What’s killing American Catholicism? This is the third part of a series. The problems all begin with the letter ‘C’. The first part was Cultural Catholicism. The problem when people are more cultural than Catholic. The Catholic faith transcends culture, and if it is linked too closely to culture, when the immigrant stops being Italian (or Irish or Polish) he stops being Catholic–or worse–he adapts Catholicism to his American culture just as he adapted it to his former culture. Cultural Catholicism is countered by Comprehensive Catholicism–a Catholic understanding that affirms what is good in culture, but also transcends all cultures.
The second ‘C’ was Complacent Catholicism. A certain laziness in the faith which is rooted in American individualism and materialism. It’s countered by Compassionate Catholicism.
The third ‘C’ is Cafeteria Catholicism. Cafeteria Catholics pick and choose what they like about the faith. Do they think the Sunday Mass obligation is binding? Not if it is inconvenient. If their marriage breaks down they get divorced and re-married like everyone else. Do they think they should refrain from communion if they re-marry? Nah. That doesn’t apply to them. Is co-habitation wrong? Everybody does it. Do they still want a white wedding with all the trimmings and a schmaltzy sermon from Father about their beautiful love? Sure! What about Catholic beliefs? Transubstantiation? That’s medieval isn’t it? We know it’s just a symbol now. Homosex marriage? Why not? Women priests? The church needs to get with the times.
Cafeteria Catholicism is rooted in two basic problems. The first is a foundational relativism. What I mean by “foundational relativism” is the sort of relativism that is simply woven into American culture. Nobody thinks about it or discusses it. It is just there as a founding principle of the American worldview. This relativism can be stated as “I know what’s best for me” or “everybody has their own truth–what works for you doesn’t work for me.” Nobody thinks this through. It’s just part of the American air we breathe, but it’s poisonous air when it comes to the practice of the Catholic faith.
The other thing which has exacerbated the problem of Cafeteria Catholicism is a poor understanding and poor exercise of Church authority. Too many Catholics regard the teaching of the Catholic Church to be a sort of arcane theory of life for saintly people–not something for ordinary folks like them. They have a vague notion that the Pope is infallible, but see no real reason or way that the Church speaks to them in their ordinary life. Why is this? Because too many priests have been dishing out saccharine Oprah Winfrey self help homilies rather than teaching the faith.
Furthermore–and the most damning–they have seen the clergy and bishops living just like all the other materialistic compromising American Catholics. To often the clergy and bishops themselves have not lived the life they profess and preach. Why should the people take the authority of the church seriously when their own clergy and bishops don’t seem to take it seriously? They have been picking and choosing which parts of Catholic faith and practice they want to observe. Why should the laity be any different?
Cafeteria Catholicism, then is rooted in a deep and abiding worldliness in the American Catholic Church. What’s the answer? Complete Catholicism. By “complete” I mean whole and perfect. I mean radiant lives of disciples of Jesus Christ that are conformed totally and completely to his will and to the loving teachings of the church. Don’t misunderstand. I am not talking about some sort of legalistic approach in which all compromising Catholics will be forced to sign a confession of faith and observe all the rules and regulations of the Catholic faith. That kind of legalism kills just as much as Cafeteria Catholicism kills.
Instead I’m calling for lives that are completely committed to Christ and his church out of love, enthusiasm and an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I’m talking about disciples of Christ who, every day of their lives, are turning again away from themselves to draw closer to Christ, to follow him more completely in joy and to be transformed daily more and more into his likeness. Then there will not be a question of picking and choosing which bits of Catholicism they like. Instead they will cry out with St Therese, “I will have all!” They will embrace the wholeness of the Catholic truth because it is a beautiful, complete and dynamic map for the spiritual life.
This Complete Catholicism is the only thing which can challenge the lukewarmness and compromise of the Cafeteria Catholics. It is the only thing which will win the battle and win the world.