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Monday, February 20, 2012

On "Cafeteria" Catholics

On washingtonpost.com, there is an opinion piece entitled "Media should challenge Santorum and Gingrich’s ‘cafeteria Catholicism'". (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/media-should-challenge-santorum-and-gingrichs-cafeteria-catholicism/2012/02/15/gIQAD77AGR_blog.html) The author, James Downie, argues that both Gingrich and Santorum are "cafeteria Catholics" because he thinks they reject certain teachings of the Church. While I can certainly see that in certain cases (Gingrich's 2 divorces and 3 marriages ring a bell?), based on what he says in the article he is totally off.

First off, a definition.  A “cafeteria Catholic” is a Catholic who picks and chooses which beliefs to follow and which to not follow.  This term (to my knowledge anyway) has generally been used to discuss progressive “Catholics” (most of whom aren’t really Catholic at all, but that is another story) due to their embrace of come more outlandish ideas.  So what the author is saying is that Santorum and Gingrich (as well as most conservative Catholics), are cherry picking what to believe or not believe based on their political ideologies.

The author clearly does not understand the levels of Catholic teaching and collapses different levels into one. This is not the place to get into an extended discussion of the levels of Catholic teaching, but let it suffice to say that not all statements made by the Church are of the same authority.  For example, where the death penalty is concerned, the Church’s official teaching (per the Catechism Paragraph 2267) says:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

In other words, capital punishment is not against Catholic teaching per se.  Rather, capital punishment should be a last option in necessary cases.  In the article, the author states that because Santorum and Gingrich agree with the death penalty, they are being “cafeteria” Catholics.  As can be seen above, they are not.  Rather, they are supporting what the Church has deemed to be legitimate, although it is not completely necessary.

I won’t go through every case that the author states, but I will point out that the author is basically using a politically liberal (maybe “progressive” is the more appropriate term here) stance to evaluate Catholic teachings.  The problem with this is that the Church cannot be defined based on the narrow political strata that the secular world uses.  The Church is both conservative and liberal depending on the issue, so to use either side solely to malign politicians is to do a grave injustice to the subtlety and nuances of the Church’s teachings.  The author’s unspoken assumption (though barely unspoken) is that it is impossible to be both Catholic and politically conservative.  He holds that the only truly Catholic solutions to social issues are the ones that the Left espouses.  This is blatantly untrue.  You can be against the welfare state and still follow Catholic teaching by helping private charities or helping the poor directly.  You can be against the state mandated minimum wage while still working for a living wage.  To embrace Catholic social teaching does not require you to become a political liberal or progressive.  To say otherwise is to twist the Church’s teachings in a way that they were never meant to be twisted.