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.