What’s A Cafeteria Catholic?

Until last week, I had never heard the term “Cafeteria Catholic”. The fact that I first heard it on NPR probably tells you all you need to know about me and my politics. Wikipedia defines cafeteria Catholics as “those who assert their Catholic identity yet dissent from Catholic doctrinal or moral teaching or who are viewed as dissenting by those using the term”. The conservative Catholic publication Fidelity magazine first used the term in 1986, saying “‘Cafeteria Catholicism’ allows us to pick those ‘truths’ by which we will measure our lives as Catholics. … ‘Cafeteria Catholicism’ is what happens when the stance of Protagoras, regarding man as the measure of all things, gets religion — but not too much.” It has historically been used by conservatives in a derogatory fashion in reference to people who question the Church’s teaching, particularly about social issues such as homosexuality, birth control and premarital sex.

I read all this and thought “that’s me!”.

Like a lot of American Catholics, there is a lot of discord between what the Church teaches and the way I live my life. I’m an educated woman in my mid-30’s who works in a science-based career and I believe in following the scientific evidence. I’m a feminist who believes that no job, including the priesthood, is unsuitable for women. I believe in equal pay for equal work. I’m pro-choice and even if I wasn’t I believe that every woman has the right to do as she chooses with her own body. I believe in birth control and sex education in our schools that includes proper instruction in its use. I believe everyone has the right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender. I believe priests should be allowed to marry, if only so that they will be better qualified to give marital advice to their congregation. I believe all these things and I also believe in God. I’m just not sure I believe in religion.

I say this as a confirmed Catholic who was once an active participant in religion. Growing up, I went to CCD religiously (pun absolutely intended) and I took what they said seriously. I sang in my church choir. I was a lector. I presented the gifts. I was in high school before it occurred to me to be upset that I wasn’t allowed to be an altar server (or, heaven forbid, a priest), but I’m sure I would have done that too. As I got older and began to realize that my true self is a feminist bleeding heart liberal I grew away from the Church. The first time I remember experiencing dissonance between my beliefs and the Church’s teachings was when we had a unification service with the local congregational church. It came time for communion and the priest said that we should say goodbye to the congregationalists because they would be having their own communion out in the parking lot. I was confused by this, my grandparents were Methodists and when they came to church with us they never took communion but I thought that was a personal choice. This was the first time I realized that non-Catholics actually aren’t allowed to receive communion during Mass. This didn’t make any sense to me, after all it’s the body and blood of the same Christ, right? Eventually I learned about Martin Luther and transubstantiation versus sacramental union in history class and even then, it seemed to me like we made the Protestants go out in the parking lot on a technicality.

Religion has taught me a lot of good things. Going to church taught me to treat others as I wish to be treated. I learned about humility and I learned about servitude. I learned that I am just a small part of something that is indescribably awesome (I learned the same lesson in a different way in astronomy class much later). I learned to be thankful for what I have and to remember that “there, but for the grace of God, go I” – something I still tell myself at least once a week. I learned about community. I learned to be grateful and to express gratitude. I believe that my religious education played a part in shaping the person I’ve become and I’m thankful for it.

As I got older, the dissonance I experienced got worse. I went away to school and moved to a large city and began making friends from different walks of life. I got tired of going to church and hearing intolerant things from the altar about my friends. I tried other Christian religions for a while, thinking maybe only the Catholics were intolerant. I’m ashamed to admit that I was so indoctrinated in the Catholic faith that the first time I heard a woman preach my initial reaction was that I couldn’t take her seriously because she wasn’t a man. It was always the same, in general there were a lot of good things but inevitably would come the message that someone I considered a friend was condemned to eternal damnation because they were __________.  The words in the blank were different (gay, Baptist, Muslim, unmarried fornicators, abortion providers, etc) but the sentiment was the same.  Our faith makes us better than you.  Then would come the science denial.  Evolution is a myth, the Earth was created in a week and is only two thousand years old, God reached into Adam’s chest and yanked out a rib to create Eve and we are all somehow the product of a series of convoluted brother/sister marriages, among other things.  You all already know the stories.

I was left with a dilemma.  None of the other religions I tried were any better than Catholicism (though some are much, much worse).  I didn’t care for church but I didn’t want to leave God out of my life entirely.  For a long time, I was something of a lapsed Catholic.  I went to Mass for sacraments, Christmas and Easter with my family and otherwise slept in on Sunday mornings.  I’m godmother to my nephew and found myself almost unable to buy him a Bible because I had to make sure it didn’t contain anything about how many shekels a woman is worth.  I’ve become fond of saying I’m a Catholic “except for the stupid parts”.  This is not a way to live.  I’m considering having children and I realized I need to decide whether or not I want to be a religious person so I can decide whether or not I will raise my children as religious people.  I know that the Church is changing, much of which can be credited directly to Pope Francis.  On Christmas Eve my church went out of its way to welcome gay people which made me happier than I can say.  I’m left wondering – will it change enough?

So I’m reclaiming the term “cafeteria Catholic” for the liberals.  I think the good in Catholicism outweighs the bad but I realize there is a lot I don’t know about my own religion.  I’ve never read the Bible and so I’m not well informed enough to discuss it, let alone dismiss it out of hand.  When I was confirmed my church gave me a copy of the Good News Bible – this translation attempts to put the standard King James Bible into simpler language (it actually says “uneducated language” on the official website) which is probably why they thought it would be appropriate for a bunch of teenagers.  This is what my church wanted me to know when I was 16 years old.  If I’m going to be well informed about the Bible I need to read both the educated and uneducated versions.  I will blog about what I’ve read here and I will try to answer the question – is this something I want to teach my children?  I’m also going back to regular weekly church attendance and I will blog about my experiences.  Again my goal will be to answer the question – is this a place I want to take my children?  I invite you to follow along.

I’m proud to be a free-thinking cafeteria Catholic.  I know there are a lot more of you out there and I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues.  I look forward to hearing from you!