A few years ago the phrase ‘Cafeteria Catholicism’ became very common. What it means is that there are Catholics who take what they want to accept from the vast array of truths proposed by the Church and leave what they do not want or accept; like when we are in a large cafeteria, we can pick and choose what we want to eat and, of course, know that we cannot eat everything.
People who subscribe to this notion of being a faithful Catholic see themselves as the ultimate arbiters of what they need and what is good for them. They also can leave behind the more difficult aspects of the faith and those teachings that are the most at odds with the reigning consensus of the secular city.
Beneath this attitude is the falsehood that we are the ultimate deciders of value and meaning and that the wealth and coherence of Church teaching is up for grabs. This is of course the error of relativism. It makes of the coherence and holistic nature of Church teaching a mere list of small truths that one can or cannot subscribe to. Contradictions in truth hold no sway here; what is true for you may not be true for me. What we are left with is a jumble of minor truths that are expendable to private opinion.
In Evelyn Waugh’s great classic “Brideshead Revisited”, the protagonist, and Protestant,
Charles Ryder, is introduced to Catholicism by his friend, the eccentric Sebastian Flyte. While on a tour of Baroque Venice, Charles begins to see that Catholicism is not just a collection of superstitious beliefs that were remnants of a prior pre-scientific age, but rather part of a coherent intellectual system that requires either complete acceptance or total rejection. Eventually this leads to his conversion to this complex and yet in one way simple system of belief: it is all or nothing.
So when we return to the idea of a cafeteria approach to the faith, we see that it is impossible to take a few things into our intellectual shopping cart and head for the checkout counter. It would be like trying to buy a car and removing the car’s transmission and headlights and going to pay for them. What good are they? The car is a whole and it must be bought with all its moving parts since it is a total reality. Such are people who decide that they want to be Catholic, but remove the transmission of the doctrine of Human Life and the vice of abortion. The car simply won’t work!
Nestled in the center of this holistic argument is the question of the authority of the Church and its dependability regarding the revelation of God: if the Church is wrong about one of her teachings on faith and morals (which is what we are saying if we choose to disregard something that we do not agree on) then what is to say that she is not wrong in other areas? And if this is true, can she really be the custodian of the deposit of faith that Christ has left us to guide and strengthen us? And following this logic, what can we trust fully regarding what she might propose for our consideration? If she is wrong on Abortion, let’s say, could she not be wrong on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist? And if… I think you get the picture. The surety we have in the teaching would unravel before the varied influences of time and circumstances.
No, I am afraid it is all or nothing.
One sees this especially if one reads the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Far from being an arid, boring catechesis, it forms a compendium of belief that hangs together rather nicely. Doctrine, Liturgy, Morality, Spirituality, and even Art, is co-mingled into something that can only be described as beautiful! To see this, one would have to hazard reading the whole book. Looking up individual issues, while satisfying on one level, does not display the interconnectedness and the completeness of Catholic Theology.
Like a view of the Church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the transcendence of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”, or the majesty of the journey of Dante through the afterlife in his “Inferno”, the edifice of Catholic Teaching is beautiful, true and very good. When confronting the mangle of theories in the secular city, I know where I will take my stand. What about you?