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What is a Cafeteria Catholic?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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A cafeteria Catholic is a member of the Catholic faith who chooses to ignore certain aspects of Catholic doctrine, or to interpret established doctrine in a way which does not agree with Catholic moral teaching. The term can also be used to refer to people in other Christian sects, with people substituting the name of the relevant sect for “Catholic.” As a general rule, people do not use this term to refer to themselves, because “cafeteria Catholic” is a pejorative phrase which is meant to imply disapproval.

The term is a reference to cafeteria style dining, in which people pick and choose the foods they want. The implication is that a cafeteria Catholic simply picks aspects of Catholic doctrine which appeal the most, rather than taking the whole package. Unlike a cafeteria, however, Catholicism is not a pick and choose religion: although people may debate certain aspects of faith, certain things are taken to be undeniably true.

Cafeteria Christianity is obviously an ancient issue, as the abundance of Christian sects amply testifies. Drastic differences in opinions have led to repeated splits in the Christian faith, ranging from the Great Schism to the Reformation, and members of these various sects all believe that their interpretation of Christianity is correct and true. Within a sect, people who pick and choose doctrine are often chastised as cafeteria Christians.

Many issues come up again and again for cafeteria Catholics, such as the right to choose, the use of birth control, ordination of women, sanctioning of homosexual relationships, approval of marriage for priests, and acceptance of divorce. No matter what cafeteria Catholics think, these issues are all addressed in Catholic doctrine, and failure to adhere to doctrine can make someone a “Catholic in Name Only (CINO)” in the eyes of Catholics who toe the doctrinal line.

Many cafeteria Catholics believe in most aspects of Catholic faith, struggling with major sticking points like those listed above. Some back up their beliefs with citations from Scripture and Catholic doctrine, despite the fact that Catholic church leaders such as His Holiness the Pope have clearly spoken out on such issues. Critics of cafeteria Catholics argue that they should find Christian sects which align more closely with their personal beliefs, rather than trying to manipulate Catholicism to adhere to their opinions.

It should be stressed that being a cafeteria Catholic doesn't necessarily make someone a bad Christian. Many cafeteria Catholics are devout and moral individuals who believe in the majority of Christian doctrine, and with a bit of searching, they may be able to find Christian sects which are more suitable for them. If someone is called a cafeteria Catholic, he or she may want to seek counseling from a religious leader to discuss his or her faith.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon328316 — On Apr 02, 2013

There's a difference between rejecting Catholic dogma and rejecting the interpretation of what someone said about that dogma. In the non-negotiable ("you can't call yourself a Catholic and refuse to believe that...") column, I would add belief that the Eucharist is the body of Christ. Transubstantiation is a core tenet of Catholicism; it is what sets us apart from other Christian (Protestant) sects. Belief in the resurrection is core to all Christian sects. So too, are the commandments to forgive, to love God and love one another and belief in Heaven.

Another core tenet of the Catholic faith is recognition of the Pope as the leader of the Catholic Church. Note that recognition does not mean "agree with always." Many citizens of a country may not agree with their leader's position on issues, yet none dispute his/her right to sovereignty. As Catholics, we don't have to agree with the Pope's edicts. We just have to recognize the authority behind them. And if we choose to disregard them, we should do so knowing that they come with the full authority of the head of the Church.

Setting aside differences among organized religions, I have to believe that at a very minimum, someone who calls themselves "a person of faith" must believe: (1) there is a God; (2) that God loves us and wants us to love each other; and (3) there is life after death. Nearly every religion on the planet has agreement with these three principles. Now, if only we could get people of faith to unite behind them and stop hurting others merely because they are differences in the rest of the dogma.

By anon291710 — On Sep 16, 2012

I am a cafeteria Catholic. I believe in the Holy Trinity. I believe abortion is wrong. I do not think homosexuals should be allowed to be married and I think it is a sin and I have two gay male friends who I do not see that much anymore. As a woman, I am not sure if they were born this way or if they chose this lifestyle. We go way back so I will never end my friendship with them -- I have no reason to -- but if I ever saw them in the act it would disgust me. Oddly, I do not find them revolting people.

My parents are divorced, my mother was a raging alcoholic who cheated on my father and nearly spent him into ruin. Therefore I do find it fair and just to divorce with good reason and release yourself from toxic people. As for birth control, to each their own, but I can understand why many do use it. It is obviously socially and financially responsible if need be.

I did NFP, and I think it's a good idea to practice that first, but if you find yourself with three or more kids unintentionally and you simply cannot afford more, don't be an idiot about it.

Yes, I believe that people of all Christian religions are going to heaven, hell, and purgatory, one way or the other. People may not agree with me but I never push my agenda on people, and have converted people to Christianity by subtle means. I am OK with who I am and what I believe. It's all good.

Yes, I have had all of the sacraments appropriate for a woman in her thirties and I go to adoration. I go to confession. Again, I place more emphasis on spirituality than religion but I will never write the Vatican and denounce my faith and I will go toe to toe with someone if they want to criticize me for being Catholic even though I am not a tee-totaler.

By BigBloom — On Dec 25, 2010

@Armas1313

I think you may have missed an important point in @arod2b42's statement: there are doctrines which should be seen on a graded absolutism. Certain doctrines are ultimately important, and other should be seen as less important. If we recognize and hold to these central doctrines: forgiveness, love, redemption, etc., then we won't need to squabble on all the others. We also will not need to just "live and let live," but can actually recognize mutuality and not be caught up in a mere soft "tolerance."

By Armas1313 — On Dec 22, 2010

@arod2b42

Maybe this would be a good scenario: people choose to live and let live, and not start religious wars based on their belief system. So much bloodshed has come because of minor doctrines which have caused massive schisms. Wars of religion have destroyed nations and lives. I think it is time to recognize that we need to move on from history's mistakes.

By arod2b42 — On Dec 20, 2010

I think that choosing to pick and choose doctrines must come with a sober assessment of how central certain doctrines are to a faith. For instance, you cannot be a Cafeteria Catholic if you choose to omit the resurrection of Christ. If you omit that doctrine, you are not a Catholic at all. Cafeteria religions are all very close to autonomy and post-modernism, which holds the doctrine of "tolerance" as supreme. This ideal of tolerance states that all religions are equally true and good as long as you don't try to "impose" them on other people. Religions will not survive if such a tolerance reigns supreme, because everybody will be the same and believe whatever they want.

By averagejoe — On Aug 02, 2008

"Cafeteriaism" ;) is not only something that affects Catholicism. There is Cafeteria Judaism, Cafeteria Christianity (as the article states), Cafeteria Islam. Put simply, there is Cafeteria Religion. And, I don't know that that is such a bad thing. To think that one, long and complex religion makes sense to so many people seems illogical; rather, it seems more logical that some aspects make sense and work for some people. Moreover, it seems nearly impossible to adhere to *all* of Judaism's tenets, for example, so to pick and choose the important ones seems completely logical and good.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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