The Catholic Thing
On Faith and Cafeteria Catholicism Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 18 August 2013

For years the expression “cafeteria Catholicism” has been used to describe an approach to the faith in which individual Catholics pick and choose the teachings of the Church they wish to believe or reject. In this view, the Church’s teachings, like food in a cafeteria, have no particular importance: they are all available to satisfy the individual tastes of the consumer. The more savory teachings can be chosen. The more bitter ones left behind. And no one need apologize for preferences or choices made.

St. Paul warned Timothy of those “having itching ears” who “will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” (2 Tim 4:3-4) Cafeteria Catholicism is one such myth, a product of an age that has made the individual the ultimate magisterium, especially of beliefs and morals. Teachers of this brand of relativism are easily found wherever we look; there are even quite a few within the Church.

Because of the prevalence of this way of thinking, many “cafeteria Catholics” are unaware that this stance is intrinsically self-centered and contrary to the nature of faith. For at its root cafeteria Catholicism strikes at the heart of Christ, his teachings, and the Church that he founded as the means of imparting his grace to us.

The Bible consists of seventy-three books totaling hundreds of pages, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church contains nearly 3,000 paragraphs. Yet the diverse stories and intricate doctrines all harmoniously coexist because they each radiate an element of the infinite divine light that is God, the center and unity of our faith. As Pope Francis wrote in Lumen Fidei, “Faith is ‘one,’ in the first place, because of the oneness of the God who is known and confessed. All the articles of faith speak of God; they are ways to know him and his works.” (47)

In the Incarnation, God entered history, and before he ascended to Heaven, he founded the Church as the temporal extension of the Incarnation. To the Church, Christ entrusted all the truths of God in their unity. Imperfect men now govern the Church and pass on these teachings. Yet Christ remains as the head of his body the Church to ensure that his teachings are handed on in all their fullness.

Within the lives of believers, Francis clearly identifies the consequences that stem from this unified body of teaching guaranteed by God through his Church. “Since the faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole.” (48)

Cafeteria Catholicism, therefore, rejects the unity of faith, the oneness of divine truth, and the fullness of God’s revelation. Faith is a free response to the loving God who calls us into a relationship with him. Cafeteria Catholicism seeks to dictate to God the terms of the relationship: I will believe these things about you, God, but first I declare some of your truths and laws null and void in my life.

In the current milieu, such practitioners generally are not accepting truths about the Trinity but rejecting those of the divinity of Christ. Rather, cafeteria Catholicism largely pertains to the Church’s moral teachings, particularly those concerning human sexuality. I can be a good Catholic, the thinking goes, if I choose to believe in God, go to Mass, and love my neighbor; but I choose not to obey the moral teachings that I deem restrictive to my lifestyle.

The letters of St. Paul make abundantly clear that from the beginning those who wished to follow Christ had to both confess that Jesus is Lord and refrain from a host of immoral actions. For Catholics faith and morals reflect the unity of Christ’s command to love both God and neighbor. Blessed John Paul II called the Church “a communion both of faith and of life; her rule is ‘faith working through love.’” (Veritatis Splendor 26)

As if writing with cafeteria Catholicism in mind, John Paul continued, “No damage must be done to the harmony between faith and life: the unity of the Church is damaged not only by Christians who reject or distort the truths of faith but also by those who disregard the moral obligations to which they are called by the Gospel.” (26)

Any individual who has made himself his own magisterium undermines both the individual and the unity of the Church. The individual becomes alienated from God and the community – even if he has convinced himself of the righteousness of his choices – and the Church is undermined by the scandal of those who choose not to trust her fully.

True faith is a complete act of trust in God and in his divinely founded Church. Cafeteria Catholicism, by definition, chooses to trust the individual rather than God. If we truly wish to dwell in the house of the Lord, both now and in eternity, then we ought to trust God’s judgment over our own. The God who can neither deceive nor be deceived promises us far more than anything we may find in a cafeteria of our own desires.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.    

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (19)Add Comment
written by Ken Tremendous, August 17, 2013
Speaking of Cafeteria Catholicism..., George Weigel wrote regarding Caritas in Veritate:

"Indeed, those with advanced degrees in Vaticanology could easily go through the text of Caritas in Veritate, highlighting those passages that are obviously Benedictine with a gold marker and those that reflect current Justice and Peace default positions with a red marker."

And what sorts of "red" teachings in that document does Weigel think we should bracket?

