From ‘Cafeteria Catholicism’ to the Banquet


The phrase “cafeteria Catholic” refers to a baptized Catholic who doesn’t embrace everything the Church teaches—someone who picks and chooses, a la carte (hence “cafeteria”), from among the Church’s moral rules, rubrics, and spiritual norms.

Many “cafeteria Catholics” are the product of bad catechesis. They disobey certain Church teachings because they’re simply not aware of them. Others reject difficult rules because they’ve never heard them presented in a coherent, persuasive way, seeing them more as restrictive than keys to flourishing.

But this doesn’t describe Rea Nola Martin. If we’re to believe her account in the Huffington Post, she’s well aware of what the Church teaches and why. She has “studied the mystics and read the Summa by Thomas Aquinas just for fun.” She has “read the entire Bible more than once and the Gnostic gospels too.”

This, according to her, explains the primary reason she’s a “cafeteria Catholic”: because of Jesus.

“Although I have studied and admired many a spiritual master, Christ is my go to. He’s the one I look to for spiritual guidance, inspiration, counsel, and redemption. He’s the inner voice I check-in with all day long. That’s why I’m a cafeteria Catholic.”

No serious Catholic would disagree with her first three sentences. Christ is the beginning and end of everything the Church believes. However, it’s not immediately clear how one jumps from valuing Christ to ignoring what his Church teaches, since the two are a package deal (Jesus said to his apostles, “Whoever hears you hears me.”) Martin spends the rest of her article defending that leap.

Unfortunately, her reasons are so packed with misunderstandings and confused assumptions, it would be impossible to engage every point within this short post. I’ll attempt only to tackle her most pertinent comments.

Martin begins by claiming:

“If there’s one thing Christ taught me, it’s to challenge the status quo.”

Perhaps in her comprehensive journey through the Bible, Martin missed Jesus’ teachings on salvation, charity, prayer, enemy-love, marriage, sacrifice, church discipline, community, evangelization, and discipleship, and that explains why the one thing Jesus taught her is anti-establishment activism. And it also might explain what comes next:

“To that point, Christ redressed the corruptive socio-political norms of his own religion. He befriended the disenfranchised, worked on the Sabbath, and upended the tables of the moneychangers.
Christ was a cafeteria Jew.”

Her point seems to be, “Hey, Jesus ignored some religious teachings, so why can’t I?!” Before following that logic, however, we should keep two important facts in mind.

First, Jesus is the Son of God; Martin is not. As the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus had unique authority to fulfill, extend, or revamp any part of his own divine law. It’s his prerogative, and until Martin becomes the Fourth Person of the Holy Quadrinity, it is one she doesn’t share.

Also, Jesus was less a “cafeteria Jew” than a Jewish culinarian. He didn’t pick and choose what food to eat; he cooked the food, and chose which to serve. By placing him on the wrong side of the serving counter, Martin reduces Jesus to just one more religious patron among others.

After her weak defense of Christ as “a cafeteria Jew”, Martin then gets to the meat of her article. She lists four Catholic teachings she is happy to pass in the cafeteria line. Let’s examine each one:

“#1 -I find it impossible to swallow the Catholic Church’s stance on women as unqualified or inappropriate for the deaconate or priesthood. Back in the day, women were suppressed and uneducated. Now they’re not. In fact, the latest statistics in the United States show that women are more educated than men. Notwithstanding the superior education, I challenge a single parish to stay open without the women whose hard work and spirituality enable the communities to exist. And with the dwindling male priesthood, how will the Church possibly continue without opening its priesthood to over 50 percent of its population? And if they continue to dismiss them, how many women of succeeding generations will stay?”

There’s much to embrace here. For example, no Catholic would doubt the indispensable role that women have played and continue to play within the Church. Nobody is suggesting women stop working at parishes, dioceses, ministries, etc. The opening paragraphs of Pope John Paul’s Letter to Women offer a litany of praise and thanks for women, and he devoted another apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatum, to their dignity and vocation.

However, this section contains some major misunderstandings. The most serious is that education is the primary qualifier for the priesthood, as if the Church delineates candidates by IQ level. While it’s true priestly candidates must endure a rigorous formation program, priests are not judged and accepted by intellect alone.

A good priest is not one that simply “knows a lot of stuff.” A good priest images Jesus Christ, acting in his person—including his gender—to help parishioners encounter the true High Priest.

It’s also ironic that after earlier claiming “Christ is my go-to [whom] I look to for spiritual guidance” Martin rejects his lead on exclusively ordaining male disciples. That makes her less a “cafeteria Catholic” and more a “cafeteria follower of Christ.”

The Church can always do more to ennoble women and promote their great dignity, but that doesn’t require ordaining them to the priesthood any more than ennobling men requires them getting pregnant.

“#2 -I also find it impossible to accept the position of the Catholic Church on gays and lesbians. That gays and lesbians are not only undeserving of the dignity of marriage, but of relationships period. That sticks in my throat. By accident of my birth and gender orientation I am granted a life of dignity and acceptance, while others are not? This kind of bias presupposes that homosexuality is a choice, which contemporary evidence shows it clearly is not. Anyone who knows gay people (most of us) understands that. I’m pretty sure Christ would pass on this item, too.”

