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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  • Thank you this is very well done. You make some important points as well for Orthodox Christians. There is not, for example, a single view patristic view on wealth or private property contrary to what some of my fellow Orthodox Christians would assert. See for example Peter Brown, Through the Eyes of Faith: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550AD.

  • Jared B.

    Feeding Tube Catholicism, nice. The term I’d been using for the last few years has been “Mormon Catholicism”, treating the Pope like the Prophet, whose words are absolutely authoritative — provided they are the most recent. Another good one is “the Church of St. George Orwell”.

    • Jared,

      As an Orthodox Christian, I think dialing back “Mormon Catholicism” will go a long way to encouraging reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

  • Paul54

    Thank you for this well reasoned defense of personal discernment, and the well needed criticism of the “don’t disagree with the Pope because the Holy Spirit picked him” crowd.

    • Jude

      That crowd drives me bonkers.

      • rat patrol

        I had one guy accuse me of blaspheming the Holy Spirit when I told him the HS does not choose the pope. The ignorance runs deep.

  • Athelstane

    Hello John,

    Thanks for a strong essay that makes some points that apparently bear repeating in this pontificate – and for a nice turn of phrase in your title. I may have to crib that.

    One quibble about your parenthetical: “…as they indisputably have over slavery, lending at interest and religious freedom.” Now I share your frustration with Catholic Social Teaching generally which, being a modern phenomenon, has tended to eschew clear definitions and anathemas – and such as they are, they are (not surprisingly) in the earliest documents, Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). But I do think there’s more consistency than you credit to Church teachings on slavery, usury and “religious freedom” – certainly in the pre-conciliar Magisterium. And let us not forget that, notwithstanding its very post-Enlightenment tone, even Dignitatis Humanae has the caveat that “it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

    Best of luck getting that debate scheduled.

    • Zmirak

      Thanks, but that’s addressed in “Myth of Catholic Social Teaching”:
      the Council reaffirms the part of the old teaching that insists on the
      rights of Christ the King, it explicitly speaks not of “states” but of
      “societies” as having the duty to recognize and advocate religious
      truth. To equate “society” with the state is to slide right into totalitarianism – one of the evils that the Council was called to address.

      • Athelstane

        Thanks for the reply, Dr. Zmirak.

        On this point, I tend to agreement with Fr. Harrison: “Now, the word “societies” here certainly includes civil or political communities as such.” I think this is tenable given the context in which this statement was inserted, late in the game, by Paul VI in response to urgings by many Council Fathers who insisted on a clarification that the Council was not repudiating “ecclesiastical documents up till the time of the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII” on “the moral duty of public authority (potestas publica) toward the true religion.” In short, “societas” was understood by the ratifiers as inclusive of civil communities, and therefore, should be received in that way. I wouldn’t build much on this seeming discrepancy. There are real concerns with DH, but I would argue that this statement, at least, is patient of a reading with tradition.

        At worst, it strikes me as another case where the Council employed language that was not as precise as its predecessors. I think it’s capable of being read with the long tradition on this point., and the tradition should rule how it is read.

        • Zmirak

          The problem is that if the word is read as including the coercive power of the state, that amounts to multiplying the entire document by zero. We have here at best an ambiguity thrown in to placate traditionalists. Of course, I am biased in that I agree with DH that religious coercion is evil, and regard previous papal statements as incompatible with natural law.

          • Athelstane

            We have here at best an ambiguity thrown in to placate traditionalists.

            I am not sure I might characterize it as “at best,” but your point is taken here. You could call it that.

            Of course, I am biased in that I agree with DH that religious coercion is evil, and regard previous papal statements as incompatible with natural law.

            Which statements, exactly do you have in mind?

            But if the Church was wrong about such things for so long does this not call its truth claims into question? How can we know that it was wrong about that but right about abortion, or the Trinity? I think, if I may, that this is the difficulty I have with your “Myth” thesis about Catholic Social Teaching – it embraces a good deal more than just, well, Catholic Social Teaching. The only doctrines that seem to remain would seem to risk reducing it to a quietist sect, albeit one with pretty churches and nice music.

            I realize we’re moving a bit off the main topic here. And on the main topic – your thesis that too many Catholics have become effectively papaloters with an unwarrantedly magnified idea of papal infallibility and authority, and the role of the Holy Spirit in guaranteeing actions of the Pope and the hierarchy – I think it’s difficult to argue with your position.

          • Zmirak

            Well, I don’t need the Church to tell me that abortion is wrong! If the Church said otherwise, I’d leave–as Jerome Lejeune once said.
            Leave aside natural law. The “tradition” which the Church has always claimed as controlling of scripture is supposed to be, essentially, the oral tradition passed on from the 12 apostles and maintained consistently thereafter. Nothing that is inconsistent or non-apostolic qualifies. So start with the ecumenical councils and obvious ex cathedra statements, but be very conservative apart from that in betting the Church’s authority and authenticity on particular opinions.

  • Denise

    I could not agree with you more. Wonderful article. Keep ’em coming!!

    • JTLiuzza

      Same here. Thanks for the article.

  • Älter und weiser

    Excellent analysis.
    Unfortunately, the idea of papal infallibility is horribly misunderstood.
    Add to that the tendency of the main stream media to report only what promotes a libertine/leftist agenda, the pope’s unwillingness to think before speaking and you get complete kaos.

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