The Church is Not a Cafeteria

Pope - ChestertonIn my teens, I wasn’t a very strong or knowledgeable Catholic. I’d converted when I was twelve, but that was more about me getting brought along when my mother and older brother took the plunge. I had the worst of both worlds: no convert’s fervor, and no cradle education. I had a lot of strange ideas in my head, picked up from books and movies and TV shows, not to mention people like my first girlfriend.

So yes, I understand how easy it is to get a strange idea of what the Church teaches. Between a media that focuses on its own agenda and no longer even attempts investigative journalism (seriously, citing Wikipedia would be an improvement at least half the time, and I’m probably being too generous) and an entertainment industry that treats the Catholic Church about as well as the laws of physics in a summer blockbuster movie, it’s one of the easiest things in the world.

It’s also one of the easiest to rectify. Every scrap of Church doctrine, discipline, and theology (and yes, there’s a difference between those three) is online, indexed by your favorite search engine, and available without a subscription. And yet we still have people who think that Jack Chick is a more reliable source of information about what the Church actually professes.

And, more relevantly for right now, we have people who would rather condemn the Church for not fitting in their personal political ideology than accept that the Church doesn’t fit into any ideology . . . except perhaps its own. 

When Benedict was elected, I was introduced to a new term. Well, new for me. It was “cafeteria Catholic.” It took me another year to realize I had been a cafeteria Catholic.

For those who don’t know, that’s someone who goes to the Church, takes what most interests them, leaves the rest, and still pretends to be part of the whole. Some times, this is done out of deliberate malice, seeking to take on the mantle of Catholicism without the dedication. Most of the time, it is done out of pure ignorance, because they have been taught over and over, through imperfect news, inaccurate entertainment, and those who actively seek to destroy the Church, that it’s okay to disagree. That to be a Catholic, you don’t actually have to be a Catholic.

Canon Law

But it’s forgivable. It’s forgivable because the Church is all about forgiveness. The Church just asks that people seek it before it’s granted. Christ wasn’t in the habit of giving absolution for stuff that no one was sorry for.

And that’s how the Church operates in all things. We reach out to others, but — contrary to Internet memes, Fundamentalist rhetoric, and Hollywood history — we don’t force anything. We send out invitations and hope that you’ll stop by.

The Church has stood for coming up on two thousand years exactly. It’s the oldest human institution. It’s the longest-running bureaucracy. It’s outlived empires that sought to control it or destroy it. It’s seen empires it blessed get ground to dust. It’s been through persecution on both sides of the line.

So the idea that so many might think that the Church should march to the drum of United States politics is rather . . . odd.

And yet that’s what’s happening. Anything the Pope says is filtered through the lens of American current events. The pope speaks about the need to forgive and welcome people; suddenly he’s endorsing gay marriage, in direct opposition of the Catechism. He mentions his misgivings about the manufacturers of weapons of war; suddenly he’s endorsing draconian gun control, in direct opposition of the Catechism. He mentions the role of women in the Church; suddenly he’s endorsing female priests, in direct opposition — well, you get the idea.

The fact of the matter is that whether Pope Francis leans right or left is immaterial. The Church doesn’t lean either way, you see. The Church doesn’t lean anywhere. The Church bows only to God. Why do we expect it to take notice of mere fashion?

The Church is dying

I’m a conservative. That means a particular thing in the United States, though there are many here who want to use a European definition instead. Still, I hold to this particular political ideology because it’s the most in keeping — at present — with my faith. This does not mean my faith is somehow conservative. Nor do I think it should be. Nor, in fact, do I think my religion matters less than my politics.

For some reason, this week has really brought out the Catholic-bashers. I don’t have a problem with the ones who have a legitimate disagreement with me, my faith, or my Church. The ones I have a problem with are those who want to tell me what I believe. Those who ignore actual Church teachings in favor of their favorite twisted versions of reality. When you clearly haven’t even bothered to look at Wikipedia, much less the Vatican’s own website, and you keep persisting in the face of facts, you should be prepared for my scorn.

Now, I have no beef with those who don’t know something and are willing to admit it. That’s great. That’s more than I was when I was a teen, after all. I only turned around when I discovered how easy it was to fill in the gaps, and how much it all made sense compared to the jumbled mess I’d been fed before. I finally gained that convert’s fervor, in the form of a history book.

Most people haven’t had that opportunity, much less want to delve into the history books or have a four-year education at one of the best Catholic colleges in the world to put it all into context. That’s fine. I’d like to run a marathon or change my own car’s oil. That’s not likely to happen either. Being handicapped gave me a lot of time to just read.

And all that reading convinced me like nothing else. No mysterious presence when I pray, no great inner peace, no voice from on high. No, what I had was book after book, and the realization that not only did it make a complete whole, but much of it was provable. And if parts were objectively and demonstrably true, well, what about the rest?

So, though I wish it could be otherwise, I’m no longer a cafeteria Catholic. I’m also not a conservative who just happens to be Catholic. Our ideas and priorities shape who we are, and I know where my priorities lie.

Be Catholic or Get Out

So, sure, Pope Francis said some stuff off-the-cuff that sounded weird. He didn’t contradict Church teaching, which — in the case of gun ownership — was already handled by Lori earlier today. Does it seem to fall in line with American leftism rather than American rightism?

Big whoop. The Church has never claimed membership in either; and for all its power and importance, the Church is just one part of an entire world.

This is a pope who preaches pacifism. That doesn’t mean he’s against all violence (have we really forgotten his “punch in the nose” comment already?), nor does it mean he’s a Marxist (is it really that inconvenient to consider how much trouble he got into by criticizing leftists in Argentina?). He preaches pacifism because he loves people and wants them to love each other.

I’m not a pacifist. What I am, though, is someone who believes the Church is right. And while the Church tells us we have not just a right but a grave duty to defend the innocent with lethal force if that’s the best path to peace, it’s important to consider what paths to peace one might find.

And to use that as an excuse to talk about how the Catholic Church is wrong, corrupt, stupid, sucks, senile, medieval, etc. . . . well, that just underscores the truth of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s most famous observation:

Sheen - Hate Catholic

It doesn’t matter what happens; the Church endures, and will be nearby to help pick up the pieces of the next shattered empire.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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3 Responses to The Church is Not a Cafeteria

  1. Foxfier says:

    For what it’s worth, the cradle education is rather lacking of late, too– I didn’t know there were official Church documents until I ran into them on my own! (Lame sermons, “Sunday School” that focused entirely on Bible stories or cutting out felt, and my mom was under the Priest-imposed impression that the stuff she’d been taught as binding was incorrect, due to Vatican II.)

    The twin problems of Cafeteria Catholicism and Personal Papacy Catholicism (where the permitted but not required things are required- for an example of that being smacked down, see then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s official letter about abortion vs the death penalty) will probably always be with us. *wry*
    At least we’ve got the internet, now, and it’s dead easy– heck, all you have to do is look at “” for good resources, and that’s before famous things like EWTN! All it takes is people knowing that there’s stuff they don’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. missy681 says:

    It’s always amazing to me that people don’t see the whole picture. As someone born & raised Catholic and who never left the faith, I find it fascinating that people don’t “get” what you mentioned about being in existence for 2000 years. The people who try to rewrite history have never tried delving into history. One of my favorite pastimes is to read conversion stories. My favorite ones are those who found the Church through their study of history. As for “what’s happening now” I can easily find comfort in knowing that there’s Truth in thinking “this, too, shall pass.” By focusing on Heaven, it’s easy to put your Catholic identity first. Obviously, it’s easy to become frightened if you dwell on our country getting ground into dust, but there’s always the hope for Heaven.


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