now, except perhaps at Christmas. But most, like me, have kids of their own – and about half have had them baptised.

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I went to Catholic schools all the way through: a small community co-ed for primary, and then to Baradene College (a secondary school for girls in Auckland). I have very happy memories of that time. My best and oldest friends are girls I went to school with, and I had some inspiring teachers, at Baradene in particular (as well as some awful ones, but it’s the inspiring ones I remember most now). Our art history teacher said it was so much easier to teach us the Renaissance material than it had been at her previous role in a state school; of course, we’d known all the stories about the nativity and the Assumption since we were tiny.

We didn’t attend daily Mass, but we had religious classes three times a week and prayers in assembly. We weren’t taught Creationism or any rubbish like that – religion didn’t influence science classes, for example. For Bursary, we studied Foreskin’s Lament by Greg McGee and took turns to read it out in class, effing and C-bombs and all. So, in many respects, it was quite an enlightened education.

That didn’t extend to sex, though. In sixth or seventh form, we were forced to sit through some fairly graphic material on abortion. The extent of our sex education was a natural family-planning session delivered by one of the school’s few remaining nuns. A bit of a case of shutting the gate after the horse had bolted, given we were all pretty clued up about more effective options by then. (We were also taught about cults and how to recognise them, which we thought was fairly hilarious.)

Ironically, one thing I still think was really valuable about my Catholic education was that those religious classes taught us how to examine things critically and how to argue. I have a theory that this formative experience of arguing your corner, of pushing up against the “Powers That Be”, is why Catholics are over-represented in law and journalism.

However, I can’t reconcile being a feminist, and my belief in reproductive freedom, with being a practising Catholic. So, apart from sheer laziness, that was a tipping point for me. The Church’s position on so many issues –contraception, abortion, gay marriage, the role of women – is so far from mine, the two just can’t co-exist.

Still, I’m conflicted. I married a non-Catholic (probably the first person in the history of my family to do so), but we were married in a Catholic church and our son was baptised. In part, it was the path of least resistance. I knew my family would be upset if I didn’t, and my husband didn’t mind. In fact, he was actively in favour of baptising, purely for pragmatic educational purposes, so we did. And, honestly, it would have felt weird for me to get married on a beach. Old habits die hard.

Anthony Andrews (left) and Jeremy Irons in the 1981 British TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. Andrews plays Lord Sebastian Flyte, the son of a wealthy Catholic family.

I don’t know if I’ll send my kids to a Catholic school. On one hand, I like the idea of them going to a local state school; I was always driven to school across town, so my friends didn’t live locally. On the other hand, I had a really happy time, and I think I had a good education. I’m wary of being hypocritical when I don’t believe most of it, but then I think, well, neither will 99 per cent of the other parents there.

I don’t mind the religious aspect so much when children are little. There is a bit about Catholicism in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (one of my favourite books – take from that what you will) where Charles says:

“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

“Can’t I?”

“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

“Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

I think that’s how many Catholics believe, probably me included. They ignore the rules laid down by the stupid old men politicking in Rome, and they believe in the ox and the star and the baby, and new hope at Easter.

I understand that, and I have sympathy for it. But it ignores the reality of the power those hidebound old men in Rome still have. Not over us in New Zealand, living in a secular state with well-funded access to contraception, a decent education system and adequate (if not perfect) abortion rights. But conservative Christian political policy has a real effect on women’s health, particularly throughout the developing world, but also in so-called First World countries like the United States. I find it hard to accept being involved in the Church, thereby implicitly endorsing its policies, when I have the freedom to pick and choose what bits of its policies I’ll follow, while others don’t have the same freedom.

A prerequisite for being Catholic is being able to simultaneously hold at least two contradictory beliefs – which is why I don’t think Bill English’s religious beliefs will materially affect public policy. I wouldn’t expect to see him spearhead abortion law reform, but I’d be surprised if he sought to impose his beliefs on largely secular New Zealanders. The fact that he walked back his position on gay marriage is recognition of that. He has six children, and I’d be surprised if they haven’t challenged his conservative beliefs over the years.

I know my own parents are far more liberal on social issues than they were 20 or 30 years ago. My mother, for example, would call herself pro-life. But when I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Mum, you’d have women dying from illegal backstreet abortions with coat hangers,” she said, “Well, of course it needs to be safely available.” “Well, that means you’re pro-choice...” “No, I’m not!”

The biggest issue for me, especially since having a child of my own, has been the abuse scandals. The extent of it, and the extent to which it was covered up for years, even until very recently, is sickening and indefensible.

It outrages me that many (not all) Catholics are more concerned about protecting the Church than they are about protecting vulnerable children. I watched Spotlight last year (on a plane to Rome, ironically) and one scene really resonated with me, when Mark Ruffalo’s character is asked why he stopped going to Mass. “Typical shit,” he replies. “But the weird thing is, I think there was a part of me that figured one day maybe I’d go back.”

Later, you see him at the door of a church on Christmas Eve, watching a children’s choir.

What he said really struck me and I started crying, because I felt exactly the same. How can you go back, when you know that kind of evil was not only committed but covered up?

But then, if the only people who are part of the Church are those who don’t speak up, how will it ever change?


This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.