On Being a Cafeteria Catholic

“Cafeteria Catholic” is a disparaging term used by some to refer to Catholics who allegedly “pick and choose” from Catholic teaching and practice. The undercurrent is that we pick and choose based on comfort and convenience.

Well, I have a different view of “Cafeteria Catholic” and am proud to count myself among their number. I love much about my Catholic faith but do in fact take issue with some teachings and do in fact have issues with the Catholic Church.

William James pointed out that there are two levels of faith. Secondary faith is based primarily on what others have told us to believe. It is the type of faith that many of us experienced growing up Catholic. I learned about Catholicism primarily from the Baltimore Catechism, a document that we were required to memorize. Not analyze but memorize. God was real because Father (and to a degree Sister) told us so. It was not OK to question and certainly not OK to challenge.

Primary faith is based on direct experience. Thus, primary faith includes:

  1. the results of my own examination and reflection on Catholic teaching;
  2. the results of my own reading of and thoughts on the Bible;
  3. my own direct experiences of God and spiritual reality.

My transition to primary faith occurred in a high school religion class. One day our teacher Father FitzPatrick had us teenage boys open the Baltimore Catechism (Adolescent version!) to the section on the sixth commandment and specifically the section on “impure acts”, i.e., masturbation. The question focused on the effects of “impure acts” and the consequences were terrible, ranging from physical damage to insanity. Surprisingly, warts were not listed. In any case, Father then advised us to “take all that with a grain of salt.” He was encouraging us to question the Baltimore Catechism! Thus began my journey to Cafeteria Catholicism.

My views of many spiritual issues have changed as a result. I rejected a faith based on guilt and fear. I rejected Catholic doctrine on certain issues such as birth control and divorce. I studied other religions, all of which have enriched my journey. I found God outside the Church in places such as Yosemite and the Chicago Art Institute.

I have also taken issue with my Church, especially with their handling of the clergy abuse issue. This has gotten me judged so being a Cafeteria Catholic does not come without risks. I also take issue with my Church’s treatment of women and continue to see Church hierarchy as drawn to elitism and sexism.

And yet I still call myself Catholic. During the pandemic shutdown, I missed Mass or, more specifically, I missed Eucharist. Catholicism is one of the few Western religions that embraces mysticism. I have known some extraordinary Catholics to include priests and sisters. I treasure certain saints. I found that I missed much about my Catholicism during the pandemic.

So I will continue to search and to question. I will continue to be open to spiritual insights from sources beyond Catholic ones. I will continue to question and challenge my Church. I will pray for a genuine rebirth of my Church.

And I will continue to attend Mass but it won’t be out of fear or guilt.

About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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3 Responses to On Being a Cafeteria Catholic

  1. Jane Burns says:

    Amen, Richard. And often thinking about why I am still a member of this Church, I think of the homage I pay to my parents and ancestors, whom, I am sure, had their own issues but carried on in faith. Sometimes aring and change comes from working within, not walking away. Thanks for giving voice…

  2. Susan Bass says:

    I like the idea of distinguishing primary and secondary faith. I also have both kinds of experiences. Interestingly, my secondary faith has been provided by Catholics who shared the sweet fruits of their profound and unconditional belief with me. As far as guilt and fear, well, those methods WORK, at least on the majority of people. Those are strategies which have been used by all governments and to some degree, all religions. As Machiavelli stated, “It is better for a leader to be feared than to be loved, if he cannot have both”. For the purpose of control, he was correct. I believe that those who were kept in the Catholic box, by whatever means, until they were old enough to create their own mature, informed understanding of morality, are fortunate. It is a very tough thing to re-invent the morality wheel on your own as I did. But by having done so has allowed me to understand why the Catholic Church has taken such a rigid stance toward divorce and pregnancy termination. It is because they don’t want human beings and relationships to become disposable and sadly, that is the case much of the time. Unfortunately, the Church does not allow individuals to countenance the times when it might not be avoidable.

  3. Susan Bass says:

    I a double dipping on the comments, but I thought about it more and I think that the problem is not being a “Cafeteria Catholic” but rather being a convenient Christian. There is really only one main dish on the menu in the Cafeteria of Christianity. “Love one another as I have loved you”. Easy to say but hard to do. Especially hard is the the forgiving of those who drive nails into your hands and mock you with a crown of thorns.

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