While Martin claims to “find it impossible to accept the position of the Catholic Church on gays and lesbians,” it’s not clear that she actually understands that position. In other words, she’s rejecting a straw man that I and other Catholics would swiftly reject, too.

For instance, Martin insinuates that the Catholic Church teaches that gays and lesbians are “undeserving of … relationships period.” If this were true, I would just as vigorously protest. But it’s not. Perhaps in her comprehensive reading Martin missed the Catechism’s definitive section on homosexuality (CCC 2357-2359), but it does not condemn “relationships period” among people with same-sex attraction. In fact, it explicitly encourages chaste, life-giving friendships.

Martin also suggests that the Church doesn’t grant homosexual people “a life of dignity or choice”, a strange claim since, again, the Catechism expressly notes “[Homosexuals] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (CCC 2358). The Catholic Church remains the greatest defender of the dignity of all people, regardless of gender, age, religion, or sexual orientation.

Finally and most seriously, Martin doesn’t distinguish between same-sex attraction and same-sex activity. For instance, she suggests “homosexuality” is not a choice, which may be true if she’s referring to same-sex attraction—the Catechism is quick to admit that the “psychological genesis [of homosexuality] remains largely unexplained”—but certainly false if she’s referring to same-sex activity. Yet even if she was right, and it was conclusively shown that same-sex attraction is genetically determined, that fact would be independent of whether same-sex actions are morally acceptable. Most of us are genetically predisposed to all sorts of immoral activities, but that doesn’t determine the intrinsic morality of those activities. Even if a man is genetically predisposed to gluttony, we wouldn’t praise him eating ten hamburgers in one sitting.

“#3– I reject the Church’s stance on divorced members of their own religion who wish to receive the Eucharist. Isn’t the Eucharist the point? Isn’t it the transformative food that strengthens the spirit? How can it be denied to parishioners just because they didn’t have the connections or the money to secure an annulment and I did? To my knowledge, there were no second class citizens in Christ’s following.”

Again, there’s much to applaud here. Martin is right that the “Eucharist is the point.” The Catechism describes it as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). It’s undoubtedly the “transformative food that strengthens the spirit.” She’s also right that nobody should be excluded from communion simply because they don’t have enough money or connections. The Church regularly sings hymns based on Isaiah 55: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat!” Finally, it’s true “there were no second class citizen’s in Christ’s following.” But behind all those agreeable facts hide two serious confusions.

First, Martin assumes that divorced Catholics are not able to receive communion. This is simply not true. The Church only withholds communion from those who have civilly divorced without an annulment and then have chosen to civilly remarry. This follows from Jesus’ clear command: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Since adultery is a mortal sin, and those living in mortal sin are not spiritually prepared to receive Christ in communion, they should refrain. Surely Martin agrees with her “go-to” source on this topic.

Second, the annulment process does not depend exclusively—or at all—on connections or money. This is a wild assertion, and since Martin offers no evidence for her claim, we should reserve paying it serious attention.

“#4– I think statistics will bear me out when I say that population control is one of (if not the) greatest global dilemmas facing humanity today and for the foreseeable future with respect to food, water, disease, living space, and ecological repercussions. So, even if I didn’t believe (which I do) that family planning is the only way to stay sane (I’m one of eight), I would still find it impossible to accept the Church’s stance on birth control based on the above ethics.”

In Martin’s final point she questions the Church’s rejection of artificial birth control. Her main argument is that since overpopulation is one of the greatest threats today, this rejection seems “impossible” and unethical. Yet while Martin is right that we’re facing a serious population crisis, it’s not overpopulation—it’s underpopulation. As the Population Research Institute shows, the global population will peak in about thirty years but will then rapidly decline (since global birth rates have reached unprecedented lows.)

Overpopulation is a myth and therefore no good reason to accept artificial birth control.

Martin then wraps up her piece:

“Okay that’s my list. (I could add married clergy, but that would exceed the word count.) What’s yours? If you think you are not a cafeteria Catholic, consider Pope Francis’ recent references to capitalism. Are you a capitalist? And what about war? Notwithstanding abject evil, are you in favor of killing people to protect the economic interests of your population? Such wars have been waged with and without our knowledge. Even the “holy” Crusades were acknowledged as a moral debacle centuries later.
The bottom line is, these are all complex issues deserving deep thought and consideration. To be a cafeteria Catholic is a good thing if it means you are putting your conscience first. As long as your conscience is in good shape and your ego is in check, it works. After all, history has proven that individuals, not institutions, lead the parade of evolutionary progress. Customs rooted in society must change; only truth is eternal.”

Martin can’t help adding a couple more jabs in her closing remarks. For example, she demands married clergy, apparently unaware that the Catholic Church already has millions of married clergy (deacons, Eastern rite priests, former-Anglican priests, etc.)

She sums up her entire position with these words: “To be a cafeteria Catholic is a good thing if it means you are putting your conscience first. As long as your conscience is in good shape and your ego is in check, it works.”

The question, of course, is how do you know if your conscience is in good shape? By what objective rule is it measured? For Martin, the answer seems to be, “I measure my conscience by my own beliefs”, the equivalent of painting a bullseye around your already-embedded arrow.

I hope one day Martin will discover the emptiness of “cafeteria Catholicism,” eschewing it instead for the entire banquet Jesus offers through his Church. The former might satisfy her appetite temporarily, but only the latter will fill her soul.
Originally published at Word on Fire.