No, Let’s Not Admit We’re All Cafeteria Catholics

I’ve noticed a trend bubbling around the Catholic blogosphere, particularly in the more progressive, Catholyc publications. I’ve seen it in several places – nuanced and a bit covert.  Until now.  It’s this notion that we’re all cafeteria Catholics to one degree or another.

I reject that premise, totally and without compromise.

Here’s the most recent example, culled from that paragon of progressive prattle, the National Catholic Distorter, in a piece written by Isabella Moyer, on June 6, titled Catholics Need to Rethink Their Strategy:

First of all, let’s admit that we are all “cafeteria Catholics” to some degree. The groaning buffet table that is our universal church is too much for any of us to take in at once or to fully understand and accept with the same level of commitment and passion. We must stop judging each other by what we can fully accept with an open heart and what we continue to struggle to understand or believe.

I’m going to take this apart sentence by sentence, because there’s quite a bit wrong with nearly every word here, quite possibly including the words “and” and “the”.

First of all, let’s admit that we are all “cafeteria Catholics” to some degree.

No, I won’t admit that.  I know plenty of people who are faithful to all of Church doctrine, and suffer sacrifices in ordering their lives as such.  They neither willingly nor knowingly reject any part of Church doctrine or dogma. And if they discover that their conscience or lifestyle is opposed to Church teaching, they take the painful and narrow routes to conform their lives.  They don’t rationalize sinful behavior and hide behind the cowardly excuse of “following one’s conscience”.

Her statement can be taken two ways.  Either she doesn’t understand what “cafeteria Catholic” really means, or she’s misrepresenting what a “cafeteria Catholic” is, and is attempting to change the definition – kinda in the same way pro-gay marriage folks want to change the definition of marriage, or how Catholycs would like to change the definition of “sin”.  Normally I give people the benefit of the doubt, but not in this case.  I’m going with purposeful misrepresentation, because it gives her and those who think like her cover.

What is a “cafeteria Catholic”?  It’s a Catholic who selectively accepts some of the Church’s doctrines while rejecting other portions – alluding to the buffet line concept, where a person has the freedom to take only what they find palatable and appealing.  It’s a Catholic who believes that Church doctrines can be picked over, and after having done so, can still proclaim that they’re “devout” and “faithful”, even going so far as saying that the Church is wrong and needs to change.  Don’t like having to go to Mass every Sunday?  No biggie.  Don’t agree that an annulment is required before being married after a divorce?  No problem.  And so on.

By attempting to redefine the term, she is trying to make the case that since we’re all “cafeteria Catholics” to some degree, we ought to stop defining people like herself by that term.  It’s the old “the pot calling the kettle black” thing.  But it only works if the definition gets changed.  Changed to what?  Let’s move on and find out.

The groaning buffet table that is our universal church is too much for any of us to take in at once or to fully understand and accept with the same level of commitment and passion.

I’m sorry, but “groaning buffet table” conjures up an ugly image: there’s just too much “stuff” and the table’s going to collapse.  A better image would be “overflowing” or perhaps “richly adorned” – because the Church is the beautiful Bride of Christ, full of grace, with abundant gifts for her children – not some overstuffed, obese, misshapen figure in need of liposuction and a gastric band.  And who’s attracted to something that is groaning, anyway?

It’s not our “universal church”.  It’s Christ’s Church, for Christ’s sake.  We are members of the body, not owners of the body.  We are not part of the Church Triumphant in Heaven, nor of the Church Suffering in Purgatory, yet both are full and equal parts of the Universal Church. We’re privileged members of the Church Militant, adopted by the shedding of our Savior’s blood.  It’s not our right to be part of the Church – it’s our privilege, unearned and undeserved by anything we have done.  And with that privilege comes the expectation to be faithful and obedient, lest we jeopardize our membership, whether here or in the hereafter.

Yes, what the Church offers us is too much to take in at once.  That’s why faith is a journey.  Nor do we fully understand everything at one time – in fact, we are asked to believe prior to being able to understand.  Not only that, but many things will never be understood this side of eternity.  So implying that full understanding of everything is possible or demanded is a strawman – the Church does not expect us to fully understand.  She proposes, not imposes.  We have the incredible freedom to explore why these things are true, and not worry if they are true.  That is a pretty wonderful gift, if you think about it.

