Cafeteria Catholics?

The term “cafeteria Catholics” has been used over the years by Catholics on the Right to criticize those who pick and choose among the Church’s teachings on issues such as abortion, birth control, divorce, women priests and homosexuality.

But I have noticed a new trend: Catholics on the political Left are now using the term as well. They apply it to conservative Catholics who refuse to toe the line with the hierarchy on capital punishment, the war in Iraq, immigration and the social programs favored by the Democratic Party.

Is this a case of turnabout being fair play? I say no. There is a difference. Catholics who dissent on abortion, birth control, divorce, homosexuality and women priests contend that the Church is in error on these teachings. Those who dissent on capital punishment, immigration, the war in Iraq and the welfare state do not take that position. Their disagreement centers on how the Church’s teachings, which they accept, should be applied in particular circumstances.

Catholic proponents of capital punishment, for example, accept Pope John Paul II’s teachings that the death penalty should be used very rarely, but define “rarely” differently than the hierarchy. Those who support the invasion of Iraq do not reject the Church’s just war theory; they contend that Saddam Hussein’s government was a threat sufficiently grave to meet the terms of a just war.

The debate over government social programs designed to aid the disadvantaged is another example of this phenomenon at work. Catholics who oppose the welfare state do not disagree with the Church’s teaching that we have a societal responsibility to care for the poor and the downtrodden and those unable to provide for themselves. (Not necessarily, at any rate. I have come across a few — but just a few — outright Social Darwinists who call themselves Catholics, people who dissent from the social encyclicals condemnation of “economic individualism.”) They accept that we have a communal responsibility to seek social justice, but maintain that we have no obligation as Catholics to support government programs that have proven wasteful, ineffective, or worse, counter-productive.

These Catholic opponents of the modern welfare state will stress that good intentions are not enough; that the purpose of a poverty program is to make life better for the poor, not salve the consciences of middle- and upper-class taxpayers by causing them pain through the redistribution of their wealth. “Giving until it hurts” is not an end in itself. If a poverty program is doing more harm than good it is not deserving of our support. And there is mounting evidence that many poverty programs do just that. In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks focused on the latest government statistics on the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States.

Brooks acknowledges that the gap is real; it is not just a Democratic talking point for critics of the Bush administration’s handling of the economy: “[W]hile standards of living are rising for almost everybody, people at the middle and bottom of the income scale aren’t seeing the gains you’d expect.” The data are there.

The question is what do we do next? We know what liberal Democrats would say: The federal government has the answer for this problem. They would call for increased federal spending to redistribute the wealth, to bridge the gap, for increased taxes on the “rich” to pay for everything from expanded pre-natal care to higher Medicare and Social Security payments.

The problem, says Brooks, is that “raising taxes on the rich and redistributing money to the poor” does not work. We have the data for that as well. We have spent billions of federal dollars since the 1930s trying to eradicate poverty in this country. It has done little good in bridging the income gap. We can see the same result in other countries. Brooks: “In Britain, Gordon Brown has redistributed large amounts of money from rich to poor regions, but regional inequality has increased faster under the current government than under Margaret Thatcher.”

It is clear: The government cannot tax and legislate our way out of this problem. Why? Brooks is not a Catholic, but his analysis could have been lifted from a section of the social encyclicals centering on subsidiarity: “Income inequality is driven by human capital inequality, and human capital can’t be taxed and redistributed. You have to build it at the bottom to ensure maximum fairness.” Put otherwise, those who are being left behind in our economy are not the victims of race and sex discrimination or a lack of public spending. What we are looking at is a “marriage gap.”

There are exceptions of course, but successful middle-class Americans tend to come, writes Brooks, from “stable two-parent homes” that provide them “with the stable, loving structures” of family life, “while kids in poorer families are increasingly less likely to have these advantages.” Generous government subsidies for housing and lavishly appointed schools cannot make up for this deficiency.

Who does well in the work force? “The people who do well not only possess skills that can be measured on tests, they have self-discipline (which is twice as important as IQ in predicting academic achievement, according to a study by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman). They conceive of their lives as following a script, progressing upward through stages. They benefit from inherited cultural traits.”

I spend a lot of time in my old neighborhood in Queens. There are very few of the old Irish and Italian residents left. But there are people doing well in the area. I see Asian immigrants running not just the ethnic restaurants you would expect, but the post office as well, Indians operating franchises such as Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts, Pakistani contractors tearing down old wood-frame houses and putting up expensive brick buildings in their place. All this hustle and bustle takes place within a stone’s throw of government housing projects where those at the bottom of the income gap described by Brooks live in a world of illegitimacy, crime and economic despair.

The thriving immigrants have the advantage the native underclass does not: those “inherited cultural traits” that Brooks writes of. Brooks: “Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.” They need stable families. Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi haven’t a clue to how to write legislation to give them that. Indeed, the case can be made that the welfare state they have created has made things worse for the poor. Catholics loyal to the Magisterium have no moral obligation to vote them the funds to make the same big-government mistakes over and over again.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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