The “Cafeteria Catholic” phenomenon, its roots and its dangers.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
4 February 2016
While “Cafeteria Catholic” is a somewhat new term, it is not an entirely new phenomenon; its roots are found in Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment philosophies and some of the subsequent errors of Modernism. Although some people today think that a self-guided moral autonomy is the intelligent way to live, it is not the path leading to human fulfillment but its opposite.
Following in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council of the Church that came to a close under Pope Paul VI in 1965, it was popular among some Catholics to openly dissent from the authoritative teaching of the Church based an appeal to the dictates of conscience. In effect, this placed an individual’s opinion on par with Church doctrine and dogma, and therefore in some cases personal autonomy was given the nod of approval over and above the divine revelation of God transmitted by the Church.
Catholics who adhered to this behavior were eventually coined as “Cafeteria Catholics” because of the manner in which they would pick and choose among the beliefs of the Church, accepting some while rejecting others, as one might pick and choose among foods at a buffet style restaurant. Whatever is deemed palatable and desirable is chosen, whatever is not is left untouched. In the case of dissent on the part of “Cafeteria Catholics,” it was usually not a simple matter of setting aside a particular doctrine of faith, but a rejection of moral doctrines that in some way were connected to human sexuality.
For example, “Cafeteria Catholics” normally have no issue with dogmas such as the Holy Trinity or the two natures united in the divine Person of Christ, but moral teaching involving human sexuality, such as the prohibition against the use of artificial birth control with the intention of rendering married couples infertile in order to avoid pregnancy, is deemed outrageous and thus rejected. This was particularly the case with the intense backlash following the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968.
Proponents of the “Cafeteria Catholic” phenomenon decry use of the term as derogatory and unfair, insisting they are simply exercising their right to freedom of conscience. Whether the term should be used or not is not the subject here. Nevertheless, it is important to raise the question, does freedom of conscience mean any kind of freedom? No sane person argues that man is free to engage in any kind of behavior, for there is both good and evil, right and wrong, and there are indeed moral absolutes that must never be violated. If it is in fact true that Catholics must not simply dismiss the moral teaching of the Church that is itself connected to divine revelation because doing so is spiritually harmful to themselves and poses a danger to society collectively through the promotion of moral evils, then a discussion of the “Cafeteria Catholic” phenomenon is important. As our Lord himself said, “The truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).
Willful dissent from the moral tenets of the Church is no small matter because striving to live a morally upright life is no small matter. St. John Paul II made note of the grave error of selective adherence to the moral teaching of the Church in his meeting with the Bishops in Los Angeles in 1987:
It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Catholic Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. Some are reported as not accepting the clear position on abortion. It has to be noted that there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church’s moral teaching. It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a “good Catholic,” and poses no obstacle to the reception of the Sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching of the Bishops in the United States and elsewhere. (1)
There are some who believe the “Cafeteria Catholic” phenomenon arose out of Vatican II. It is true that some Catholics, including priests, religious and laity, interpreted the Council incorrectly and viewed it as flinging wide the door to liberal and modernist philosophies and ideals. It is often noted that Pope Paul VI desired to open the windows and let in some fresh air, yet inadvertently admitted a tempest. Both before and after the close of Vatican II, there was talk of the “spirit of the Council,” which was often used as a ploy to insert one’s own subjective take into what it was thought the Council was trying to say and intended to implement, but did not put down in writing due to those “pesky orthodox theologians” whose thunderous voices prevented any real airing of differences. Put another way, some gave little attention to what the Council actually said and wrote, while great emphasis was placed on opinions about what it was thought the Council meant to say or write. Some went with their opinions.
Pope Benedict XVI made note of this problem by use of the term “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” Some believed that Vatican II signaled a break from the pre-conciliar Church, a rupture with its past, and thus the Church following the Council was unbound from the old, rusty chains of restraint against modernism, and freed to embrace various new, questionable ideas and perhaps even immoral cultural norms. While there is such a thing as development in the Church and a deeper unfolding of doctrine and dogma that takes place, Vatican II did not and could not revise or alter the belief of the Church with regard to the deposit of faith and the moral teaching intrinsic to its content. Benedict stressed that a view of rupture and discontinuity with the past was in error. The proper way to view the Council was through a lens of continuity with the past. There was no break, no rupture, but rather a continuation. This he termed the “hermeneutic of continuity.”
