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.