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When Non-Catholics Challenge Your Child’s Faith

Homeschool cooperatives (“co-ops”) are a wonderful tool to bring the skills and resources of other families together to maximize the benefits of homeschooling. If you’ve been around homeschoolers, chances are you’ve heard about co-ops or even participated in one yourself.

However, not all of us are able to join a specifically Catholic co-op. Many Catholic homeschoolers participate in Protestant, ecumenical, or secular co-ops. There are many reasons this happens. One of the most common is when people live in an area where there are not many Catholic families; the only co-ops that exist are non-Catholic. Or perhaps there is a well-established Protestant co-op whose academic offerings best suit your schedule. I have even seen situations where a formerly Protestant homeschooling family enters the Catholic Church but chooses to continue at their Protestant co-op because all of their friends and support network are there.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While we all appreciate Catholic fellowship, the common experiences of homeschooling families often transcend religious beliefs and can become the occasion of wonderful friendships—and occasions of religious dialogue.

Challenges in Non-Catholic Environments

This does not mean that there aren’t real challenges. The divisions among Christians are not illusory; they are grounded in profoundly different ways of viewing the faith and stem from historical events that can elicit strong emotions, even today.

Anytime we are in a majority Protestant environment, there is the possibility that we will be challenged or questioned about our faith. Catholic children in Protestant co-ops may find their faith tested in various ways—not only from peers, but from instructors, or even from the curriculum itself. This can include:

  • Catholic teaching being contradicted in discussions about Scripture or theology
  • Peers expressing confusion or dismay at Catholic customs
  • Presentation of history that diminishes the role of the Catholic Church
  • Historical lessons that cast Catholics as villainous foils
  • A literature curriculum that omits Catholic authors
  • A dismissive attitude towards Catholicism in general, in which Catholics are stereotyped as unenlightened
  • Discussions of Catholicism plagued by misconceptions about Catholic faith, history, and practice

These sorts of situations are stressful even for adult Catholics with a good working knowledge of the faith. For young people whose grasp of the faith is likely to be partial, they can be positively nerve-wracking. We understandably bristle at the idea of our children being put on the defensive about their religion. If, however, removing them from the non-Catholic environment is not an option, the best defense is a good offense. How can we equip our kids to deal with these potentially stressful situations?

Get Your Head in the Game

Successfully navigating any challenge in life comes down to the right mindset. We tend to get on edge in confrontation because we feel that we are personally under attack. It gives us anxiety and makes us “lose our cool” under pressure.

We must help our children to not take such challenges personally. St. Thomas Aquinas once advised a student to pay attention only to what was being said but not who was saying it. In other words, don’t let the dispute become personal. A debate is a tactical matter, like a game of chess. One cannot prevail at chess if one were to be personally shaken every time an opponent attacked. This could be an occasion to introduce your child to the art of debate, to think and speak strategically. View challenges to faith not as personal attacks, but as sparring bouts.

In other words, teach them to get their head in the game!

“Always Be Ready”

Once you have the right mindset, we should call to mind the words of St. Peter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Our first pope says we should be prepared to make a defense of our faith. This means we have to know our faith. There is an old adage, “You can’t love what you don’t know.” We could modify this to say, “You can’t defend what you don’t know.” A child is more likely to feel on edge about answering challenges to the degree that they don’t have answers themselves.

This is why Catholic apologetics, theology, and philosophy are essential studies, even if you are participating in a Protestant co-op. Give your son or daughter a solid foundation in the faith so they won’t be as shaken when they feel challenged

Learn from Mistakes

Of course, even the best prepared student will sometimes be bested. They will get hit with a question they don’t know the answer to. Someone will throw them a curve ball and they will get flummoxed. They will get ganged up on by multiple interlocutors who throw too much at them at once. They will encounter someone who is better educated and better enunciates their points.

But how we respond to setbacks is far more important than the setbacks themselves. If your child comes home dejected because he got bested in a debate about the Crusades at co-op, it is an excellent opportunity to make some hot cocoa and say, “How about we research this together and learn more about it?” If your daughter is irritated that a teacher made some incorrect comments about Catholic Marian beliefs, rather than stew in her anger, get her a book about Mariology to help her better grasp our beliefs so she can be prepared to respond next time.

