Catholics: Are You a Cafeteria or a Feeding Tube Catholic?

There is a middle way between haughtily choosing among Church teachings, and lying back like a coma patient ingesting whatever the Vatican Press Office sends you.

By John Zmirak Published on July 15, 2015

Samuel Gregg’s respectful but critical analysis of the pope’s Bolivian economics farrago has had the predictable effect: It got him called a “dissenter” and an “ideologue” by the National Catholic Reporter’s all-purpose troll Michael Sean Winters. That dyspeptic leftist is the same person who responded to my article “The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching” by labeling me a “Catholic for Choice” and challenging me, in the pages of the Reporter, to a public debate on the subject. I immediately accepted, both in the comments box and via email, and had my book’s publicist try to contact Winters, asking him to name the time and place. We never heard back.

Since Winters won’t take up his own challenge and debate me, I’ll respond to his charges right here. What Winters means by “Catholic for Choice” and “dissenter” is that Gregg and I — along with all the other millions of believers who are puzzled and dismayed by the pope’s eccentric personal views on economics and ecology — are “cafeteria Catholics.”

There is such a thing as a cafeteria Catholic. That term refers to people who pick and choose from the Church’s non-negotiable teachings, based on what seems right to their private consciences formed by the secular culture around them; their own urgent desires; and the writings of disaffected Jesuits, and radical nuns who traded in Thomas Aquinas for Karl Marx, Carl Rogers or Carl Jung. Do you find the Church’s historical teaching on divorce too much of a “hard saying”? There are theologians, up to the level of Cardinal Kasper (the friend of the Zeitgeist), ready to nuance it into oblivion. Do you feel that the Church’s condemnation of abortion or homosexual “marriage” is too “patriarchal”? Here’s a coven of nuns ready to teach you all about the love of Goddess.

But when theologically faithful Catholics question the current pope’s exotic economic views, which he himself has said are not binding on Catholics, suddenly those who dissent from core Church teachings are ready to break out the thumbscrews and light the stake.

In the piece that so offended Michael Sean Winters and provoked our phantom debate, I showed how the statements of popes over the centuries on economics and politics were at such variance with each other that it was simply false to pretend that the Magisterium extended to cover such questions. By definition, the Magisterium includes only teachings that have remained fundamentally consistent since the time of the Apostles. It is those teachings, along with the Bible, that form the core of Catholic faith. So if we find that popes and councils have differed with each other on an issue (as they indisputably have over slavery, lending at interest and religious freedom), then those papal teachings are not part of the ordinary Magisterium. They may contain worthy insights, like St. John Paul II’s forays into philosophy, but they are not part of the Faith.

There are some Catholics who are uncomfortable admitting facts like these. For whatever reason, these people — whom I will call Feeding Tube Catholics — crave the certainty that the Holy Spirit guides every single step taken by the church through its 2,000 years of history. The Holy Spirit picks each pope, they believe, and guides his daily steps, public statements and decisions. So whatever the pope is saying at the moment, you should simply shut down your critical faculties and believe it — regardless of what previous popes and councils might have taught. Those go into the Memory Hole, and pfft! They never existed.

Well wouldn’t that be nice? Except that then we’d have to explain why the Holy Spirit picked so many corrupt and cruel pontiffs, and why throughout the Renaissance He seemed to favor the cardinals who offered the highest bribes. That’s kind of a weird coincidence, isn’t it? We’d also have to ask why the Holy Spirit inspired one pope to dig up his innocent predecessor and try his corpse for heresy. Why did the Holy Spirit guide popes like Gregory XVI, Pius IX and Leo XIII to denounce religious freedom as a diabolical snare, then direct Pope Paul VI and Vatican II to declare religious freedom a fundamental right, based in both divine revelation and natural law?

The answer I usually get to questions like these is along the lines of: “Shut up, you sound like a Protestant.” Commentators like Mark Shea have demanded that Catholics adopt a pet-like “docility” to whatever the Vatican is saying at the moment, while one learned writer at First Things called on conservatives to accept Pope Francis’ statements on economics as the fruit of a “spirit-led Magisterium.” To which one must respond: Did the same Spirit lead all those previous popes who contradicted each other on issues ranging from slavery to the right of Protestants to worship freely without being arrested by the Inquisition? He sure seems to change His mind a lot.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the threat of Feeding Tube Catholicism, which if seriously pursued would reduce Catholics to the kind of mindless zombies imagined in the worst stereotypes of anti-Catholics like Jack Chick. Ratzinger had already pointed out one case where a pope (Pius IX) had issued a comprehensive manifesto of political statements (the Syllabus of Errors), only to be later contradicted by a council in its documents (Gaudium et Spes). Ratzinger spoke specifically of the case of Pope John Paul II, whose teaching on the death penalty differed from that of previous popes. Ratzinger sharply distinguished between dissent on issues where the church had spoken clearly and consistently, such as abortion and euthanasia, and disagreement with a pope who was saying something new. Ratzinger reminded us that the teaching of the Church is not some Moscow-style “party line” meant to wipe clean the minds of believers like the shake of an Etch-a-Sketch.

Let me propose instead of Cafeteria or Feeding Tube Catholicism a kind of Thomistic golden mean. Let’s call it Knife-and-Fork Catholicism. No, we won’t pick and choose from the Church’s teachings as if we were scanning for our favorite muffin type at a Shonee’s breakfast bar. Nor will we lie back, brain-dead, as the latest pope’s latest statements are downloaded into our brains like one of Apple’s or Microsoft’s non-optional updates.

Instead we will sit up like men and women with knives and forks at a restaurant. We will accept the balanced, healthful meals sent out by a chef whom we trust. But if there seems to be some kind of mistake, if we find on our plates gorge-raising dollops of stale Cuban, Venezuelan and North Korean prison rations, we drop our forks. We assume there has been a mistake, since none of this was on the menu. We send the chef a message that we will pass, in the happy faith that the restaurant’s Owner will agree and understand.

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