I once found great comfort in the black-and-white world of apologetics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provided the answers to all of my questions concerning faith and morals. It was the definitive voice of the church, and I believed everything that voice said. And then my black-and-white world began to fall apart.
Dysfunctional leadership at the local and diocesan levels left me questioning my place in the church and its place in my life. Disillusionment with the institutional church brought on a dark night of the soul for me, and previous certainties vaporized in clouds of doubt. This forced me to dig deeper into the core of my faith. What do I believe? Why do I believe it? How can I regain the joy in my belief when I am feeling so much pain and unease within the four walls of my church?
During this time of painful exile, a Benedictine friend introduced me to the lectio divina form of prayer. I began to listen for the Word of God speaking to me personally in the scriptures. I slowly learned to balance the knowledge of the mind with the emotions of the heart, for we need both. Our faith is neither solely about black-and-white pronouncements, nor is it simply about warm, fuzzy feelings. It is about knowing what we believe, loving what we believe, and putting that belief into concrete action in the messiness of everyday life.
It is also about acknowledging that faith is a lifelong journey. We will often find ourselves struggling with some aspect of our belief or unable to live up to the high standards set before us. Sometimes we know what the church teaches but still do not understand or accept the reasoning behind a specific teaching. The answer of “because the church says so” can be as ineffective as a parent’s “because I said so.”
Today, the accusation of being a “cafeteria Catholic” is flung around with the same zealousness as the term “heretic” was at one time. Passionate traditionalists troll online discussion boards and blogs seeking to attack women and men who do not give their full assent to each and every teaching of the Catholic Church.
These self-appointed gatekeepers of orthodoxy believe it is for the glory of God and the good of the church that all questioners be denounced and told if they don’t like it they can—and should—leave.
I have no desire to be part of the smaller, purer church envisioned by these doctrinal police. The church must keep its doors open for all of us who are on an imperfect, bumpy, and often messy journey toward holiness.
As a writer, I have been the object of some mean-spirited attacks online. I once wrote an article questioning the derogatory use of the term “cafeteria Catholics,” stating that in some ways we all pick and choose from the great buffet table of Catholicism.
Several months later I discovered that I had been personally attacked on some Catholic blogs. My words were taken out of context, and I was denounced as a “militant atheist” who “spread calumny and false witness” and believed that we are all “irrational animals.”
I tried to shrug it off, but I had to admit that the attacks upset me. These people knew nothing about me, my relationship to the church, or my personal faith life. Nevertheless, based on a few written words of mine, they had labeled me a heretic and dissenter.
In the Middle Ages, the church attempted to keep its purity by aggressively cleansing the ranks of all traces of unorthodoxy. Inquisitors enforced loyalty oaths and sent spies to sniff out the slightest odor of heresy from pulpits, pews, and backstreets.
It was a time of malicious accusations, unjust trials, and raging bonfires. Zealousness for the faith inspired crusader armies to battle heathens in the name of Jesus Christ. It was a time of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” And, if you are against us, we believe that it is God’s will that you experience the earthly wrath of the church now and eternal damnation in the hereafter.
Here and now in the 21st century, the new evangelization calls us to put aside such a militant defense of the faith. Pope Francis has been reminding us that we must embrace the joy of the gospel message before we can reach out to evangelize others. Freedom of conscience and the dignity of each human person must be respected. We should focus more on true conversion of heart and less on doctrinal purity.
This requires that we dialogue more and proselytize less. This does not mean doctrine isn’t important but that doctrine without love risks becoming small-minded and mean-spirited.
Evangelization calls us, first of all, to a personal relationship with Jesus. The Almighty God, creator of all, took on human flesh and became one of us in the person of Jesus. His teaching was simple: God loves you. What does God expect in return? Love God and love others. It seems so simple.
There is one God, but there are many of us. And each of us is different, with different desires and needs. We have different tastes and styles. We think differently. We look different and speak different languages. We even speak the same languages differently.
So what happens when you throw out a couple of simple commandments to a world full of unique souls? Love of God and love of others becomes mighty complicated. We squabble over liturgies, worship language, and prayer forms. We believe in the same basic commandments but disagree with how they have been interpreted over the years.
For some, moral teachings are black and white and must be accepted with full and unquestioning obedience. Others struggle with the grayness of life’s many questions and believe that the answers aren’t always clear-cut.
The recent Synod on the Family discussed the concept of graduality, which acknowledges that we are all on a path to wholeness and holiness. None of us are perfect. As we hope for compassion for our own imperfections, we are also called to offer the same compassion to others. If we focus only on seeking the sinfulness in others, we will not see the goodness that is present in them.
Gone are the days of blind, unquestioning obedience. Gone are the days of conversion by fear. Gone are the days of forcing and enforcing beliefs through militant apologetics with the expectation that doctrinal arguments can be ended with a simple catechism quote.
Evangelization today requires a real dialogue, a sharing that seeks to build on the existing good that unites us while trying to better understand that which divides us. It requires speaking from the head and the heart.
The new evangelization calls for a new style of conversation in our church. If we want a model of what this looks like, we need only look to our new pope.
Francis speaks first and foremost from his heart to the hearts of others. He knows that the heart is the privileged depository for true conversion. He speaks of faith less in doctrinal terms of the mind and more in practical works of our hands. He is not afraid to denounce, but he saves his harshest condemnations for those who allow legalities to overshadow compassion or who seek personal glory and comfort before the good of others.
Last July, Pope Francis made headlines for joining Vatican workers for lunch in their cafeteria. The cafeteria is a beautiful symbol of what our church community could be like. The church should not be like an elitist restaurant with high-minded hosts zealously guarding the guest list. Invitations to dine should not depend on who we are or who we know. We should not be asked to leave because our manners, dress, or food preferences do not hold up to some exclusive club rules.
We should be a church more like a cafeteria, offering a welcome sense of hospitality to all who seek spiritual nourishment, community, and respite from their worries and labors. But, please, let’s not ruin the meal by judging what others have on their trays.
And the survey says...
1. I consider myself a cafeteria Catholic.
50% – Agree
35% – Disagree
15% – Other
2. The church needs to purge itself of cafeteria Catholicswho don’t believe or follow all of its teachings.
4% – Agree
88% – Disagree
8% – Other
3. It simply isn’t possible to know, fully understand, and agree with every teaching of the Catholic Church.
68% – Agree
19% – Disagree
13% – Other
4. In order to be a faithful Catholic, a person must:
39% – Agree with a set of nonnegotiable teachings, but possibly come to his or her own conclusions on other issues.
37% – Profess to follow the church’s teachings as best they can, even if they question or do not understand some of them.
5% – Pick and choose some teachings to follow that are personally meaningful but disregard others.
2% – Completely agree with all the church’s teachings, without question.
17% – Other
5. If a person disagrees with a particular teaching of the church, he or she should:
58% – Stay in the church but try to promote dialogue around the teaching with which they disagree.
28% – Try their best to understand and follow the church’s teachings.
6% – Do nothing, because it is perfectly OK to be Catholic and not follow all church teachings.
1% – Leave and go find another church.
7% – Other
6. Wrestling with teachings you don’t understand or agree with is a natural part of having faith.
94% – Agree
3% – Disagree
3% – Other
7. The church will attract more people with open dialogue than it will with rigid rules.
80% – Agree
8% – Disagree
12% – Other
8. No one should ever question the teachings of the Catholic Church.
4% – Agree
89% – Disagree
7% – Other
This survey appeared in the February 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 2, pages 35–38).
Results are based on survey responses from 445 USCatholic.org visitors.
Image: Flickr cc via Jim Crotty