Click here if you don’t see subscription options
James Martin, S.J.February 18, 2010

"Liberal" Catholics are often said to twist the church's teaching (or disregard it completely) to suit their own needs--particularly on matters of sexuality and church authority.  (We are sometimes accused of that here at America, and on this blog.)  "Cafeteria Catholic" is an epithet indicating those who pick and choose from among the church's teachings, as one chooses among entrees and desserts in a school cafeteria.  It is an epithet usually reserved for "liberals" or "progressives."  But "liberals" are not the only ones who frequent that cafeteria.  Some "conservative" or "traditional" Catholics sometimes (not always, but sometimes) downplay other weighty matters, particularly issues surrounding social justice and war, as if caring for the poor or preventing bloodshed (see Mt. 25) were somehow outside the realm of Christian piety. 

I'm inclined to say that most good and devout Catholics tend to focus their activism on what they are most concerned about (that is, some on the right focus more on abortion and other related life issues like stem-cell research; some on the left focus more on social justice issues like urban poverty or war and peace).  To my mind, that is natural, healthy and even laudable.  To use some Pauline language, the hand does not need to be a foot.  You may prefer to participate in a right-to-life organization and I can cheer you on; I may prefer to work in a soup kitchen and you can cheer me on.  (In the Jesuits this works well: I'm delighted that so many of my brother Jesuits, for example, attended the March for Life this year in Washington, DC.  And some of the most traditional of my Jesuit friends supported me wholly when I worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nairobi.) 

Not everyone has to work in precisely the same arenas, in precisely the same way, yet we can all support one another as members of the Body of Christ.  "You can do something I cannot do.  I can do something you cannot do," said Mother Teresa.  "Together let us do something beautiful for God." 

But, in my experience, a few on the far-right don't subscribe to that outlook: they would, they say, never set foot in that cafeteria. 

For a recent example of the Cafeteria Catholic on the right, witness EWTN's offering a very friendly airing of the views of a person who supports torture--or at least the "enhanced" interrogation techniques--that have been thoroughly discredited, as well as roundly condemned by the church.  Note the way the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines torture, and condemns it so strongly: "Torture, which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity."  Stephen M. Colecchi, director of the US Bishops' Conference Office of International Justice and Peace, made the same observations in an article last month in America. "In a church of both saints and sinners, victims and perpetrators, Catholic social teaching on torture has special authenticity and credibility. In its service to the human family as it seeks the full truth of the human person, the church has come to understand and teach with honesty and clarity that the prohibition against torture is absolute. The act of torture is utterly incompatible with the dignity of the human person, and the practice of torture wounds the victim, the perpetrator and the common good of all."

And here is Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor: '[T]here exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object'. ... 'whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity' ... 'all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator.'"

(The video below first appeared on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish.  Sullivan was impassioned in his revulsion--and yes, spoke of his own differences with the church.  So anyone who weighs in about Mr. Sullivan's differences with the church on homosexuality in our comment box, must also grapple with EWTN's own considerable differences with church teaching on this matter.) 

To my mind, the laughter is the most disturbing thing about this video. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Winifred Holloway
13 years 7 months ago
Why don't we all stop pretending that Cafeteria Catholic is a real category of Catholic, as in limited to a set of attitudes, teachings, doctrines that everyone can recognize.  If one insists on the term than I insist that everyone is a a cafeteria Catholic.  How could it be otherwise?  We are different ages, cultures, backgrounds, levels and types of education and a whole universe of other variables.  It's gotcha theology.  We follow Jesus and try to do God's work in the world.  We're not to here to eat our young.
Stephen SCHEWE
13 years 7 months ago
The bigger issue, which Sullivan is also covering, is former Vice President Cheney's open support for waterboarding in an interview on ABC last Sunday morning.  I'm curious about why the Justice Department is not prosecuting him for war crimes.  Perhaps their investigation is still open.
Martin Gallagher
13 years 7 months ago
This is what is so marvilous about Christianity.  We have not only been given different gifts, but different challenges as well.  Apparently, both Mr. Thiessen & Mr. Sullivan are challenged by clear Church teachings.  Unfortunately, they have both chosen to dissent.  Let's pray for them and and for all of us when we are particularly challenged so that we obtain the wisdom to understand the truth and the courage to at least assent to the truth when we lack the wisdom.
Tom Maher
13 years 7 months ago
Catholics are starved for information that honestly and fairly represent the real arguments being made in public debate in the author's own words. Too often media prejudges the issue and cut off debate without allowing a full and fair airing of what the issues are and what the opposing points of views are. For example in an MSNBC interview the other day Thiessen was shouted down by a very self-righteous interviewer and not allowed to talk at all. The result is that the real issues are not known or dicussed. ETWN is performing a major public service in allowing Thiessen to present his own arguments undistorted and without biased misinterpretation. Catholic media needs to stop the sterile moralizing based on gross impressions and preconceptions of the issues. Speakers need to be respected and allowed to be heard. Even the Inquisition allowed a "devil's advocate" to expose ficticous, one-sided views of the turth. Let the reader hear all sides of public issues.
Peter Lakeonovich
13 years 7 months ago
The premise of this essay-that you can be a good, faithful Catholic whether you prefer to devote your time and attention to defending the right to life of the unborn or ministering to the poor instead-is truly inspired and important in these seemingly divided times. I would take issue, however, with the implication (and, yes, it is there, even if unintentionally) that those support the right to life of the unborn are somehow disinterested in helping the poor and disadvantaged. Abortion is the intentional, premeditated taking of innocent human life and is a sin the cries out to heaven for vengeance. No doubt that the "rich" man who ignores the plight of the poor (i.e., ignores our Lord by ignoring the least of his children) will have an easier time getting his camel to pass through the eye of needle than he will of getting himself into heaven, but he cannot be said to have committed as grave a sin as abortion (i.e., homicide). Thus the two issues juxtaposed by Fr. Martin are (the Church's position on abortion and its social doctrine) cannot be considered issues of equal weight. Thus, it is no wonder that those who feel so impassioned about defending the right to life of the unborn may appear to do so at the expense of social justice issues and that is perfectly reasoanable. I also take offense at the sucker punch thrown at EWTN, a wonderful wonderful blessing in our world, which has, for example, introduced my younger to greats like Archbishop Fulton J Sheen. I would take equal offense at those who would take a shot at this (America) "lefty" website that I also think is a blessing (uh...mixed blessing sometimes). Amplius lava me ab iniquitáte mea, et a peccáto meo munda me.
Tony Annett
13 years 7 months ago
I think the Vox Nova blog got there ahead of Sullivan, with three posts on it:



Beth Cioffoletti
13 years 7 months ago
I agree with you Fr. Jim.  The way this man laughs about human suffering - whether the enemy or not - is disturbing.
His coldness and lack of human empathy is the very opposite of the revulsion of Andrew Sullivan.
James Lindsay
13 years 7 months ago
Peter Lake misses the point that the rich man who ignores the needs of the poor family, especially one in his employ, has a hand in causing the eventual abortion that results from their poverty. This is why it is called the seemless garment of life. It is even worse for parties who systematically endorse policies that make people poor.
13 years 7 months ago
Fr. Jim,
I agree with you that ''conservative'' cafeteria Catholics are disturbing.  Would you agree with me that ''liberal'' cafeteria Catholics also are disturbing?
Whats your point?  Does America Magazine think cafeteria Catholicism to be good or bad?  Should we strive to think with the mind of the Church or should we each follow our own conscience?
13 years 7 months ago
Said the priest: " I am not a Liberal Catholic. I am not a Conservative Catholic. I am a Roman Catholic'. This debate is more properly understood as the tension between those who are faithful to the Magisterium and those who are not.
Jim McCrea
13 years 7 months ago
Regarding these Good Catholic Orthodox Quislings:
"Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error."Marcus Tullius Cicero
13 years 7 months ago
We can thank God then for the divinity of the Holy Catholic Church.

The latest from america

A Homily for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinOctober 04, 2023
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, leaves the floor of the U.S. House floor after being ousted as speaker on Oct. 3. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)
There is a deeper problem than the chaos in the U.S. House: the question of what a government is for, and how it is to function beyond matters that a bare majority can vote through.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.October 04, 2023
Pope Francis did not attend Vatican II, but from the beginning of his pontificate, he set out with determination to continue its implementation.
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 04, 2023
I have spent the better part of the past two years trying to understand what synodality is. Today, it finally started to click.
Zac DavisOctober 04, 2023