But did the “Cafeteria Catholic” phenomenon find its origin in Vatican II? An examination of history shows that it did not suddenly materialize in the wake of the Council but grew out of seeds planted centuries earlier. Prior to Vatican II, already entrenched in American culture were strong currents of individualism, subjectivism, rationalism, liberalism, modernism, moral indifference, and anti-authority biases against the Church. Pope Benedict XVI summed up these various “isms” under the heading of the “Dictatorship of Relativism.” Relativism, in simple terms, is the notion that there are no absolute truths. Its tenet is that truth is malleable, and can change from person to person, from circumstance to circumstance, and age to age. The relativist, ultimately, believes absolute moral norms do not exist, which means we are left with nothing but changeable opinions. This error has infected western culture to such a high degree that it is virtually impossible to remain untouched by it in some form or other. Nevertheless, the point is, the storm had been building for a long time.
Tracing the Cafeteria Catholic Origin
Beginning with the Renaissance period in Europe, which spanned the 14th through 17th centuries and is often considered a bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history, we find the previously and deeply-held God-centered outlook on life, society and culture, began to be displaced by a more human-centered viewpoint known as Renaissance humanism. As such, an exaggerated emphasis on human autonomy began to develop that gradually distanced people from the authority and influence of the Church as well as God in their daily lives. The focus began to shift from God to the individual.
Following is the Enlightenment, known also as the Age of Reason, which began with the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries and prevailed throughout the 18th century. Although a properly understood interest in science, the natural world, and human progress is positive and helpful, the Enlightenment began to, in a manner of speaking, raise the power of the human intellect to godlike status. It therefore marked a departure away from medieval civilization and thought, in which people’s everyday lives were formerly viewed as bound up with God’s providence and immersed in the Church, toward a dangerous new way of thinking based on a destructive type of contrived and erroneous human freedom.
Although the Enlightenment was heralded by its authors and adherents as the champion of human knowledge, freedom and progress, it in fact promoted an aggressive rationalism—the notion that human reason reigns supreme and is itself the key to human progress—and developed into what became a vicious enemy of the Church. Men placed their faith in reason rather than in God; the result was that God and the Church were not merely relegated in position but actively and systematically attacked. Rationalists, to varying degrees, saw the Church, scripture, divine revelation and faith in Christ as enemies of human progress. Some of the figures who helped to foster and promote Enlightenment rationalism through their views and writings included such men as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and Immanuel Kant to name only a few.
Denis Diderot, for example, was an atheist who held the view that man “ought to search for the principles of natural order within natural processes themselves, not in a supernatural being” (2). Diderot viewed divine revelation as a limitation on human reason and knowledge, and thus insisted that an appeal to a transcendent being (God) did nothing but place constraints on knowledge. Ultimately, Diderot believed it was to man’s great advantage to learn about himself and the created order by himself. While there are a number of errors found in such an idea, one among them is the notion that scientific knowledge is in and of itself totally sufficient. However, ignoring the Creator of the natural world does not enhance understanding and knowledge but severely limits it. As important as science is, it is but a fragment of what can be grasped by the human intellect. Displaying his distaste for God and Church, Diderot wrote: “Man will never by free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
Kant was another well-known figure of the German Enlightenment. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that he expressed “many of the tendencies shared among Enlightenment philosophies of divergent doctrines” (2). Kant defined “enlightenment” as a kind of discovery of the real power of the intellect in which humankind was enabled to transcend its previous limitations inflicted by a “self-incurred immaturity” (Ibid). Kant defined this immaturity as “the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another” (Ibid).
John Vidmar, a noted historian, observed that the philosophers of the Enlightenment age made an absolute appeal to reason “as an act of faith, and they admitted of no criticism” (3). The Church and the divine revelation she transmits stood in opposition to Enlightenment philosophies. Dogma was seen not as enlightening and elevating of the human mind, as rays of light given from God as gifts to men, but intellectually stifling and restrictive to human progress. We continue to see a prevalence of this negative view toward dogma in many secular colleges and universities today.
