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In defence of cafeteria Catholics

No, not all Christians are the same

Aaron S. Bayley

A good dichotomy is one that leaves no room for ambiguity. Whether "good versus evil," "light versus dark," or "liberal versus conservative," the choice represents a reflection of one's principles and values. When nuance is confounding, paradox perplexing, and relativism unsettling, we deny the messiness and complexity of life and flock to the comfort of rigid ideology. 

But what about when members of an ideological group no longer share the same values as the rest of the group? What happens when those who formerly embraced the black and white suddenly see the grey areas? The inevitable tension and self-relfection that arises from being boxed into hermetically-sealed categories is the impetus for revolt and revolution, separation and schism, which is why Christianity is divided into so many sects. 

But sometimes members of a group shun the imposed rigidity yet have no desire to leave the group. When this happens they often face derision and criticism from others in the group considered the moral arbiters. Which brings us to the term "cafeteria Catholics." A cafeteria Catholic is defined as someone who considers themselves a member of the Catholic faith, but is selective about its doctrine and interprets it in a way which is in direct opposition to Catholic moral teaching and Vatican directives. (The "cafeteria" part refers to the idea that people pick what they want and ignore what they don't. "Buffet" would be a more fitting adjective). "Cafeteria Catholic" is a derogatory term used by both the Christian Right and Catholic fundamentalists. 

Chances are you know many cafeteria Catholics personally. There used to be a fine foods store near my house operated by two Italian sisters; they were devout Roman Catholics who worked hard, went to church, and lived by the "do unto others" creed, the central teaching of Jesus and other ancient philosophers. They had no problem with homosexuals and believed in a woman's right to choose. They are textbook examples of cafeteria Catholics.  

By contrast, Catholic fundamentalists (or those who do not consider themselves of the cafeteria variety) interpret the Bible's New Testament literally and adhere without question to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As a rule, they are against the sanctioning of homosexual relationships, divorce, birth control, abortion, and women entering the priesthood. In short, they are the guardians of Catholic doctrine and orthodoxy. The position of the Catholic fundamentalist is that a person who cannot or does not abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church should leave the faith, rather than try to shape it according to their own beliefs and opinions. Chances are you know many fundamentalists, too.  

But are cafeteria Catholics genuine Catholics? That all depends on how you define Catholic, but a more instructive question should be asked:

What is more essential, having the courage to reflect on what is right and wrong, and living life according to those moral principles, or to blindly follow the leadership of an often corrupt institution with unquestioned obedience?  

Apologists might argue that the role of the Vatican, the pope, and his representatives is simply to carry out God's will, and its failings do not taint the Catholic religion, nor its sacred texts, in any way. Yet even if the Vatican was an incorruptible paragon of virtue, many find the doctrines themselves problematic. Even Pope Francis, easily the most progressive pope in history, has called for less militance in defending the faith and more dialogue. 

But most cafeteria Catholics aren't religious because they believe in the philosophical arguments for the existence of God, or the historical grounds that Jesus existed, or the accuracy of the Gospels in recording Jesus' life. These are things important to fundamentalists only. In his book What Philosophy Can Do, Gary Gutting outlines the factors leading to religious belief. The first is an "attractive way of life." People who were born into or grew up in a religious community find going to church, reading scripture, and following a moral code comfortable and rewarding. The second factor is "religious experiences," which can be described as a feeling of transcendence, and that there is more to the universe than the material world. A third factor is "metaphysical and historical arguments." Gutting then makes an important distinction between knowledge and understanding: 

To know that a religion is true would require an historical/metaphysical account of God's existence, nature, and intervention in history that justifies the religion's doctrinal claims. Understanding, by contrast, means a fruitful way of thinking about things, without implying that this way of thinking provides reliable knowledge of what actually exists and has happened in the world.

Fundamentalism requires an automatic belief in the existence of this knowledge; in fact, Judaism and early Christianity were founded on the idea that their proponents, and they alone, had exclusive access to God. This type of thinking leads to authoritarianism and elitism and has little use for understanding. On the other hand, cafeteria Catholics appreciate the value of empathy, compassion for others, open dialogue, and  acceptance rather than tolerance. This, and not their ability to memorize quotes from the Bible, is what defines a good Christian. 

I was baptized into the Catholic Church and attended, against my will, every Sunday until I turned 20. I do not consider myself a Catholic, or even religious for that matter. Yet one thing I have observed throughout my life is that fundamentalists are generally more self-righteous, judgmental, closed-minded, inflexible, and mean-spirited than their cafeteria counterparts. They are more likely to appear at a rally for Donald Trump than at a protest against racist policing. The problem is that fundamentalist belief causes even intelligent people to lose sight of the fact that the ultimate purpose of religious belief is to promote good moral conduct, not to bicker over doctrine, scripture, and liturgies. It also provides a good cover for bigots, racists, and homophobes who point to passages in the Bible to justify their own insecurities. 

What if, instead of prioritizing faith and scripture, fundamentalists prioritized ethics? What if they possessed prudence in suspending judgment, honesty and humility in facing their own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes, and willingness to reconsider or revise their views? What if fundamentalists put into the practice the idea of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"? Furthermore, how could anyone with even a modicum of decency and common sense think that persecution and hatred of homosexuals is morally acceptable behaviour? Well, because they want to. It is doubtful that fundamentalists walk around lamenting, "I really don't want to hate gay people, but the Bible says I should!" Fundamentalist thinking lacks reason and inquiry and is the heart of anti-intellectual life. 

Last summer, in an article called "Proud to be a Cafeteria Catholic" for, Isabella R. Moyer, past president of the International Organization of Marianist Lay Communities, wrote a thoughtful piece in which she used the 'cafeteria' disparagement as a powerful metaphor: "The cafeteria is a beautiful symbol of what our church community could be like. The church should not be like an elitist restaurant with high-minded hosts zealously guarding the guest lists." She's right. And in order to forge a strong, caring and compassionate Catholic community, rigid doctrine that does not live up to the scrutiny of scholarship must be subverted to the compassion of the critical and progressive thinker. The fundamentalist urge to judge and pontificate must be replaced by the moral imperative to listen and understand. Those are characteristics which cafeteria Catholics keep well stocked.


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