And yes, not everyone accepts Church teaching at the same level of passion or commitment.  But that’s not really the point when it comes to “cafeteria Catholics”.  It’s a small distinction, but it’s very important.  You see, “cafeteria Catholics” display absolute rejection of some aspects of Church teaching, not varying degrees of acceptance or commitment.  Thus, that’s why they want to have the definition changed.  Because then every single Catholic would be included, and bring faithful Catholics down to their level.

We must stop judging each other by what we can fully accept with an open heart and what we continue to struggle to understand or believe.

This is a strawman argument.  No one’s being judged based on what they struggle with, or either fully or partially accept.  “Cafeteria Catholics” are judged based on what they claim to believe and what they proudly reject.  They’re judged by their words, not the state of their souls.  It’s a huge difference.  If someone is struggling with a particular doctrine, or has difficulty accepting some teaching with an open heart – for goodness sake, everyone’s been there at some point in their faith journey!  Many of us are there still.  We’re continually tempted and challenged.  We fall into sin and then beg God for forgiveness.  Life experiences and circumstances can bring countless difficulties and questions.  But the point is to always have faith and believe – to never doubt, because once the doubts start, that’s when the rationalizations begin, and next thing you know – you’re a “cafeteria Catholic”.  “Cafeteria Catholics” don’t struggle to “fully accept with an open heart” – they’ve already closed their hearts to particular doctrines, and have been given up to their sin.

One more point, and it’s an essential and critical one.  “Cafeteria Catholics” rarely differentiate between doctrinal and non-doctrinal issues.  They tend to lump them together, giving them equal importance – which goes beyond what the Church does! Pretty ironic, isn’t it?  It makes them more Catholic than the Pope!  When a disagreement arises over the death penalty, for instance, where they’re opposed to it and a faithful Catholic might be in support of it, they will argue that such a person is being a “cafeteria Catholic”.  But such a claim is incorrect.  As Pope Benedict wrote in 2004:

“Not all … issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not … with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

In their mind, then, the Pope is also a “cafeteria Catholic”.  How wack is that?

This differentiation is important.  Definitions serve a purpose, and having the right definition is crucial.  Those of us who accept Church doctrine, and believe it to be true – not because the Church says so, but because such Truths have been revealed by God and thus taught by the Church – while at the same time, exercising our intelligence, wisdom and free will to discuss and even disagree on prudential issues – that’s not the definition of a “cafeteria Catholic”.  It never has been.  That’s the description of a faithful Catholic.  We may struggle with some of the doctrines.  We might have difficulty living up to those teachings.  We may even rail against our good and gracious God for what appears to be injustice and unfairness, because of these doctrines.  But we never doubt their Truth.  We don’t say “the hell with it!” and reject them because they don’t fit our lifestyle.  We don’t become so proud so as to think they don’t apply to us.  We try to say “not my will, God, but yours be done” every day.  We fail at times, and we know we fail, and we try again.  We strive to conform our consciences to better accept the doctrines, to better understand them, and to better live them out.

And we don’t accept the claim that we’re all “cafeteria Catholics”.  I certainly don’t.  Because if there is no difference, then someone is being lied to, and the martyrs have been made the greatest of all the world’s fools.

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25 responses

  1. Wow! Excellent!

    Funny, I just had the death penalty discussion with our former pastor (retired) and next door neighbor which was brought on by our bishop trying to stop an execution here in Idaho. We both agreed that the bishop saying the execution was against Catholic doctrine was a bit misleading (to say the least.)

  2. Well, it is obvious their side is losing, because changing tactics like this, and in the bottom of the ninth to boot, makes it obvious.

  3. Well said. The problem with Cafeteria Catholics is that they are quite, quite proud indeed of what they reject. There’s not much humble struggling over at the Reporter–they know they’re right and the Church is wrong. QED.

    I have no problem with people who honestly struggle with aspects of Church teaching. It’s the ones who trumpet their righteousness who deserve a metaphorical belt to the chops.

  4. Definite mis-representation, and I really don’t think the USCCB helps in this regard by giving statements on every single thing under the sun. We as Catholics can have disagreements on matters of prudential judgement, things that are ordered for the laity to respond to. For example, a bleeding heart liberal thinks the gov’t should run poverty programs. a conservative likely doesn’t. The corporal works of mercy are definitely something that the Church teaches, but the Church does not teach how to best go about doing the corporal works of mercy, and this is where we can have disagreement. We’re not all Cafeteria Catholics, certainly not.

