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As a kid, I was brought up catholic. I wasn’t a particularly good catholic, but I knew the ropes, knew when to kneel and stand and say the creed in Mass, and every six months or so my mom would drag me and my brothers and sisters to confession and we’d mumble a list of not-too-serious-not-too-embarrassing misdemeanours to the priest, say our penance, and go home.
Being catholic wasn’t something I ever gave a great deal of thought. But when I moved into the sixth form at school our General Studies teacher had different ideas. According to him, I was part of a great catholic plot, because my loyalty was owed – first, foremost, and forever – to the Pope. (He also believed that Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia and the Queen Mother were one and the same, based on the fact they looked alike in photographs and had never been seen in the same place at the same time, but that’s another story).
As far as I was concerned, this was garbage. At 17, I was more interested in memorising Black Sabbath lyrics, devouring anything Kerouac had written, and spending half an hour before school snogging my girlfriend in the local park then racing up the hill in time for registration (by the end of the school year I’d mastered both the circular breathing technique – incredibly useful – and the art of looking nonchalant while sprinting through Walsall with an erection, which was slightly trickier).
The teacher was insistent that I was part of an international plot.
I said I wasn’t.
Ah, he said, but you’re a catholic.
And what does it say in the catholic creed?
It says you pledge allegiance to one holy catholic and apostolic church, doesn’t it?
Well, yes, it did. But that didn’t mean anything.
Ah, he said triumphantly, but it SAYS it. You can’t deny it.
I said I did deny it. I wasn’t part of any plot. At which point the teacher told me that I clearly wasn’t a real catholic. Brilliant. Not only did he know what catholics were really up to, he was also able to tell who the real catholics were. With that kind of skill at his fingertips, telling the difference between Tito and the Queen Mom should surely have been a doddle.
I knew a lot of catholics. Other kids at school, families at Mass each sunday, the priest in the confessional. Not once had I heard any of them suggest that life would be much better if the Pope just came over and took control, not once had any of them expressed any longing for a new life where the Vatican ruled. Maybe there were a few catholics who felt that way, but I didn’t know them. And in the unlikely event the Holy Father ever took me into his confidence and shared a scheme for world domination, I’d have pointed out to him that my interest in Black Sabbath, Jack Kerouac, and Olympic-grade snogging came way before the views of some old bloke in a funny hat.
I mention this because whenever I hear people start banging on about how all muslims mean to take over our country or establish a caliphate or kill infidels I think back to my General Studies teacher and his insistence I was part of a Vatican plot, his belief that all 1.2 billion catholics were of one mind, a hostile force, a fifth column who were not to be trusted. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. It ignores the blindingly obvious fact that most people are far more interested in putting food on the table, hanging out with their friends, and having a laugh than they are in taking over the world for their god. The idea that I had the same take on life as every other catholic – whether they were young or old, believed in the right to life or the right to choose, loved Black Sabbath or thought Ozzy was the devil incarnate (I rather hoped he was, as it happens) – was too ridiculous for words.
It shouldn’t even need saying in the 21st century, but the idea that all 2 billion muslims are the same is just as daft as anything my teacher came up with. However, a quick trawl through the marvel of social media makes it clear it does need saying. So I am. And – for the record – I don’t believe Marshal Tito and the Queen Mom were the same person either.