Cafeteria Catholics. What a very descriptive phrase: a quick metaphor to describe those who want to pick and choose what parts of Church teaching to take seriously. For Catholics who strive to live close to the teachings of mother Church this term can be used to quickly dismiss those we see as falling short of the respect and obedience owed to the magisterium. If you say Cafeteria Catholic with just the right kind of sneer it even conjures the image of a noisy, dingy buffet line where slowly congealing mystery foods lie under heat lamps. THIS is what those Catholics want to do to our beautiful faith! Shudder.
Generally the term is used for those who dissent from teaching on sexual morality, “the left” as we might simplify them, but it has also been used lately to describe those who struggle with the social teachings of the church, “the right.” It’s adaptable like that, anybody can use it. Mea culpa, I have certainly been guilty of this dismissive attitude. I have said, “If they don’t like what the church teaches there are lots of other religions where you can pick and choose. They can leave.” This is partly an understandable reaction. We feel that cafeteria Catholics are watering down the Faith and misrepresenting the Church to the world. It’s hard enough to evangelize without being undermined by our own brethren! But this attitude effectively absolves us of the responsibility to evangelize within the Church, which is as much our duty as reaching out beyond it. Of course we cannot cede church teaching to the whims of anyone, but we must certainly not shrug at the idea of anyone leaving. If we love them we must fervently desire each person to stay.
So the church isn’t a cafeteria. But let’s stick with a food analogy for now.
The church does serve up a sumptuous feast. And let’s be honest, each of us feels some temptation towards treating it like a buffet. Not because the food is bad, but because we all have our own tastes. Brussels sprouts are healthful and can be cooked to perfection but somebody is just going to wish they could give them a pass all the same. Or maybe spicy food isn’t your thing. Maybe you have tasted something that looked similar once and it was terrible. You’re afraid this will be the same. Something on that plate will take a special effort to eat. But everything will be nourishing and important.
When we meet someone who is having trouble “swallowing” some part of church teaching our response should not be to shoo them out of the restaurant. No. We want to keep them in the building! We want to convince them that it’s worth a try. We want to convince them that, while an acquired taste it’s a worthwhile one. We may have to explain that certain other dishes on the table can only be consumed AFTER you’ve taken your leafy greens but there’s plenty available in the meantime. Stay, eat what you can, learn more about the rest, get comfortable and when you’re ready join more fully in the feast.
We cannot and should not seek to change the teachings of the Church. We mustn’t turn our feast into a cafeteria line. Yet it should be the mission of every Catholic to keep everyone as close to the table as possible so that, when they are ready, each may partake. For those already feasting, we need to do better in welcoming others to the table, drawing them in and enticing them with what we know is splendid, instead of being indifferent to their relationship with the church. Take it or leave it is not an attitude of fraternal care. If you’re already seated at table you need to pull up an empty chair next to you and help bring your brothers and sisters to the feast. If you know this isn’t a cafeteria then work to make it as welcoming and appealing as possible. Be a maitre d’ who speaks with excitement, eloquence, and knowledge about why someone should give new and even frightening things a try, not a buffet attendant ready to slap something on their plate or shrug as they pass you by.