Welcome to the Cafeteria: The Catholic Showdown Started Long Ago

Welcome to the Cafeteria: The Catholic Showdown Started Long Ago July 26, 2014

Pope Francis has obviously turned up the volume on a number of issues, and this has generated criticism from those who identity themselves as American conservatives.

There are religious voices that rival and complicate the voice of First Things in prominence, at places like Ethika Politika and The American Conservative and elsewhere (including here at Patheos). The more traditional alternatives like Commonweal and America seem to be on the ascendancy.

It has become somewhat fashionable to give Francis all the credit for this. But that’s not the whole story.


In 2009, I joined an group of young upstart Catholics at a group blog, that was founded the year before, called Vox Nova. We were, to put it brusquely, sick and tired of Weigel, Novak, and other culture warriors dominating the Catholic conversation in the public square.

Many of us were schooled at places like Franciscan University of Steubenville and cut our intellectual and political teeth on Neuhaus and the moral majority of the 1990’s; we wanted to create an alternative rooted in Catholic sources we read as being not only live options, but, more radically, a more faithful image of Catholic orthodoxy.

We were trying to force American conservatism to admit its political (neo)liberalism.

Francis was not around back then, but, somehow, many of the same points regarding economics, social justice, and the common good were pursued using similar arguments that referred to Catholic Social Teaching, including the work of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (As Pat Archibold hilariously pointed out some time ago, Benedict’s words were not so different from Francis’.)

At that time, the conservative rejoinder would try to argue against the proportionality of the claims being made, over and against the louder volume on other things. This usually led to accusations of bad faith and I must admit that the whole thing got old and worn out to my own fickle palate. It began to feel like the Anti-Culture Wars Wars. So I left and a few months later took up my post here. But I am struck today by how much of that work, then so bitterly opposed or flatly ignored, is now in vogue. (Much of my writing on these matters is included in my book, Things and Stuff.)


My concern is that the contemporary rejection of Francis by the right has little to do with our present pope and more to do with the inconvenient fact that his pastoral voice offers fewer selective exit routes, forcing everyone into a universal cafeteria Catholicism. (Mark Shea proves definitively that Francis himself is a cafeteria Catholic here.)

For some of us, Francis’ “controversial” points are refreshing not because they are so new, but because he offers a certain credibility that was just out of grasp in years past.


Tracking this change, Patrick Deneen wrote a fine article on the “real” showdown to be taken seriously, and today Artur Rosman (host of Cosmos the in Lost, my hands down favourite Catholic blog) interviewed him about the subject at Ethika Politika.

Deneen goes after Weigel and friends here:

They have tended, then, to read the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics to be inviolable, but Catholic social teachings regarding economics to be a set of broad and even vague guidelines – even, in one instance, warning that one must read only some sentences of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, not others.

Read it all here. And get ready for more; I am told that this is just the beginning of this rich exchange. (Also look for my own interview with Artur here for my interview series.)


This much cannot be disputed: For better and for worse, the left no longer has a monopoly on dissent and the right no longer has a stranglehold on orthodoxy.

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