‘Cafeteria Catholics are serious Catholics’

Friend Dita said that, and I repeat it because “cafeteria Catholics” who exercise a degree of selection as to what they will follow are said to do so for convenience or plain disobedience.

They have been around for a long time except that now, their presence is so widespread that we cannot just look the other way and pretend they aren’t there. They have been called: selective Christians, quasi-Catholics, do-it-yourself Catholics, Catholics on their own terms, lapsed Catholics, spoiled Catholics. Now, the popular label is “cafeteria Catholics.” But there is much more to this pejorative impression.


A glance at some “isms” with which the label is connected or confused may clear the air of misunderstanding and rash judgment.

First is pluralism, the dizzying diversity of our times: multicultural, multiethnic, multipolar (several powers shaping history), multimedia, etc., and multifaith. In terms of religion, to be pluralist is to consider one religion as good as another.


Second is syncretism, a combination of what seems best in various religions and mixing them “like a salad.”

Third is relativism, Pope Benedict XVI’s “mantra” with his trademark warning about the “dictatorship of relativism,” the view that ethical truths can depend on the individuals or groups holding them, in opposition to an absolute moral standard for all, at all times, everywhere.

Fourth is dogmatism, which is absolute certainty, stamped with authoritarianism and a dash of arrogance in proclaiming teachings—an attitude and behavior that hardly endear.

For pluralism, cafeteria Catholics are not religious “pluralists.” They precisely choose to stay Catholic despite differences and see something in Catholicism that they can’t find elsewhere. Mary Gordon, writer, says it so well in a beautiful parable, “Why I Stay” (for which we have no space).

As for syncretism, not only cafeteria Catholics but others as well, do pick up from other religions, not for mixing like a salad but for enrichment like: Buddhist “mindfulness,” Zen meditation, five daily prayer-pauses of Muslims. Why not?

It is with the allegation of relativism and the rigidity of dogmatism in which tension between cafeteria Catholics and the Church is strong. Relativism (in the cool, unruffled sense) is the side of the coin that says we can use personal judgment on moral issues; dogmatism with its absolutism is the other side that says we can’t.

Long noted is the observation that the faithful are “infantilized” by the Church. At the conclusion of his Brazil trip, Pope Francis used the word before the Latin American Episcopal Council, cautioning the bishops about “the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them.” So has it been.


Ironically, “Humanae Vitae” (1968) broke that, with a fallout that critically damaged the Church’s moral credibility. The faithful discovered that they themselves, in good faith, good conscience, and with reasonable knowledge, could be capable moral agents.

They would heed priest and prelate, laying down universal, enduring principles: respect for life, the dignity of man, “what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” etc. Fine. But as concrete, unique cases erupt on the ground, in which intention, circumstances and full context enter the picture, they would be responsible for the final judgment and decision in the application of a general principle: a conclusion by the way that could differ from the Church’s position (more in a previous commentary, Inquirer, 7/19/10).

The best and still raging example is RH. We’re all prolife, for Christ’s sake! But our  lavandera, the wife of an AIDS-afflicted spouse, the working mother, a disabled wife or husband, the couple at each other’s throat, etc. may draw decisions counter to those of the “official teaching.” That won’t make them “immoral.” They judiciously decided; is that relativism? Besides, “the Church has never explicitly claimed to speak infallibly on a moral question.” (“Catholicism,” page 973)

As for dogmatism, they won’t bow to everything as dogma. There are precious few dogmas, no “infallible list,” no “agreed-upon list of dogmas” (see previous commentary, Inquirer, 1/24/12). The layman’s selection has spread, to sundry doctrines, rules, practices, like: indulgences whose basis sits on sand; new Mass responses—“cup” or “chalice” (Jesus took a “chalice”?), “you” or “spirit” (I stay with “you”). Apostles’ or Nicene Creed? (It confuses.) “Come to me” or “enter under my roof”? (What’s the fuss?)

No more: “All or nothing” for rules and teachings; “One size fits all” in the application of moral principles; “The teachings of the Church are (always) the Word of God” in exacting obedience.

Cafeteria Catholics may not always agree with what the institutional Church says or does. They weigh things, for sense, logic, credibility, truth. Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert, tries “to live my Catholicism in a way that’s true to me.”

“Excommunication!” amuses, as the Church holds no franchise to Catholicism.

There is of course the “bedrock of Faith,” the central mysteries, a reality beyond; that cafeteria Catholics consider paramount, too, for “cafeteria Catholics are serious Catholics.” The Church should appreciate their value to adult faith.

Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist. Comments to [email protected], fax 8284454.

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