Closing the Cafeteria: The Importance of Orthodoxy in Lay Life

cafeteria2One of my fondest memories at Baylor was when I first walked downstairs and into the wonder that was my dorm’s cafeteria. Far away from home, I reveled in the sheer number of choices before me with no one to tell me which foods were appropriate to eat or laugh at odd combos. From breakfast to random late night dinners, I could find a morsel that fit my pallet’s desires. If I didn’t eat a salad, or anything healthy, for a month that was just fine – I ate what I wanted.

Unknowingly, I entered another cafeteria when I left the nest, this one unhealthy for my soul. A spiritual feeding trough called Cafeteria Catholicism. I was unfamiliar with this term until university because I was not a knowledgeable Catholic teenager growing up.

Unwittingly I fell into the trap because I was challenged by my Catholic and non-Catholic friends on issues and topics I held no opinion and little knowledge. From the mundane to the earth shattering, we discussed matters that touched our collegiate souls. Without knowledge of the faith, I went with my ignorant and prideful conscience rather than attempt to educate myself.

For a time, I fell for the deceptive power of choice. I cherry-picked a Catholic teaching and followed it but only adhered to what I wanted and not the Truth of the faith. The Catechism (1760-1742) discusses man’s freedom and responsibility in his choices. While we possess the God given freedom to decide for ourselves, freedom of choice bears an innate responsibility for the consequences.

Our culture today is built on the sandy foundations of relativism which shirks responsibility. The world tells us that whatever we wish to take from its cafeteria is acceptable as long as the choice is ours and we do not impose it upon others. Since this possesses a kernel of the truth, namely that using force to persuade others is wrong, some Catholic’s believe it is not only acceptable but a good to be allowed to decide which teachings they will accept as true and the ones they will reject or relegate to unimportance. “Personalized” Catholicism rather than Roman Catholicism.

I’ve observed or experienced three broad gateways into cafeteria Catholicism. First, ignorance of the Church teachings leads to a decision, without prayer or study, to what an individual agrees with. This is easily rectified with prayer, the Catechism, and seeking wise counsel. For myself, this required eating some humble pie to help admit I didn’t know or understand something, and that I was doing something wrong.

The second door begins with “belief” in the Church’s teaching but possesses a caveat. The individual professes belief in a teaching, say on contraception or Confession, but does not feel practicing a particular point of faith a necessity for them.

The last door is based on kindergarten logic but is also the stoutest door. I have free will, so why should I have to agree with or practice everything the Church professes? As long as I love Jesus and don’t do anything “that” bad I am fine. Simply, I want something because I want it and therefore I deserve it. This last entrance was the most troubling for me because the gate is built out of anger, impatience, and pride. Tough planks indeed.

In his encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis wrote,

“Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole…..Indeed, inasmuch as the unity of faith is the unity of the Church, to subtract something from the faith is to subtract something from the veracity of communion.”

Cafeteria Catholicism shreds the seamless garment of Christ and leaves the individual to decide which scraps they will and won’t pick up. St. Augustine wrote in his Contra Faustum, “You ought to say plainly that you did not believe the gospel of Christ. For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves and not the gospel.”

In a world of people searching for the Truth it is little wonder that Catholics should feel lost while they reject the Truth of the Church. What is the remedy here? How are we to combat doubt, fear, anxiety, or feeling adrift?

We right our ships with knowledge of the faith. Orthodoxy of faith. This does not translate into blind obedience or mindless acceptance of the tenants of our faith, but a gradual spiritual and intellectual growth according to one’s ability.

Doubt can be an ally when it helps us grow and is left behind. If we should remain obstinately in doubt, we cultivate spiritual blindness (CCC 2088), which in turn leads us to fear and anxiety. So, we anxiously latch on to the nearest flotation device whether it is beneficial for our spiritual and physical health or not.

By knowledge of the faith I do not simply mean memorization of the Church’s stance on a particular issue, but also the why. As children, when our parents told us ‘no’ our first response was ‘why?’. We interpreted the ‘no’ as an infringement upon our freedom. Now, in our adulthood our response is incredulity and anger rather than simply asking ‘why?’ and listening to the answer.

Growth in knowledge of the faith is a part of maturing spiritually in humility. If we desire to be ‘good’ Catholics, we should take the time necessary to try and comprehend why the Church teaches what it does. When we accept a teaching at face value, even though it is taught by the Church founded by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit for the past 2000 years, the teaching means less to us. It becomes what the Church authority tells us rather than incorporating the teaching into our hearts.

There is a mystical beauty to the inner consistencies of the faith which draws us deeper into Christ. This closeness to Christ helps to sustain us in our day to day lives. At work, school, or the pub we interact with people who may challenge us in our faith, directly and indirectly. Without knowledge of the faith or of a place to seek counsel, we can be swayed by the arguments which confront us.

Many people know the Catholic stance on issues like gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and capital punishment, but few bother asking the ‘whys’ on those issues. You could be the only Catholic in a person’s orbit which means you have a responsibility to defend the faith as St. Peter calls us to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15)

The Church, being founded by Christ and empowered by God with authority, teaches us with love and without deception or error. This knowledge is enough to keep us close to our mother the Church.

We all experience troubles in our lives, but we cannot let these moments define our faith life. Read, discuss, and seek guidance as you grow in the faith. Our spiritual development as adults does not end but begins at our Confirmation. If we continual strive our whole lives and with tremendous effort in our careers, families, and desires of our hearts, why should we not do the same for our faith and relationship with God?

Each of us is called to continual conversion and holiness. St. Ambrose wrote of two conversions, “there are water and tears; the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance” (CCC 1429). Christ bequeathed the Pilgrim Church to us to assist and guide us on our pilgrimage home to Him. St. Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies, wrote, “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.” When we accept the Church as our mother and educate ourselves the world cannot disturb our peace in Christ.

Michael is a Texan living in self-inflicted exile as he finishes his PhD. in the history of early modern Britain. After completing his undergraduate degree at Baylor (Sic 'em!!), he decided his faith life needed re-evaluating and reinvigorating. He quickly realized that spiritual growth is a life long affair and not a quick fix. This created a thirst for a deep knowledge of the faith and a desire to share every nugget with others who may benefit. Michael is addicted to movies and books and enjoys quality time with friends and family.