It is important here to take note also of the negative effects the Enlightenment had on man’s view of himself and morality. According to Enlightenment thinking, morality was something to be subjectively determined by the individual. Man’s gaze did not look upward to eternal law and his participation in it, which is termed the natural moral law, that he may be governed in holiness and righteousness by it as a child of God and thereby attain true freedom and happiness, but rather turned his gaze downward and inwardly upon himself and his own ideals, that he might rule as his own god. But that desire leads down a dead-end and unfulfilling road.
The point is, Enlightenment rationalists had carved a deep and pervasive scar on culture that left its mark on later centuries. Following the Enlightenment, a Liberalism developed among some members of the Church who adopted particular defects of Enlightenment rationalism. Pope Gregory XVI published the encyclical Mirari Vos on August 15, 1832, in repudiation of a Liberalism that rejected divine revelation, adhered to religious indifferentism, and favored an intrusion of human autonomy into the moral order that led to a subsequent “perversion of morals” through the notion of liberty of conscience as an appeal to dissent from Church teaching (Nos. 5,14). Note how closely related the latter error is to “Cafeteria Catholicism.”
Following in the wake of Liberalism began the Modernist crisis that was reminiscent of Enlightenment ideals. It is difficult to exaggerate the dangers this particularly virulent strain of modernism posed to the Church and the faith. Hilaire Belloc wrote:
“The Modern Attack,” is a wholesale assault on the fundamentals of the Faith—upon the very existence of the Faith. And the enemy now advancing against us is increasingly conscious of the fact that there can be no question of neutrality. The forces now opposed to the Faith design to destroy. (4)
On July 3, 1907, the Holy Office issued Lamentabili Sane, listing 65 grievous errors of Modernism. These included, among others, an insistence that the Magisterium could be criticized and Church teaching does not demand internal assent by the faithful (No. 7); dogma is not divinely reveled but a product of the human mind (Nos. 20, 31); truth is not changeless but is relative and evolves over time with the advance of science; and scientific progress ought to bring about a reform of the fundamental concepts and teachings of the Church (Nos. 58, 64, 65). Pope Pius X, in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, termed Modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” (No. 39).
Humanae Vitae and the Birth of the Term “Cafeteria Catholic”
The 1960s spawned the “free love” movement that advocated sexual freedom, institutional suspicion, and rejection of moral authority. At the start of that same decade, the artificial birth control pill was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for contraceptive use and introduced into American society. The pill and other forms of artificial birth control were soon viewed as a harmless technology that should be liberally used to enjoy the pleasures of sex uninhibited by the risk of pregnancy. With the prolific use of hormonal contraceptives that followed, there was a general expectation after the close of Vatican II in 1965 that there would be a definitive statement issued on the matter by the Magisterium. Additionally, thrown into the mix were the powerful cultural influences of all the errors mentioned above, including the widespread sentiment that the Church should modernize by discarding what is subjectively deemed to be antiquated moral precepts in favor of adopting popular cultural norms.
It was no surprise, then, that the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968, which upheld the prohibition against the use of artificial birth control in marriage, incited cries of outrage from not only the general American populace but many Catholics who had been raised in a culture heavily influenced by Enlightenment rationalism, Liberalism and Modernism. Consequently, a spirit of protest had infected a large number of Catholics that, at its core, advocated a freedom without limits and an individual human autonomy that sought to be loosed from the chronic influences of the Church, including moral absolutes found to be disagreeable to one’s lifestyle and personal desires. Said another way, relativism had deeply infected American culture and Catholics who lived within it. As Pope Benedict XVI noted, “Ever since the Enlightenment the criticism of religion has been gathering momentum” (5). This criticism included not only religion per se, but its core moral values that are linked to God’s divine revelation, as well as the authority of the divinely instituted Church of Jesus Christ.
Pope Paul VI expected such criticism, which he prophetically indicated in the encyclical itself:
It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.” She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.
Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man.