"There is also rather more in the encyclical about the redistribution of wealth than about wealth-creation — a sure sign of Justice and Peace default positions at work."

For his part Weigel as one "with ears to hear and eyes to see" will concentrate.. attention, in reading Caritas in Veritate, on those parts of the encyclical that are clearly Benedictine.

That is the parts that Weigel can square with his Republican economic agenda.

How come yet another snoozer of an article fails to point out that Cafeteria Catholicism is by no means limited to sexual liberals and their problems with abortion, birth control divorce, etc. etc.

I say George Weigel is a Cafeteria Catholic even worse than they are. At least the liberals acknowledge that they are at odds with the actual Catholic doctrine. Weigel spins tendentious falsehoods to convince others that "true" Catholic doctrine is different than what papal encyclicals say that it is!!
written by Ray, August 18, 2013
The Pope and the Magisterium are who we must believe. Mr. Weigel is a lay person. Why does anyone misconstrue this difference. Just me, but if I have a problem with what Mr. Weigel says, I'd write a comment to him. Seems like pointing to another persons alluded to bad behavior must make some folks feel better about their own. Never have understood this kind of rationale.
written by Tim Wallace, August 18, 2013
This article is spot on!
written by Rich in MN, August 18, 2013
I have not read (or possibly just do not remember) the George Weigel column to which you refer. Weigel aside, I think it is important for Catholics to ask themselves: Are all evils equally evil? What latitude is allowed for prudential judgments on the various issues? Whether fairly or unfairly, the late Cardinal Bernadine of Chicago is sometimes cited as principal obfuscator in this regard, with his notion of "the seamless garment" suggesting factitious equalities between the various mechanisms of "love of neighbor."

I think this confusion leads some well-meaning combox commentors to suggest that "[some] Catholics are obsessed with sex" because of how often the "problems with abortion, birth control divorce, etc. etc." are raised.

To me, this sounds as silly as a theater manager being accused of being obsessed with fire because he/she will always stop someone in the audience who is trying to light fire to the seats or the curtains. When the manager runs out and yells at perpetrators, should they reply, "Why are you always picking on us? Didn't you notice those other kids spilling drinks on the seats? You must have some irrational obsession about theaters burning down!"? (Of course, the manager would not want to kick them out of the theater; that might make them feel bad....)

The fact of the matter is that abortion kills innocent human beings and, as Judge Anthony Kennedy stated way back in 1992 (in PP vs Casey), contraception and abortion are of the same nature; if you have contraception you must also have abortion as backup contraception. And many have argued that divorce and, to a much greater extent, same-sex 'marriage' are themselves profound attacks on civilization because they attack the very 'load-bearing wall' of civilization – the family. One of the interesting prescient studies from the last century making this very point was "Family and Civilization" by Harvard Sociologist Carle Zimmerman. An interesting read.

At some point, George Weigel, you, I, and everyone else will need to stand before that Great Theater Owner in Heaven. We will face both the good and the evil we have done. If we do evil even though we were told otherwise by the theater manager, hopefully our answer of "But I didn't mean to!!!" will be good enough that we will just be given a 'time out' and not permanently kicked out of the theater.
written by Ray, August 18, 2013
The only beliefs we must hold true, come from the Pope and the Magisterium. The commenter, Ken Tremendous, seems to have allowed his dislike for Mr. Weigel to skew his views regarding the article by this author on cafeteria Catholicism. Mr. Weigel is an acclaimed theologian and author. Ken Tremendous is an acclaimed ?????.
written by debby, August 18, 2013
and to keep it simple,
where would you RATHER DINE?
at Home where you have been thought about during the preparation of the Meal with a Love and Tenderness that is so other-worldly that it could have only originated in the heart of God
or in a cafeteria, where often noise, loneliness (in spite of the number of people present), and self-service prevails while those nameless ones who do not know you either stand behind the food line, dressed in masks and gloves? not to mention all the garbage everywhere.
such a HARD CHOICE! or so we are told...

to think that God loved me so much that He planned from the beginning to bring me to His Home where He is preparing a place and a feast for me....
to think that to woo me there He gives me Himself here and now in a Home on earth like no other - where there is always a Holy Father to watch over each one of his children, and a Mother who has never ceased to pray for me since She stood beneath that Cross!
why would i ever choose a cafeteria over Home?
there can only be one reason.
the un-knowing of Love.
so let us love God and love one another, inviting those around us Home.
you only eat in a cafeteria if you have no place else to go.
written by Ken Tremendous, August 18, 2013
"Ray" the last I checked a papal encyclical like Caritas Veritate is a Magisterial document. And the last I checked George Weigel is actually not a theologian. He's another center right Catholic author who employs the same double standards as this article about liberal Catholics picking and choosing which teachings they will accept while ignoring that conservatives do exactly the same thing.. Because George Weigel did indeed in a 2009 National Review article found here

