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A true Catholic education

| Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Growing up, I spent most of my time learning about the world in two rooms: my church sanctuary, and my living room, with the TV tuned to MSNBC. Religion and politics have always been a part of my life, but they were always completely unrelated. I’d hear my minister mention something about racial justice, or a political candidate say “God bless America,” but they only existed in distinct spheres in my mind. It wasn’t until I came to Notre Dame that I found religion and politics intertwined, thanks to an x-factor I never expected: Catholicism.

I’m not Catholic, so to an extent I chose Notre Dame in spite of, not because of, its status as a Catholic school. I grew up attending Sunday school, going through confirmation, and singing in the choir at the same Protestant church where my parents were married in the 90s. My hometown congregation belongs to the United Church of Christ, a theologically and politically progressive denomination.

There was a Catholic church next door, but my understanding of the religion was quite minimal. I understood Catholicism to be politically conservative, as well as much stricter than my idea of Christianity. I had some Catholic friends, but believe it or not, 7-year-olds don’t spend a ton of time talking theology. With two registered Democrats for parents and a spot reserved in the pews for the 9 a.m. service at my Protestant church, I simply felt that Catholicism would never be a part of my life. I planned on going through my time at Notre Dame respecting Catholicism, but keeping it at arm’s length. Throughout my first year, I was largely successful at that.

At the same time, I was becoming politically involved on campus and taking classes toward my degree in political science. Throughout my freshman year, I felt that my politics were changing. I’ve always been broadly on the left, but I felt a deeper commitment to social and economic justice than I had before. I attributed most of it to the famed radicalization powers of college, where the supposed “liberal bubble” of academia pushes college students further left. It took until my first theology class to realize that wasn’t exactly what was happening.

Admittedly, I never paid much attention to biblical studies during Sunday school, so that class was my first real exposure to the study of theology. Further, religion was placed, for the first time, in a historical context. The United Church of Christ was founded in 1957, so I didn’t exactly have a long line of historical traditions to look to. I love my hometown church, and I learned a lot there, but my first theology class required me to think about God in a different, more academic way.

As I began to develop a deeper understanding of Catholicism and what it means to believe in God, I often found myself relating my theological studies to my political science classes. For example, (at risk of turning this into a theology paper that no one wants to read) we studied, in-depth, the philosophical idea that belief in God is really a commitment to feel for someone else. Every text we studied detailed the importance of community in Christianity, a principle I had experienced firsthand in my hometown congregation, but had never considered intellectually.

This resonated deeply with me, as I’ve always found empathy to be a driving force behind many of my my political beliefs. Seeing empathy portrayed as such a spiritual thing, and a core aspect of Christianity, really began to open my eyes. It turned out that my politics were not changing despite my presence at a Catholic school; to a large extent, they were changing because of my interactions with Catholicism.

I’d always heard people talk about the importance of social justice to Catholicism, so it made sense to me that my politics had grown in that way. However, my politics have also become much more material — since starting college, I’ve developed a much deeper understanding of the way economic systems create and encourage social inequality, and the importance of community and solidarity in overcoming those systemic problems. As a result of my exposure to and study of Catholicism, my political views were less abstract, and began to feel much more nuanced and concrete.

Specifically, since being at Notre Dame I’ve seen the concept of justice discussed in ways I never had before. In all of my previous experience in politics, justice was simply a buzzword — a phrase that made people feel good, but didn’t mean anything. At Notre Dame, the concept of justice is deeply woven in every aspect of life, even outside of theology classes, thanks in large part to the extensive Catholic commitment to justice. Catholicism has made my politics deeper, more nuanced, and more justice-oriented. 

More than anything, my experience at Notre Dame has taught me something important: the study of Catholicism, and theology in general, has immense value for all fields, but especially the study of politics. My understanding of political science is better and more complex thanks to my exposure to Catholicism, even though I’m not Catholic myself.

None of this is to say that I am converting to Catholicism (don’t worry, mom and dad) or that I don’t understand the ways the Catholic Church often disregards its commitment to justice. I’m not a part of the Church, and as an institution, it has nothing to do with my politics. Ultimately, exposure to the historical context and rich theology of Catholicism has deepened my understanding of my own spirituality, and in turn has had a massive influence on my political beliefs. I hope that, even after I leave Notre Dame, I take the lessons of this Catholic education with me, both to my own congregation and to the ballot box.

Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and civil & human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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