In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization. She urges man not to betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients. In this way she defends the dignity of husband and wife. This course of action shows that the Church, loyal to the example and teaching of the divine Savior, is sincere and unselfish in her regard for men whom she strives to help even now during this earthly pilgrimage “to share God’s life as sons of the living God, the Father of all men.” (No. 18)
It was in the context of this firestorm that Catholics who openly dissented from the moral tenets of the Church would one day be known as “Cafeteria Catholics.” It is important to note that this dissent did not involve only the issue of artificial birth control, but others such as whether women should be ordained to the priesthood, the infallibility of the Church, what freedom of conscience means, whether ordained priests should be allowed to marry, and so forth. However, as history indicates, the roots of such protest run quite far back in time. In the Medieval period, open dissent against the Church and her moral precepts was often recognized for what it is, as something spiritually dangerous and damaging to individuals, families and society collectively; today, it is often thought of as a normal, sane and “enlightened” way to live. As one example among many, consider how people often view critical thinking today. It no longer means careful, reasoned analyzation and thought processes in accordance with what is really true and real, with the aim in mind of arriving at and living within the context of what is true, but free-thinking governed by self-interest that admits of no higher authority.
I want to add a caveat: I am not suggesting that the relationship between “Cafeteria Catholics” of today and Enlightenment rationalists or Modernists of past is an identical one. Rationalists, for example, often vehemently dismissed divine revelation, the Church, Tradition and Scripture as damaging to human progress. “Cafeteria Catholics,” on the other hand, acknowledge that these things are important, at least on some level; however, they insist particular moral tenets proposed by the Church can be selectively dismissed. They do this based on a determination that is claimed to have been made through use of reason and in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. Therefore we can see the connection here in the idea that reason can trump divine revelation and the authority of the Church. The main point is to note that “Cafeteria Catholicism” did not appear out of a vacuum, but grew from seeds planted earlier that fostered present-day cultural influences hostile to the Church and her doctrines in some form or other. All of this highlights the importance of actively and diligently seeking to acquire the truth and live by it, rather than allow the ebbs and flows of culture to dictate what one believes and how one lives. Given that the Spirit-guided Church transmits the fullness of truth and is granted authority by God (see Mt 16:17-19; 1 Tim 3:15; Jn 16:13, 14:26; Lk 10:16), it is unwise to exhibit a careless attitude toward her teaching.
The Moral Law: Rooted in the Love of the Father and Guiding Light of Human Fulfillment
Nevertheless, notice the words Pope Paul VI used in the above quote. He claims the moral law of which he speaks is not an invention of the Church but is transmitted by her as something truly lawful and beneficial for the good of humankind. He insists that by “reserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization.” He believes whatever is really true is truly good for man, and therefore when humankind lives in accordance with it a positive contribution is made to the common good and to authentic human flourishing. That, of course, is the belief of the Church. By living by what is real and true, humanity steps forward on the path leading to human fulfillment, something which can only be attained ultimately in and through and with God.
Said another way, there is a structure to reality that is rooted in the divine mind of God as Creator of all that is visible and invisible. If we should perhaps war against it, something which God has indeed given us the freedom to do, the result is an attempt to live in a way that is contrary to reality itself. Such a plan is not one of life, fullness and happiness, but rather death and destruction, incompleteness and unhappiness.
That the life of moral excellence is intrinsically connected to lasting happiness and true human fulfillment can sometimes be a difficult concept for modern-day people to grasp, given the prevailing cultural tides and the historical influences responsible for generating them. Human fulfillment is obtained in death to self, not in constantly feeding one’s ego, living by an autonomous moral system, and refusing subjection to the loving plan of God transmitted by the Church.
While the “Cafeteria Catholic” phenomenon is a somewhat new term it is based on philosophies of old. Further, contrary to what people may think, it is not the path leading to human fulfillment but its opposite. It was Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made, who said: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk 9:24-25).
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Photo Credit: Claudia Viloria.
1. John Paul II. Meeting with the Bishops of the United States of America. Accessed Oct. 8, 2015. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1987/september/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19870916_vescovi-stati-uniti.html. Internet.
2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed Oct. 8, 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/. Internet.
3. Vidmar, John OP. The Catholic Church Through the Ages: A History. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005, p. 261.
4. Belloc, Hilaire. The Great Heresies. Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1938, p. 143.
5. Benedict XVI. General Audience. Year of Faith: The ways that lead to knowledge of God. Accessed Oct. 8, 2015. http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20121114.html. Internet.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.