Defeat is nothing but an opportunity to refine our skill. Let your child know it’s okay if they didn’t know the answer, or clammed up, or stumbled over their words. Such occasions give us greater incentive to evaluate our own knowledge, building it up more.

Exercise Restraint

Proverbs 17:27-28 gives us some valuable advice we should hold dearly when engaging in conversations with non-Catholics:

The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.

In other words, there is great wisdom in learning when to hold one’s tongue. While we should always be prepared to give answers when we are challenged, we don’t need to take it upon ourselves to correct every single error we hear. There’s a maxim to keep in mind when looking at social media: “Just keep scrolling.” That is, if you see something that triggers you, rather than get drawn into an online argument, just ignore it and keep scrolling. A similar principle should be applied when in non-Catholic environments. Your child does not need to feel personally obligated to correct every error, answer every challenge, clarify every misconception, rebuke every inaccuracy. Teach them when to just keep silent, roll their eyes, and get on with the day.

However, when should we engage and when should we hold back? A good rule of thumb is to engage if it seems that the your interlocutors are sincere. If the instructor says something incorrect about Catholic belief and seems good-intentioned, chances are he is open to correction. If your daughter’s friend asks why Catholics venerate saints and seems legitimately curious, that’s a wonderful opportunity to discuss it with her. When my daughter was attending a non-Catholic school, the literature teacher would sometimes cover books that had Catholic imagery. Knowing my daughter was a Catholic, she would ask my daughter to explain the imagery to the class. My daughter would, and it became an occasion of learning for all.

In general, refrain from engaging in debates where the interlocutors are not interested in learning anything. These debates tend to generate more heat than light, and people are seldom won over. Generally the two parties simply walk away frustrated. Think of how many people you’ve ever convinced in a debate on a Facebook thread. It’s probably negligible.

There will occasionally be situations where we simply must speak because the honor of God or the Church demands it. I am thinking of situations where the Catholic faith is blatantly insulted or maligned. But chances are you are not putting your children in an environment where the Church is so belittled. Most Protestant or ecumenical co-ops that are open to Catholics attempt to cultivate an atmosphere of hospitality. That does not mean there won’t be challenges, of course, but it is unlikely that they will be malicious.

Listening and Asking Questions

When we are in a heated discussion, it is easy to adopt a “punch-counterpunch” approach. They hit you with an objection, you hit back with a response. They hit you with another objection, you hit with another response. The whole encounter becomes less like a conversation and more like a disjointed exchange of attack and defense. It is best to avoid this kind of dynamic. Instead, let the antagonist get everything out at once while you just listen. Don’t address their objections yet; if you speak, let it be to ask questions to make sure you fully understand their position. Wait until they have said everything they need to say before you respond.

There are several benefits to handling it this way. First, it lets them get it all out of their system so they’re not chomping at the bit to get in more criticism each time you speak. Second, it lowers their defenses by showing that you’re not interested in fighting; this means they are more likely to listen and understand in turn when you present your counter-argument. Finally, it makes the discussion more comprehensible by preventing it spinning off the rails.


Above we quoted St. Peter’s admonition to always be ready to give an answer to anyone who demands an account of our faith. There is more to the verse, however. St. Peter says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

Even in debate we are called to be charitable. Have you ever heard the saying, “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care”? This holds true in any apologetical endeavor. Calling to mind the parable of the sower, our words are like seeds. It is not enough to merely scatter seeds about haphazardly. They must fall on fertile soil. We cannot just throw the truth at people and expect it to bear fruit. It must be given in love. The way we “fertilize” the soil is by showing charity to those we interact with. We respect them. We listen to them. We treat them the way we would like to be treated. We soften their heart with the water of kindness. Then, when our seed is cast, it is more likely to find reception in a fertile heart.


Handled correctly, challenges posed from non-Catholic Christians can become occasions of growth for your child. Have you had experiences with this sort of thing? If so, please join us in our Catholic Homeschool Connections Community to get a conversation going with other homeschooling parents.

Also, if at the end of the day you are left thinking, “This is all too much; I really need to get my child into a Catholic co-op,” please see our post entitled “How to Start Your Own Homeschool Co-Op.”

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