He explicitly claim the ability to take a papal encyclical and bracket out those "non -Benedictine" portions not in accord with his conservative economic views. So when that encyclical speaks repeatedly and favorably about economic redistribution Weigel disavows it and then has the gall to claim that he is being faithful to the "true" Benedict which is nothing but a mirror image of Weigel's own beliefs.

The silence on the Catholic right which has spent years preaching on Cafeteria Catholicism was truly deafening.

If this isn't an example of Cafeteria Catholicism at work then nothing is.

It doesn't work either like Rich to basically give Weigel a pass because after all abortion is so much more important than social justice.

No...if this article has any truth to it at all, it is that the Catholic faith is a take it or leave it bundled package. Let's please start holding right wing Catholics to that standard too!
written by Rich in MN, August 18, 2013
I apologize for mentioning Anthony Kennedy/s 1992 SCOTUS opinion. Anthony Kennedy is not a bishop and his opinion has absolutely no relevance to the current discussion. I think I was just trying to be funny.

On my way home from Mass, my conscience (or ???) was telling me that using Kennedy in this discussion was irrelevant and counterproductive (and not very Christian). Again, I apologize.
written by Sherry, August 18, 2013
It is unfortunate that many Catholics do not understand and appreciate what they are missing when they "pick and choose"- going for what they "like" - and avoiding that which they do not like. They miss The Banquet which our all-knowing and all-loving God has in store for us when we live the way He has shared with us.

Trust in God and His Church is key. Unfortunately, trust and obedience are not high today on the list of those who, like Frank Sinatra, sing, "I did it MY way"...
written by GW, August 18, 2013
Must have been an easy article to write, as it skims the hard questions and focuses on over-arching themes.
Do I have to be pro-life and follow the Republican Party, even though their drive to ban abortion will impact mainly poor women, with no accountability on the part of others involved?
Do I have to follow the GOP's reckless spending on national defense, with accompanying draconian cuts to social programs and education?
Do I have to follow the GOP's unconscionable rhetoric on immigration?
Do I have to believe that my born and life-long gay younger brother is some kind of evil person, headed for hell?
I hope and pray that mankind will be reconciled to God's way, and I love my Church. But I recoil at the rhetoric and the irresponsibility.
written by Robert, August 18, 2013
Debby: a beautiful and apt analogy between the "cafeteria" and the "home-cooked" meal! Interestingly, although we have no choice in what to eat in the latter, it is always much more delicious and satisfying.
Ken and GW: you doth protest too much. Why must an article arguing against the incoherence of "cafeteria Catholicism" always be construed as somehow agitprop for the Republican Party, especially since the author wrote nothing in support of anything promoted by that party? It's indicative of a narrow American parochialism to make such a hasty construal. I myself happen to have some grave reservations about many policies supported by the Republican Party, but the Democrats seemed to have openly declared war on orthodox Christianity.
GW: gay persons without qualification are evil and headed for hell? Read the catechism - it's not what the Church teaches. You've erected a straw-man. But to destroy the meaning of marriage and thus undermine the future formation of stable marriages throughout society and deprive children of their right to a mother and father all for the selfish desires of adults, that is another matter altogether.
written by Ray, August 18, 2013
Robert used agitprop in a rebuttal and I agree completely. Here is the definition I found for that great word in our language
noun (Concise Encyclopedia)

Political strategy in which techniques of agitation and propaganda are used to influence public opinion. Originally described by the Marxist theorist Georgy Plekhanov and then by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, it called for both emotional and reasoned arguments. The term, a shortened form for the Agitation and Propaganda Section of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union, has been used in English, typically with a negative connotation, to describe any work—especially in drama and other art forms—that aims to indoctrinate the public and achieve political goals.

