e-mail us


We’ve got ‘cafeteria Catholics’ on the right, too


When first I was named a pastor, it became immediately clear to me that in addition to pastoral solicitude, I needed also to cultivate a certain prudence (I hesitate to quote Matthew 10:16: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”), as well as an appreciation for the issues involved in maintaining and passing on our traditions.

Once, a parishioner I had known for years before becoming pastor seemed to lapse in her attendance at the Sunday Eucharist. I inquired, gingerly, concerning her whereabouts. She informed me that since her aged mother was now in a Catholic nursing facility, she attended Sunday Mass there with her.

Because this woman seemed to consider herself more Catholic than God, I pointed out that under the current Code of Canon Law (the new code not yet having been promulgated), she could not fulfill her Sunday obligation in a semipublic oratory. So, it seemed to me, she should feel bound to worship twice on Sunday: once, in charity, with her mother, and once, by virtue of fulfilling the law, with her parish community.

Though I had known this woman for years, I have never seen her eyes open quite so wide before or since, and the magnification behind her thick lenses gave me something of a start.

Certainly one should not abandon her parish for months or years, even if worshiping elsewhere. My attitude was correct, I think, even if my rigor in pointing to the law might raise eyebrows. I wanted and even needed, however, to be a rigorist in this case. I was admittedly smug with having made a preemptive strike at someone I felt sure would challenge my own orthopraxis. I pointed out that she was what might be termed a “cafeteria Catholic,” deciding for herself which rules and laws applied to her.

I did not know what an impression I made until some months later. A new religious order priest arrived in town. He called me later to tell the story of being at a social event with the bishop, my canon law-defying friend and her husband.

Waiting to be introduced to the bishop, the new priest heard this woman, then unknown to him, complain to the bishop: “And then he told me I have to attend Mass twice on Sunday.” She filled in the details. The bishop roared (his voice frightened those who did not know him well): “You tell Fr. Graham that he is pre-Vatican I!” There I stood revealed as not just a preconciliar pastor but preconciliar to the second power.

She never reported to me the encounter with His Excellency. But this woman and I came to be quite good friends and we learned to appreciate one another’s contributions to church and city. I pointed out in her the very behavior she expected of me and, that done, we settled into a new appreciation of persons and issues.

Why is it that folks who regard themselves as conservatives can do most anything they like, but those regarded as liberals stand accused as cafeteria Catholics? If we are to be faithful both to our gospel call and to our roots, we need to examine this question, I think.

What about those fearful and angry souls who remain within the Roman church but, in their outrage, seem to forget the promise of Christ to Peter, that “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). To forget or rework the words of Jesus, or to suggest that one knows better than the Messiah or the Spirit, seems to me the worst kind of liberalism. This, too, is cafeteria Catholicism.

Where is the common ground that the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin encouraged us to seek? While previous generations debated with those they termed “the separated brethren” -- today greeted with dignity and respect -- now we Catholics seem to engage one another in internal warfare, which is not helpful to the church or any individual member.

Those who see themselves as conservative seem to suggest that no conversation is necessary since they have both pope and truth in their corner.

Others, characterized as liberals, are often ready for dialogue, thinking that when the opposing camp listens long enough, they will at last be converted.

Together both camps need to seek the truth that liberates.

Fr. William C. Graham, who writes NCR’s Bookshelf column, is a priest of the Duluth, Minn., diocese and an associate professor of religious studies at Caldwell College, Caldwell, N.J., where he directs the Caldwell Pastoral Ministry Institute.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999