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.