So, I saw on a blog the other day where the author was citing an authority for a moral issue. In this case the author was citing the SSPX and said that the SSPX was “for real about Church discipline” and he was willing to listen to them. On the other hand, the author has no respect for the teaching authority of the current Pope and the bishops. When someone called the author out of this, asking about the contradiction of the SSPX being disobedient, the author replied that the SSPX followed all pre-conciliar teachings and disciplines. To which the reply was “except obedience to the Pope."
Now I’m not naming the blog or linking to the article in question, because the point of this article is not about condemning a person or article or website. Rather, watching this exchange, I found myself reflecting on the common epithet “Cafeteria Catholicism” and what distinguishes Cafeteria Catholicism from other people who find themselves running afoul of the Church. Are all of us Cafeteria Catholics on account of our sins? Or does the term reflect a specific mindset?
Of course the term is an epithet, not a theological term. That makes it harder to pin down in a way people will agree on. Generally the term is based on the concept of the Cafeteria: where individuals serve themselves from a line of food and select and reject based on their personal preferences. The term “Cafeteria Catholic” then means that when it comes to the Church teaching, an individual decides to accept or reject teachings based on their preferences—they accept the teachings they agree with and refuse to follow the ones they disagree with. This is going to be the working definition I will use in this blog.
Oh sure, the cafeteria Catholic—regardless of whether the person is conservative, liberal, modernist or traditionalist—will offer justifications as to why they do not have to obey the disliked teaching. But the point is, they will not accept the possibility that they could be wrong and the Church on the issue. Therefore the Church can be disobeyed (it is argued).
I think this is quite different from the sinner who knows that they are doing wrong and wants to change. Certain people have inclinations which lead them into sin (for example, addiction to drugs or pornography, alcoholism, and so on). Others are in situations where they feel trapped in a bad situation. Others simply chose pleasure over God and now regret it.
The difference between the two is the cafeteria Catholic knows the Church teaches against what they demand but rejects the authority of the Church to tell them right from wrong when they do not want to obey. The latter knows what they do is wrong and wishes that sin was not between them and God. They recognize they need salvation, even if they feel unable to turn back for one reason or another. This person is like the tax collector in Our Lord’s parable who “…stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'” (Luke 18:13)
I think the Pope gets it. In his talk of mercy (which is well publicized) and repentance (which is virtually ignored), he seeks to reach out to the second group. He wants to help make the path of return to the Church easier for a person who is ashamed of what they are. Unfortunately, people assume he is reaching out to unrepentant cafeteria Catholics who have no intention of accepting the fact that they are doing wrong.
As we begin Advent, let us consider whether there is any rebellion in our hearts that make us cafeteria Catholics—and in doing so, avoiding thinking of cafeteria Catholics as only being people we disagree with—and if there is, let us turn to Our Lord and say ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'