Cafeteria Catholics?

Some dyspeptic people enjoy disparaging others with that damning label “cafeteria Catholics.” So sad. Their ulcers must be quite painful. Apparently they have never enjoyed the wonder of cafeteria dining.

Cafeterias are not about rejecting anything, they are really about preferences. About choosing. Having options. About freedom and responsibility. Just because I happen to prefer broccoli — today — it doesn’t mean I am denying the possible attraction of cauliflower.

The ecclesial cafeteria

Our church’s rich heritage puts before us a veritable profusion of attractive and nourishing foods. Let’s take a tour of the cafeteria before we make our selections. (People who eat in cafeterias know it’s always good to look over everything that’s being offered before you make your picks. If you don’t, you’re liable to fill your plate with too many goodies at the beginning of the line and regret it when you see later choices you might have preferred.)

Take a plate and let’s go.

First, welcome to our Scripture section. The Old Testament offers a range of vignettes that could be extremely nourishing when our inmost bellies are empty. Wild skirmishes with spiritual enemies; heroes and heroines galore. And just listen to some of those powerful prayers. Who could pass up a favorite psalm or three? Twenty-three? Fifty-one? We’re also offered a variety of prophets with very different tastes. Some people have even gone for a whole lifetime on the strength of a single morsel in Micah: “This is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God.”

We move on to the entrees, to the New Testament. Four very different presentations of Jesus. Do you get your nourishment from the lean, chewy — but richly rewarding — Mark? Or given recent painful experiences, right now you might prefer some of the healing tenderness of Doctor Luke. Wrestling with law and authority? Matthew could fit the palate. And if you feel the need of a sublime messiah in charge of his own passion, John’s the course for you. There’s a lot of substance in Paul, of course, but you need to be prepared for a lengthy digestion period. The pastoral epistles provide a nice garnish. And if I could offer a small tip based on uncomfortable experience: the hot sauce in the book of Revelation is not for queasy stomachs.

Then we come to the selection of possible prayer forms. It’s hard to imagine it could be more freeing. Your taste might lie in the beauty of the mysteries of the rosary. It might take the form of contemplation or meditation. A grace-filled chanting of the Hours. Perhaps Zen sitting, Taizé or centering prayer. Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. It could be the mystical simplicity attributed to Marshal Foch: “I look at God and God looks at me.” And again, it might come from our children, who often provide us with profound wisdom in their honest presence to the Lord.

There is of course a social justice section along the line. It draws our attention to a myriad of issues among which we might choose some action we could assume responsibility for in order to experience the full meaning of some of those other choices for our spiritual growth. Once again we can’t handle all of them, we have to pick and choose

What’s interesting is that we don’t have to face this daunting profusion of choices alone. The Catholic cafeteria even provides some quite trustworthy guides as we make our way along the line. We call them saints. Benedict provides one menu, Francis and Clare another, Dominic yet another. For some palates Francis de Sales guides them to fare that is down-home but deeply fulfilling. Padre Pio? Mother Teresa? John Paul II’s favorite, Faustina? Oscar Romero? For me the mysticism of Ignatius of Loyola seems to suit just fine. (Home-team bias, to be sure.)

The liturgical worship section is a panoply of options. High Mass in a great cathedral; weekday intimacy in a small rural chapel; liturgy on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier or an open-air field in Africa. Languages galore and presiding styles that might be disconcerting in other settings but just happen to be right for this particular gathered community. (Inculturation has been described as “the way we do things around here.”)

And oh, the creative forms of ‘presentation.’ There are sounds first voiced in plain chant centuries ago but still fresh and evocative today. Rich baroque oratorios. Masses by Brubeck and Ellington and Clarence Rivers. Gospel shouts. Songs by adolescent strummers trying their best to sing their love for God: banality, perhaps, to the liturgical Poohbahs but much needed consolation to dormitory-mates hanging on to the institutional church by their fingernails. Take any of these and weave it together with lovely body movement (read: dance) and it can be tremendously satisfying.

And it can be offered in surroundings of incredibly diverse artistry. Mosaics beyond the capacity of angels. Sculpture by Michelangelo. The chiaroscuro of Carovaggio, the unnerving simplicity of Matisse; Rouault’s painfully moving Jesus, the wild landscape of Dali’s crucifixion. And Oberammergau creches and Barclay Street madonnas.

Cafeterias are not about cramped miserliness, they’re about magnanimity and bounty and exuberance. They’re about differing tastes, all met by a lavish God.

But what about . . . doctrine?

The astute reader will note that I have been avoiding the issue which usually gives rise to the disparaging ‘cafeteria Catholic’ label in the first place. Can we pick and choose among doctrines, as the labelers imply the labelees are doing?

Well, if you put it that way, no. But my own observations over the years convince me that there are precious few out there, liberal or conservative, that actually deny significant pieces of church teaching. What we all do (and perhaps necessarily) is to pay more attention to one or other piece of church teaching in the daily choices we confront. As we wrestle daily with the life-task called the pursuit of holiness, each of us, consciously or unconsciously, assigns different valences to various teachings. (After all, isn’t that what came out of Vatican II in the language of a ‘hierarchy of truths?’ The stones in the grand edifice of Catholic teaching are not all of the same size and weight and carrying strength.) Marshal Foch probably didn’t have to pay much attention to the doctrine of transsubstantiation because it was simply a ‘given’ for his Eucharistic piety. But he might have spent tough hours wrestling with church teaching on the use of military might. Just because I invest myself in trying to eliminate abortion doesn’t have to mean I favor the death penalty or preventive war — but neither does it give me license to label you because you’ve put the issues in a different order of priority for your daily living.

There is a certain delicious irony that seems continually to escape the label-pinners: with or without a label we are all finite spirits overwhelmed by infinite mystery. That means every one of us is necessarily in the cafeteria line, expressing preferences and highlighting some truths and thereby letting others recede into a pre-conscious penumbra — until an unexpected experience upsets our ordinary framework and compels us to move the neglected element back into the spotlight for possible re-assessment. The fare which might nourish our spiritual lives is so rich that we have to choose, whether we acknowledge it or not. Truth is that none of us is equipped yet, much less actually present, at the final heavenly banquet so we all have to file along in the cafeteria line. The only difference between those who are being labeled and the label-pinners is that in the case of the latter the label is pinned to their back.

In his divine pedagogy Jesus is clearly on the side of those who were being labeled in his day: those called ‘tax collectors and sinners’ by the self-righteous religious elite of his day. When they said he couldn’t be the messiah because he hung out with such riffraff, he boasted that it was precisely for such that he came.

The ones he seems to have had difficulty with were those who spent their energies trying to make everyone else make the same choices they, the labelers, were making. That expenditure of energies seems to be what gave them ulcers in the first place. Even after Peter had recognized the risen Jesus as Lord he still didn’t fully get it. Peter turned around and noticed the beloved disciple, and couldn’t resist asking the petty question, “But Lord, what about him?” And we know the Lord’s irritation: “How does that concern you? Your business is to follow me.”

Cafeteria Catholics of the world, don’t worry about the labels, there’s enough variety to satisfy everyone’s hunger. A magnanimous Lord is calling. Come to the feast!

George Wilson, S.J., does facilitating for church organizations out of Cincinnati, Ohio. E-mail address: