Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas has called Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine a “cafeteria Catholic.” He called out Kaine, a practicing Catholic who has spoken very seriously about his spirituality, for distinguishing between his duties as a public official – and his support for a woman’s right to choose — and his personal views about the morality of abortion.
“Cafeteria Catholic” is the one sobriquet that Catholics fear. It is a taunt, implying you are not serious about your faith, or its obligations. That you are a spiritual dilettante with elastic moral values, not ready for the rigors of “true” religious belief.
But I would contend that Jesus was a cafeteria Jew. After all, He boiled down all the Jewish rules and regulations into two precepts: Love God and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.
He had no problem with his apostles evading rules on ritual hand washing. When the sick needed curing, He didn’t mind doing it on the Sabbath.
He spoke to women and to Samaritans, people that a devout Jewish man would have avoided at all costs.
And he delivered forgiveness, not condemnation, to the woman caught in adultery, cleverly asking that an accuser without sin cast the first stone.
Jesus seemed to have little tolerance for merely following the rules, or for the hierarchy who would insist on it. As Latina theologian Teresa Delgado put it, “those who are voiceless, those who are abused, those who are oppressed” have the clearest insight into Christ’s message. Almost every parable Christ told, she says, “was a critique of those who think they know who God is and He’s suggesting, ‘No, you don’t have that right.’ Who are we going to listen to?”
Cafeterias permit us to choose. There is nothing wrong with Catholics, informed by the teachings of the church, the gospels, and their own consciences, making moral choices.
Indeed, that’s what Vatican II upheld. In its Declaration on Religious Liberty, Vatican II affirmed that the human person “perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of divine law through the mediation of conscience.”
Choice does not give us a free pass to do what we want. Indeed, it makes life more difficult, because we have to continually examine our conduct.
The gospels were pretty definitive about what “neighbor” means; it means just about everyone in the world. I can’t turn my back on those who are poor and marginalized, whether they are at my back door or half a world away.
I can’t shrug my shoulders when war ravages Syria or Afghanistan. I can’t be indifferent to the suffering of millions of refugees.
As a “cafeteria Catholic,” I can’t just assume that if I don’t skip weekly Mass, check the box and agree with all the bishops’ positions on sexual morality and abortion, that I’m a good Catholic. I have to evaluate whether my life is making a difference, helping to bring about a more just world.
I understand that Catholics who try to live moral lives can disagree about many issues. I would not call any Catholic who disagreed with me a “lock-step Catholic” because I don’t know how they’ve made their ethical decisions.
I would just like equal respect for me as Yes, a “cafeteria Catholic.” To paraphrase Pope Francis, “Who are you to judge?”