Catholic Church

[The Wide Shot] In defense of ‘cafeteria Catholics’

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[The Wide Shot] In defense of ‘cafeteria Catholics’
‘Religion is rarely a set meal in a fast-food chain’

When I wrote last week’s column, “The problem with ‘I am Catholic, I say no to divorce,’” I knew I stood to be criticized as a “cafeteria Catholic.”

In this June 2 article, I argued that opposition to the divorce bill is not a definitive marker of Catholic identity, unlike belief in the Blessed Trinity that is nonnegotiable for Catholics. I urged Catholics to listen to different perspectives, not to stick to slogans “that serve only to bloat the ego, not engage in fruitful dialogue.”

Reacting to this piece, one reader tagged me in a public Facebook post, asking, “Why claim to be Catholic if you cannot adhere to its teachings?” He said that the premise of the article is “entirely absurd and illogical,” and that “nominal and cafeteria Catholics should revisit the catechism and learn the very basic teachings of the Church.”

“Yes, a Catholic defying the teachings of the Church ceases to be a true and complete Catholic because of his or her dissent,” the reader said, ending his post with the hashtag #IAmCatholicandISayNOTODIVORCE.

Other critics of the divorce bill have also accused its proponents of being “cafeteria Catholics.” 

There are three kinds of Catholics, said the Facebook page Word of Faith: nominal Catholics, cafeteria Catholics, and practicing Catholics. “Cafeteria Catholic” is an informal label attached to people accused of being selective of church doctrines, choosing only the doctrines that suit their needs, much like in a cafeteria.

One of those who have been labeled as “cafeteria Catholic” is Joe Biden, the second Catholic president of the United States. On March 31, such criticism came from Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the seventh Catholic archbishop of Washington, who said Biden “picks and chooses dimensions of the faith to highlight, while ignoring or even contradicting other parts.”

Given such descriptions, however, can it not be argued that all members of the Catholic Church are cafeteria Catholics?

All Catholics are cafeteria Catholics either because they reinterpret their faith in different ways – which involves selecting doctrines to follow or combining elements of the faith with those of other religions – or because they break church teachings one way or the other. The first reason can be denied, but not the second… unless one is a saint or a robot.

What the numbers show

Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University, provides related statistics in his website Graphs about Religion, which analyzes data on religion and politics in the United States. His study on cafeteria Catholicism, published on May 2, was funded by the Lilly Endowment for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Burge’s graphs, which are based on the General Social Survey from 1972 to 2022, show that nearly all American Catholics contradict church teaching on capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia. 

Those who oppose capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia – and who, in effect, adhere to church teaching on all of these issues – only comprise 0.9% of Catholics in the United States as of 2022.

I’m not aware of any data analysis in the Philippines similar to Burge’s, but if we look at recent statistical data on one controversial issue in the country – divorce – we can also see that not all Catholics subscribe to church teaching.

A recent Social Weather Stations survey, released on May 31, showed that 50% of Catholics favor divorce, 17% are undecided, and 31% disagree.

So what do we make of the 50% of Filipino Catholics who favor divorce? Do they now “cease to be a true and complete Catholic”?

A single menu with different twists

At this point, we have only talked about hot-button issues where opposition to church doctrine is explicit, meriting the loud condemnation by those who lay claim to purity. But there are other forms of dissent that are quiet and unnoticed – and are the ones truly unbecoming of the name “Catholic.” 

Critics of the divorce bill, for example, often cite Jesus in Matthew 19:9, when he proclaims, “Whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”

Jim, a member of the #faith chat room of the Rappler Communities app, said that this pronouncement of Jesus “is more than doctrine or dogma” but is explicitly stated in the Bible. “You may support divorce but doing so will not allow you to remain Catholic, it being a core belief of the Catholic faith,” he said.

But is it not also stated in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) – a bedrock of the Judaeo-Christian tradition – that “You shall not kill,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” and “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”?

If one kills, commits adultery, steals, or lies and spreads gossip, does this mean that one ceases to be Catholic? Ah, then how many of the nation’s 85.65 million Catholics, currently 78.8% of the population, will remain “true and complete” members of the Catholic Church? 