As all who can see, it is derived from our estranged Russian brethren. Robert used it correctly. Some of the folks who can't see the cafeteria Catholicism at work in our Church are more aligned with the agitprop folks that Robert referred. Our Savior was not a communist or socialist, His theology had nothing to do with these earthly ideologies. Bottom line, if the Pope and Magisterium say it is so, IT IS!!! We as Catholics have to obey. OH!!, that is a novel concept---OBEDIENCE. When Peter tried to tempt Christ from the Cross, Our Lord called him Satan. Those who try and tempt us from our leadership are very similar.
written by Athanasius, August 18, 2013

I remember reading the George Weigel article you mention. I see your point, and in fact when I was reading Caritas in Veritate, I was looking to see what passages Mr. Weigel was referring to. I did see what he was talking about, but I felt he overreacted as I think it was presented in a reasonable manner.

Now, let me be the first to say that I am a HUGE fan of George Weigel. But as has been mentioned above, he is not the magisterium, and he probably got it wrong in that article. None of us is perfect. Even the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas himself, got some things wrong. No single individual is right all the time, which is why we look to the magisterium to preserve the true deposit of faith. I still consider myself a Thomist for the most part (and a Wojtylian/Ratzingerian).

And I have read and listened to Mr. Weigel enough to know that he is a good and faithful Catholic who has done much to contribute to proclaiming the faith to a country that often does not want to hear it.
written by Ray, August 18, 2013
God Bless you Athanasius!! You have expressed my thoughts in a very humble way. I only wish I had your gift for the language. Thanks for making a concise and clear statement about this matter. I couldn't agree with you more...
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 19, 2013
#1 You can disagree with Weigel and still enter the Kingdom of God. If you disagree with what the church teaches you have excommunicated yourself and cannot enter the Kindgom of God. Don't take me word for it, listen to Christ's: "You are either for me or against me."
#2 It seems like two of our responders have tried to bash in the doors of that cafeteria whose doors have been closed for a few years now. That is a punishable offense.
written by John oreilly, August 20, 2013
Great article! I don't understand the political attacks. Everyone knows that neither political party is in complete alignment with Catholic teachings. That being said, the Democratic Party is less aligned and in "non-negotiable" areas of life and marriage. Perhaps that is why their words are desperate and vehement. Hopefully we can work together somehow. Meanwhile the artticle ought to put ino speech form and preached in every Catholic Church in USA.
written by Mike M., August 20, 2013
Paul tells us to "test everything, retain what is good." While I certainly see the danger in people picking and choosing which Catholic beliefs they will accept and which ones they will reject, I do not see the issue in as absolute terms as the author. There must be room for respectful disagreement. After all, heliocentrism was once condemned by the Church as "false and contrary to scripture," yet we now know it to be true.

A number of the commenters here appear to be of the view that any disagreement whatsoever constitutes voluntary excommunication from the Church and thus separation from the Kingdom of God.

Somewhere north of 90% of American Catholics disagree with the Church's position on birth control. I do not believe that it is impossible for all of them to be in communion with the Church because of this one are of disagreement.

There must be some room for limited to dissent to authoritative teachings that are not infallible. Of course, there must also be limits on the extent of legitimate dissent as well. I am not suggesting that all issues of sexual morality should be up for grabs. All that I am suggesting is that there must be room within the Church for prayerful and conscientious disagreement. To pejoratively dismiss all Catholics who do not accept 100% of the Church's authoritative teachings is a disservice not only to those overwhelming majority of Catholics who do not, but to the Church itself.

written by bill bannon, August 21, 2013
Mike M is correct. The new change in magisterial language on the death penalty in ccc2267 is a real mistake in the non infallible venue. One can disagree with it fully after study. Modern penology alone is not protecting families in the two largest Catholic populations...Brazil and Mexico...which both have very high murder rates, no death penalty and ineffective prisons ( 60% controlled by the cartels according to a study commissioned by Mexico). A life sentence only protects you from caught murderers (62% in the US...5% in Guatemala). The new Catholic magisterial language is simplistic and envisions perfect incarceration rates which exist nowhere.
If one has to agree with all magisterial positions, several of our mistakes lasted far too long. The magisterium is not pan infallible. That is not Catholic doctrine.
written by Alan, September 07, 2013
The term "Cafeteria Catholic" is usually applied by so-called traditionalists to so-called liberals. But I would argue that we are ALL cafeteria Catholics. It has become apparent to me that, when traditionalists find something in Vatican II documents that they don't like, and which they can argue is contradictory to something in a 19th century encyclical say, they unhesitatingly claim that the 19th century teaching is correct and the Vatican II one is wrong. They are "picking and choosing" as much as anyone else. So I repeat, we are ALL Cafeteria Catholics.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author