Cafeteria Catholicism

Updated: Nov 10, 2018



It’s not uncommon to encounter Catholics, often public figures, who maintain that they are Catholics in good standing while publicly disagreeing with numerous teachings of the Church.   Issues they frequently mention include:  abortion, same – sex marriage, contraception and embryonic stem cell research.  

Is picking and choosing what we like about the faith while leaving the rest behind, allowed? Does this coincide with the Church’s understanding of what it means to believe?  In other words, is it OK to be a cafeteria Catholic?

The short answer is no.  Why?

To answer that we have to see why we believe anything the Church teaches.  There are two primary reasons.  First, we believe that Christ is truly the Son of God.  As a result, we believe that what He says is authoritative, period.   Secondly, we believe that the Church speaks truly and faithfully for Christ, particularly in matters of faith and morality.  If either of these two points is not sustained then we have to discard Christianity all together not just some of it.  If Christ is not God as He claimed to be, then He would either be a liar or insane[1].  Why would I listen to Him at all?  It would make no sense to love Him more than my mother and father, to take up my cross and follow Him[2], or to do anything that He said.  It is precisely because we hold Him to be God that we follow Him, which implies obeying Him.

The second piece of the puzzle however is equally as important.  Whenever you believe a news report to be true, you do so precisely because you trust that the messenger is not just sincere but correct in their reporting on the matter.  If you doubt the messenger, you doubt the message.  Christ is the message, the Church is the messenger.   We would know nothing, or almost nothing, about Christ were it not for the Church communicating the ‘Good News.’   The Protestant solution of using the Bible as the only source of authoritative teaching in order to get around the need for a Church just doesn’t work. The Bible itself didn’t fall from the sky but rather came from God through the Church.  Someone had to decide which books were inspired and which were not.  As Peter Kreeft, a noted Catholic author, said, "you can’t have an infallible effect without an infallible cause.[3]” Granted, the Church is a secondary cause to God, but a cause or instrument nonetheless.

So when the Church communicates its understanding of Christ’s teachings, it either has the authority to do so or it doesn’t.  If I believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and teaches the truth about faith and morals, then I accept it.  If it doesn’t, then I ultimately have no foundation to believe any of its teachings.  So if I, as a practicing Catholic,  think that the Church is wrong regarding homosexual marriage, contraception and abortion, upon what foundation do I accept its teachings about social justice and kindness?   I may agree with the Church on certain issues, but the fact that I agree becomes merely coincidental.  I may agree with Muslims that religion is important and with Marxists that there is oppression in the world, but those shared opinions would make me neither a Muslim nor a Marxist.  In other words, it wouldn’t be faith.

As Cardinal Pell wrote, “For many people today, conscience suggests freedom to judge God's law by our own personal resources and the right to reject the notion or reformulate this law as we think best. I imagine that to non-Christians this must seem rather odd: If moral and religious teachings bind only to the extent that one's individual mind and will enthuse about them, then pretty clearly the teachings do not bind at all. What "binds" is simply the autonomous self, with all the limitations that our selves are prey to. And to say "I am bound by me" is hardly to make a meaningful moral utterance.[4]

The Catholic faith isn’t first and foremost a list of rules.  It is an encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus Christ, an encounter with His love and His forgiveness.  Yet this grace, this invitation to communion with God, challenges us to leave our selfish and sinful ways behind.  This is hard, but possible with Christ’s help.  It is only when this challenge is accepted that we begin to truly become what we were created to be.  The moral norms are the necessary guidelines in this process.  Who are we to tell God we know better than He does?

So, what do we do if we sincerely have a hard time grasping or accepting some points of the faith? We pray and we study. “Where a Catholic disagrees with the Church on some serious matter, the responses should not be “that’s that’ I can’t follow the Church here”; instead we should kneel and pray that God will lead our weak steps and enlighten our fragile minds.[5]This may seem like a hard and arduous road, but do not get discouraged. Christ told us that if we seek we shall find.[6]

As Pope Benedict stated, “In the uncertainty of this time in history and of our society, (we must) offer people the certainty of the complete faith of the Church. The clarity and beauty of the Catholic faith are such that they brighten human life even today! This is particularly true if it is presented by enthusiastic and convincing witnesses.[7]

Christ has guaranteed complete certainty of faith to the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a gift and grace He has freely given us in order that we may have eternal life. Why would we want to leave anything of such a beautiful gift behind?

by Fr. John Bullock, LC

Re-published November 10, 2018

[Originally published April 23, 2009]


  1. cf. Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ

  2. cf. Mt 10:37 – 38

  3. Peter Kreeft, Yes or No, Dialogue 1

  4. Cardinal Pell on True and False Conscience, Feb 10, 2005,

  5. ibid

  6. cf. Mt 7:7

  7. Benedict XVI to Austrian Bishops - Zenith - 2 dec 2005

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