We’ve always known that one of the biggest challenges of raising our children here in Italy would be religion. Here, Roman Catholicism is so entwined with the Italian culture that it’s practically a genetic trait. Everyone identifies as Catholic—even our irreligious friends who only darken God’s doorstep for Christmas Mass, even our grumpy old neighbor who thinks the Pope is a fraud, even the famously corrupt Berlusconi. But we don’t.
I suppose we’d consider ourselves non-denominational Protestants, which comes across as inoffensive (if annoyingly non-committal) in English. However, the term in Italian is evangelici, and the Vatican has repeatedly warned against the divisive strategies of Evangelical “sects.” With that one word, we’re painted as part of a subversive and politically sponsored movement deployed to steal ground from Catholicism, so we’ve learned to anticipate the awkward moments when new friends try to decide whether we’re cultish insurrectionists or just weird Americans.
Fortunately, Italians are as warm and welcoming as their food, and my heart swells a few sizes in appreciation for this culture every time someone initiates another respectful, curiosity-driven conversation about our differing beliefs. Those conversations are treasures for me, both because respect is such a commodity in these days of online mud-slinging and because I really do want to know more about what my friends believe, what fuels their spiritual journeys, what makes their souls tick. I’ve written before about laying down my own prejudices against Catholics, and I’m honored that they do the same for me. Friendship through diversity—it’s a glimpse of heaven on earth.
But I’ve also written before about my discomfort with religion being taught in the Italian public schools, and the older our girls get, the harder it is for me to navigate this cultural divide with confidence and grace. By law, we have the right to opt out of religion hour, and we do… though with some misgivings (especially because Natalie is sent to sit at the back of another class during that hour, which counts as illegal discrimination). One of the other mamas told me that the class teaches completely objective universal truths, and the slight sharpness underpinning her voice made me think that maybe we are being ridiculous, that maybe we’re sadly overprotective parents who are raising our girls to mistrust authority and fear differences of opinion. The religion teacher for Natalie’s class has been trying to convince us as well, assuring Natalie that the only thing they’re teaching this year is friendship.
Natalie spoke very carefully when she told me about this, using the same humble and slightly tremulous tone that poor little Willy Wonka used when he suggested to his tyrannical dentist father that maybe he wasn’t allergic to chocolate? maybe he could try a piece?
Maybe it would be okay to stay in the class because it’s about friendship? And we believe in friendship? And I don’t even have to listen? I could just be in the room?
Dan and I talked it over for a long time last night, knowing all too well that our daughters’ hearts will be affected in one way or another by our decision. We didn’t take it lightly. Though we both agreed that there is no way the religion class is objective (I mean, really), I thought that perhaps she could be. Natalie is thoughtful and intelligent, and even at eight years old, she might already have what it takes to filter various religious teachings through the lens of objectivity. Besides, we don’t want to force the girls into the molds of our belief system; we talk to them about what we believe of course, but we want their faiths to be personal and organic and informed. Maybe the class could be a good thing.
However, there is still the issue that religion is being taught as an academic subject. I agreed with Dan that second grade is too early to expect a child to differentiate between the universal truths of multiplication and spelling and the controversial gray areas of spirituality when they’re all being taught in the same format, graded in the same red pen. We would be putting our sweet eight-year-old in the position of either doubting her teachers or doubting her parents. I don’t want her to have to do either. I don’t want religion to be an issue at school. I don’t want to make my children question the whole academic construct, nor do I want to force them to take a stand for my beliefs.
Maybe we were just blowing everything out of proportion. Maybe if we stopped worrying and just let the girls attend religion class like all the other kids, everything would turn out fine. Maybe…
But then Dan brought up the one comparison I hadn’t considered—Sunday School at a fundamentalist Christian church. Would I let my children attend an hour a week of patriarchal teachings and expect that they could maintain perfect objectivity? Would I trust that doctrines of hell and atonement and salvation that I categorically disagree with would simply float past the viewing windows of my daughters’ minds and then dissipate? Would I really, honestly believe that my little open-eared girls could be taught dogma without any of it taking root?
No. Nonononononono. I wouldn’t even take the chance. And even though my experience with fundamentalist Christianity makes me think it is so much more potentially damaging than any other religion, and even though I respect my Catholic friends and don’t feel I’m in any position to call their beliefs harmful, I can’t simply decide that my girls will be vulnerable in one religious classroom but not in another. I can’t pretend that conflicting descriptions of God will affect them in one setting but not in another. Either my eight-year-old is already strong enough to hear all religious perspectives with curious detachment, or we should still be guarding her spiritual merge lane as best we can.
The Sunday School example settled the question for me. In future years, we probably will let the girls decide whether or not to attend religion class, but second grade is too soon for us. We had a family conversation about it over breakfast this morning, Natalie obviously disappointed and me feeling like Sauron himself but our hearts on the same page. Dan and I explained to the girls that our family believes some things differently than their classmates’ families do and that that’s okay—we’re all trying to follow God and do good and love each other well—but that we’d prefer them not to learn religion at school for now. I’m not sure the reasoning made sense to them, but both girls accepted the decision; we spent the rest of breakfast talking about saints and songs and the different things people believe, holding tight as a family to the value of respect—both for others’ beliefs and for the sacred spaces of our own hearts.
Photo: Basilica Papale di San Francesco in Assisi