“A common thread that runs through the discourse about religion is often focused on purification,” Burge wrote. “‘If only we could return to the pure tenets of the faith’ is a constant refrain. But often that’s harkening back to an era that I’m not sure ever existed.”

Everyone chooses what to believe at any given time, as in a cafeteria. Yes, each religion can have a general “menu” by which they are known, but members will always find ways to make it suit their personalities, temperaments, backgrounds, and worldviews – perhaps a bit more of “salt” here, a “take-out drink” to match this staple dish, “no onions, please,” and so on.

Religion is rarely a set meal in a fast-food chain.

Unless one belongs to a church that brainwashes members or worships a self-proclaimed god, it is normal to agree or disagree with church teachings, feel tensions deep within, or negotiate and harmonize competing beliefs.

‘Religions are syncretic’

In his book Reinterpreting Religion in the Contemporary Philippines: Young People Reinterpreting Religion (Routledge, 2016), sociologist of religion and Ateneo de Manila University professor Jayeel Cornelio addressed “cafeteria Catholicism” in the chapter titled, “Will the real Catholic please stand up?”

Cornelio, now a visiting professor at the University of Louisville in the United States, wrote that “the vast majority of my informants, for rejecting certain practices or beliefs in favor of others, may be easily dismissed as à la carte, smorgasbord, or even cafeteria Catholics if existing categories are imposed on them.” 

The renowned Filipino sociologist however said: “These young people are not arbitrary about how they see themselves as religious individuals. Drawing from their accounts, I argue that they are best characterized as creative Catholics, whose creativity lies in reinterpreting religion.” 

Citing sociologist Tom Inglis, Cornelio said “creative Catholics reflect a religious identity that is more self-defined in orientation but also underpinned by a critical posture towards institutional Catholicism.”

Inglis said: “Creative Catholics both believe and belong. What differentiates them from orthodox Catholics is that they are more progressive and adventurous. They are willing to stand up, speak against, and challenge the Church and its priests and bishops in a way that would have been unthinkable in previous generations.”

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Cornelio, who is also a Rappler columnist, said the vast majority of his informants “explained the meaning of being Catholic in terms of an individual emotional experience of God, an action-oriented outlook in life, and moral living.” It is why he calls them “creative Catholics.”

But such reinterpretations of religion are not unique to Catholicism. 

In his book Understanding Religion: Theories and Methods for Studying Religiously Diverse Societies (University of California Press, 2021), religion scholar Paul Hedges of Nanyang Technological University wrote about syncretism. A way of combining different religious beliefs, in a way related to cafeteria Catholicism, syncretism has often been viewed with derision for being “impure.”

One common assumption, said Hedges, is that “each religion is a clearly bounded and discrete territory, marked out as a separate entity – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism, Wicca, Shinto, and so on.” He said that this assumption, however, “is almost entirely historically and conceptually wrong.”

“No religion is a cultural and conceptual island,” Hedges said.

“The names we have for religions, and the typical way they are taught in academic books as separate units, hides the fact that religions are, and always have been, syncretic. We may assume each has its own ‘founder,’ distinct ‘scriptures,’ and specific ‘beliefs’ and ‘rituals’ stemming from this particular religious identity. But such a view is very misleading,” he said.

“Religions in both mainstream/orthodox and folk/popular/lived expressions,” said Hedges, “have always been syncretic.”

Hedges cited how “Daoism adopted reincarnation from Buddhism,” “Confucianism adopted Daoist and Buddhist meditation,” “Islam and Christianity seemingly adopted prayer beads from South Asian traditions,” and “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism.”

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A range of belief systems can exist within a single belief system. It is the way beliefs thrive in human societies.

Should religions, then, stop aiming for unity of belief?

Of course not! 

It is the aspiration of any community to be one in heart, mind, and soul. But any ideal should be tempered by reality – and reality is that differences will always exist. It is normal for people to hold contrary opinions or at least to fall short in heeding church doctrines.

I speak in defense of “cafeteria Catholics” because everyone in the Church is. 

To borrow from National Catholic Reporter’s Daryl Grisby, “We are all ‘cafeteria Catholics.’ So what? Let’s enjoy the church’s feast.” – Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com