BY GARRY EVERETT
Some years ago someone coined the phrase “Cafeteria Catholics”. The term described an approach to being Catholic that is characterised by picking and choosing from among the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. By implication, Cafeteria Catholics were not “full” Catholics, nor really genuine Catholics, but rather some reduced form of those who claimed to follow Christ in the name of the Church.
In recent years, we have read of some members of the hierarchy who disagree with church views about matters such as the argument for an all male priesthood, or the primacy of conscience in moral decision making.
We know of priests who disown Pope Benedict’s call for co-responsibility (of clergy and laity) “for the life and actions of the Church”. We have been alerted that some members of some Religious Orders, do not follow the Church’s teachings when counselling women facing certain life and death choices.
Surveys show the extent to which women in some western countries almost totally reject the Church’s teachings on the use of artificial contraception. These few examples indicate that members of all classes of Church membership can find a home in the term Cafeteria Catholics.
When the term was first coined, I suspect it was used in a slightly judgemental, even derogatory way. However, both terms “Cafeteria” and “catholic” deserves closer attention before we can fully appreciate the significance of their meaning when joined as a single term.
Firstly, “Cafeteria.” When one imagines a cafeteria, we can picture a food space place where one is involved with multiple choices. There will be choices about food, beverages, where to be seated (and why), to sit alone or with others (with whom and why). These choices can be made consciously, from habit, or even on impulse.
Cafeterias are about choices, the exercise of a free will. Of course, choices are constrained, for example, to resources available, time at one’s disposal, the purposes for being in the cafeteria. The weighing of such considerations, and the choices made, hardly deserve our criticism or negative judgement. We would normally regard such choices as mature acts of a thinking individual.
Secondly, “Catholic”. Broadly speaking, the term means a person with an individually unique relationship with Jesus Christ, formed by a particular tradition rooted in Scripture, official teachings of the Church, and reflections on lived experiences.
We might add that the term “Catholic” implies un-changing adherence to a body of truths and behaviours, developed and handed on over centuries. Such adherence furthermore, precludes choosing from among the truths and behaviours, and requires that a Catholic accept the “full deal”, lock, stock and barrel.
In the data revealed in well designed and conducted surveys (e.g the Gallup Poll in the USA and the NCLS in Australia), we find many Catholics responding with widely diverse views on even the most important of dogmas. In a particular Gallop Pull, the following question appeared: “Can you still be a catholic and:
- Not take action for social justice?
- not contribute financially to the support of the Church?
- Practise artificial birth control?
- Not accept the doctrine of the Assumption.”
My recollection is that the majority replied “Yes” to the each of the above items. In a similar way, a significant minority of respondents to the Australian National Church Life Survey, in one particular year, did not accept the teaching of the Real Presence.
How do we explain this seeming contradiction of being able to pick and choose among doctrines, teachings, and practices, and yet still call oneself “Catholic”? Alternatively, we might ask if there is any Catholic who is really “lock, stock and barrel” on everything Catholic?
These are important questions. When the Australian Government Census revealed that Catholics were the largest religious group in Australia, we would have to admit that the Census was not counting “lock, stock and barrel” type Catholics. Rather, the count measured those whom we might call “Cafeteria Catholics”, or nominal Catholics.
There is a world of difference in the two terms. As Catholics we were quick to claim the title of “largest religious group”, but we are also slow to acknowledge publicly that of that largest group, only about 12% attend Mass regularly, and of those who do (and who participated in the National Church Life Survey), there are widely divergent views on many key matters to do with religion.
Perhaps the term “Cafeteria Catholics” should not be so readily regarded as a pejorative term, a term of derision, a descriptor of lesser worth. Perhaps we should seek more closely to understand why so many Catholics are making choices among key aspects of beliefs and practices. With such understanding we may be in a more advantageous place to begin a dialogue about growth and development, rather than of condemnation and control.
Is the term “Cafeteria Catholics” an oxymoron (self-contradiction), or a call to enter the real world of struggle and hope?
Garry Everett is deputy chair of Mercy Partners in Queensland and a former Deputy Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission and previous chair of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
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