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  6. Tu quoque! Tu quoque!

    “…including the words “and” and “the.”

    nice ‘hommage’ to Ms. McCarthy.

    A cafeteria Catholic isn’t one who is overwhelmed by a cornucopia and can’t absorb it all, but one who rejects what they choose not to absorb.

  7. I think it would be fair to say that we are all, at some point, guilty of material heresy. And I can see someone equating that with being Cafeteria Catholics. I think there are also a lot more Cafeteria Catholics than would be willing to admit it. Some deny a Catholic truth (say…against torture), but think they have really good reasons or twist it around to say the Church isn’t really saying what she is saying, so it doesn’t count. Others will say they believe something (like our obligation to care for the poor), but deny it by the way they live (by never actually doing much to help others).

  8. Simply put, if I were out to be a “cafeteria Catholic”, I’d still be a Protestant, because the strict adherence to some Biblical teachings and rejection or ignoring of others was my problem with every Protestant denomination.

  9. Great article! My husband and I have been wanting kids for four years and all different artificial means have been suggested to us. I understand the church teaching on IVF but I struggle to understand how artificial insemination is harmful. I’ve been tempted to do it and I don’t completely get it, but I won’t do it because I trust the Church. I appreciate your rebuttal of Catholics Need To Rethink Their Strategy as I would prefer not to be deemed a cafeteria Catholic because of my struggle. Thank you.

    • Tiffany – I can only imagine this heavy cross you and your husband bear – I will pray for you when I’m at adoration tomorrow night. I’m sure others who read your comment will pray for you as well.

      Have you looked into The Pope Paul VI Institute? They specialize in helping couples who have difficulty conceiving. Here is a link to their website:

      Pope Paul VI Institute

      God bless you – I can sympathize with your struggle to be true to Church teaching, even if it doesn’t always make sense. I’ve been there too – not with regards to your situation, but with other teachings. It’s hard, no doubt about it.

      • Thank you for your prayers, and for the link. I have actually been to Pope Paul VI. It is a wonderful institution and has helped us quite a bit. It is hard at times, but the truth is, God’s love gives us the strength to handle whatever struggles that we, His beloved, encounter. We all have our crosses and I don’t think mine is any more difficult than many others.

        I think it would be more difficult to abandon Church teaching and try to make it on our own, which is why I get so frustrated with cafeteria style Catholicism. To choose one’s own will and forge ahead alone- how isolating. How difficult. What horrible advice! Obedience isn’t always easy, but it’s liberating. Now, how to achieve perfect obedience… Have you figured that out yet?

        Again, thanks for your sympathy and compassion. God bless you, too, and the work you are doing.

  10. “Overwhelmed with the cornucopia” ; “true to Church teaching, even if it doesn’t always make sense” ~ such special and true words to us (Converts, with children with cystic fibrosis). Just discovered you, Larry, and looking forward to reading…

  11. Pingback: Progressive Catholics Pervert The Term “Cafeteria Catholics” « Catholibertarian

  12. Excellent article! Progressive Catholics perverting the term cafeteria Catholics in order to further their own agenda. Who woulda thunk it?

    Happy Father’s Day!

  13. I sense some desperation here. Desperation that the tide has changed irrevocably and the best they can hope for is a “can’t we all get along” approach.

  14. Pingback: Yale chaplain believes Church Doctrine can change « A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics

  15. “Cafeteria Catholics rarely differentiate between doctrinal and non-doctrinal issues.”

    Except that this isn’t correct. They have a very clear set of issues which are absolutely nonnegotiable, and any dissent whatsoever from the approved dogma on any of them is considered grounds for immediate, complete, and utter expulsion not only from any hope of Heaven, but from any fellowship with the community of mankind among the living.

    Trouble is, it’s not remotely the same set of issues on which the Church takes a dogmatic position.

    Want to support the unremitting slaughter of the innocent? “Well, that’s a thorny issue for debate”, say they. Want to argue that the best way to help the poor is to create jobs for them and simultaneously reduce the cost of the goods they depend on to survive, rather than imposing top-down socialism on the population? “HERESY! ANATHEMA! BEGONE, FOUL AND IRREDEEMABLE SINNER!”

    The shame of it is that, most of the time, they seem to have the active cooperation of at least a plurality of our Bishops, in this.

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