Printer Friendly Format

Cafeteria American, Sí. Cafeteria Catholic, No.

By Kevin and Marilyn Ryan
Posted: 1/9/2009

Print Friendly and PDF

Americans have always been “cafeteria Americans,” individuals who feel free to define themselves. We choose to be a Republican or a Democrat, a music lover or a sports addict (or both), an Easterner or a Westerner. We are a “free” people, constrained only by our laws, our own conscience and the social constraints we ourselves embrace. As Americans we can be hardworking or sluggish, social butterflies or hermit-like. We choose from the great cafeteria that is America.

One of the great glories of America is that our nation also allows us to choose from a religious cafeteria. We can be Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist or sun worshippers...or nothing. But that is our free choice as citizens.

The cafeteria metaphor breaks down, however, when we come to Catholicism. Catholicism is not a place, a party, a nationality or a style of thinking. Our Church is the living body of Christ, His continuing presence in the world. Christ commissioned and commanded his Apostles to spread His Word, so all of us would know Him. The Church is His Good News to the world about how to achieve happiness and human flourishing. In sports lingo, Catholicism is the whole ballgame. It isn’t a couple of innings, or a few holes of golf. We are supposed to play the whole thing. The Church embodies the true meaning of our individual existence.

The corpus of faith, that is, what the Church has to tell us about these matters, is not like the U.S. Constitution or the laws of a state, which can be changed by a democratic process. It is God’s word. It is not a matter of opinion or personal taste or consensus. To the American ear, however, this rings of intolerance.

In recent decades, Catholics, like the rest of Americans, have embraced tolerance as the prime American virtue, the virtue that supposedly will bind us together. It is the one bit of moral content that public school educators feel confident about preaching to our children. “Don’t judge. Accept everything. Be open to all ideas, no matter how strange they strike you. Tolerance is our social glue. So be tolerant of everything, except intolerance!” And what a successful campaign this has been.

Catholic Americans are, of course, civically free, but also religiously free. We have two “religious outs.” One is that after careful thought, the Church doesn’t make sense to us. If after serious reflection, to assent to Church teaching would go against our best judgment, then we can freely search for another path to God.

A second out is perhaps more common and far less legitimate. We reject what the Church is telling us in total or in specifics because it does not satisfy us. It doesn’t measure up to who we think we are. There are all sorts of shades of this rejection. One that is growing in popularity is the soft-atheist “out.” “God is hiding from us too well, so why should I become a follower? I’ll remain a ‘cultural Catholic,’ checking off ‘Roman Catholic’ in the census box, but quietly disengage from the God-thing.”

Another variation is, “The Church can’t be serious about this (i.e., going to weekly Mass, abstaining from sex until marriage, trying to live a saintly life). It’s too hard. The priests probably made it up.”

A third is the true cafeteria out. “I’m the kind of Catholic I want to be. I’ve got the correct views (now fill in the blank--on birth control, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, ordination of women, the homosexual lifestyle) and no old men in Rome are going to tell me what to think.”

(If you are wondering about your own status, you might want to try a short quiz entitled, “Are You a Cafeteria Catholic?” available on the Web at

There are lots of pressures to adopt this pick-and-choose attitude toward our religion. It is hard to be at odds with our children or our parents on matters of faith. It is awkward to hold different and unpopular ideas about social issues from our neighbors and co-workers. It would help greatly, however, if up and down the Church, from Rome to the parish, there were greater clarity and unity about what it means to be a Catholic in the modern world. One indication of our current educational failure is the report that states that 60 percent of self-identified Catholic college students say they believe that abortion should be legal and premarital sex is not a sin!

It is truly a scandal when clergy and laity remain quiet in the face of self-proclaimed Catholic politicians redefining Church teaching on abortion, as happened this past fall. Or more recently when, speaking as practicing Catholics, one female member of the Kennedy family stated that some of the Church’s words and symbols are “anathema to my values,” and another informs us that the Church is out of step on abortion.

Wouldn’t it be better for the Church to honestly and forcefully and lovingly tell these folks that they, de facto, have left the Church? Tell them that by supporting pro-choice legislation, by advocating for culture-of-death issues, by not attending the sacraments, they are separating themselves from Christ and His Church? Inform them that it is they who are out of step with the Church and that their public claims of membership are intellectually and morally dishonest?

There are growing signs that the Catholic Church in America is now under attack and will continue to be. We have to face facts that we are out-of-step with the emerging consensus on abortion, on same- sex marriage and adoption, on the limits of science (i.e., legitimacy of genetic manipulation), on the rights of doctors and pharmacists and a growing host of issues. If we Catholics are to be the social leaven which we are called to be, we need, as a first step, to define what it is to be a believing Catholic. We need again to speak with a clear and authoritative voice about what truly is the Catholic message to America and the rest of the world.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.