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The Other Cafeteria Catholic, Part II

November 6, AD 2012 14 Comments

Lest you think I’m writing about the “other” cafeteria Catholic as one standing in judgment, I want to give you a little back story. I grew up in a bona fide bonnet-wearing, “in the world but not of it” Christian cult. While its members were salt of the earth, the leadership was corrupt as can be, and thankfully my family was evicted from the church while I was still in grade school. One of the few people we knew outside the community was a Benedictine priest who helped us to heal from the wounds of an abusive church and eventually guided us through RCIA. I was received into the Church and promptly fell into extreme scrupulosity. For years I had intense anxiety about anything concerning religion (everything!) and only began to recover with the help of my now-husband and a few wonderful priests in my early 20s. 

Needless to say, I understand the kind of zeal that compels people to separate themselves from a sinful world to live a “purer” form of Christianity. I understand how it feels to wish you didn’t believe in God for the way the fear of hell occupies your every moment. I know what it is like to discover Truth and to long for others to share your joy. I know the sense of security that prescribed Liturgy and formal prayer affords. I’ve been at every single table in the “other” cafeteria, so if anything, this is an examination of conscience. No judgment here. 

Now that we have that out of the way, take a look around the room…


Let’s be clear. All the food in this room is healthy, if exotic – no junk allowed. But you can have too much of a good thing. Kidney beans are very nutritious, but if that’s all you eat, you may find yourself short on friends. Catch my drift?

The “other” cafeteria Catholics aren’t guilty of any crime exactly. They say their prayers, exercise proper religious decorum, fast and give alms. Some worship in the extraordinary form, while others take their families to a local Novus Ordo parish. It’s not so much what these folks do as why they do what they do.

Let’s examine the motivations that might drive some to be more Catholic than the Pope:

1. Loneliness

Our society is virulently anti-Catholic. While the blood of martyrs isn’t being spilled on the streets, the Church in the United States is persecuted. Understandably, some Catholics respond to a hostile social climate by withdrawing. They make a Catholic bubble for themselves and perhaps a few friends and effectively sever ties with the rest of the world.

Surrounding oneself with like-minded believers and putting temptation at a distance certainly makes the world a much less lonely place.

The Problem: Wanting to protect your soul from an aggressively secular culture is understandable, but not quite Christ-like. When Christ left the crowds, it was to pray for the strength to return to the sinners who needed Him.

2. Fear

Catholics at this table of the cafeteria make “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” look tame. Every tiny detail of religious practice is a matter of incredible gravity. Break the fast by brushing your teeth before Mass, and you’ve committed a mortal sin. Show an inch of skin above the knee and you may as well be damned.

The Problem: Sometimes what looks like religious fervor is actually psychological illness in disguise. If these Catholics were atheists, they’d find some other ritual fixation. They have a religious form of obsessive compulsive disorder known as scrupulosity.

3. Disillusionment

It’s not uncommon in the “other” cafeteria to hear complaints about certain Bishops, Liturgical gaffs and that mistake of a Council. People here care deeply for the history and tradition/Tradition of the Church. They resent the kumbaya catechism they were given as children and are desperate for something more. They want their priests and bishops to be men – to use that crooked staff to beat hungry wolves senseless.

The Problem: When you waste time complaining about the human flaws of Church leaders, you run the risk of forgetting our Faith’s most comforting Truth – Christ is with us until the end of time. He is truly Present in every Tabernacle around the world. He has not left us orphaned, but sent the Holy Spirit to work in and through the weakest of the weak to bring about God’s glory. Pray for your priests and Bishops, but don’t give up hope.

4. Spiritual Amnesia

Some diners in the “other” cafeteria suffer from what Matthew Kelly calls spiritual amnesia. They are so absorbed in their Faith, so invested in ritual and observance, that they’ve forgotten their past. They’ve forgotten the times they ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. They’ve forgotten the times they doubted the teachings of the Church. They’ve forgotten past sins and failings, and unwittingly, become rather proud of their present virtue.

The Problem: Unlike moral virtues, which the Catechism says are acquired by human effort, faith is a theological virtue and a pure gift from God. All of us, if we are honest, have had times of darkness and separation from God. We love Him now only because He first loved us and gave us the light of faith. Remembering the past gives us more compassion for those who are wrestling with sin or struggling to believe.

5. A Desire for Rules

The Church can be really ambiguous at times. Perhaps the most abstruse of Her teachings are those related to sexual morality. Sure, adultery and fornication are forbidden, but what about that subject which forever frustrates the lovers of black-and-white? Natural Family Planning. The Church permits the use of NFP to postpone a pregnancy where there is “just cause” and then drops the subject. The ambiguity frustrates the “other” cafeteria Catholic to no end, so they make up their own rules. No cause is just except perhaps threat to the mother’s life. Any couple using NFP to postpone because of financial stress or to space out their children a bit must surely be selfish and misguided.

The Problem: The Church desires her children to have an intimate communion with the Lord – to discern His Will in all things. For this reason, she treats us as adults. It is our responsibility to seek His guidance for our marriages and families. Ambiguity is uncomfortable, but it forces us to mature spiritually.

6. Poor Catechesis

One of the commentors on The Other Cafeteria Catholic, Part I quite rightly pointed out that lax Catholics and overly zealous Catholics often share a common background. Either their childhood catechesis was nonexistent or they haven’t moved beyond the simple comfort of the Baltimore catechism.

The Problem: Most Catholics grow up without any real faith formation and as a consequence fail to develop a mature, adult faith. The “other” cafeteria Catholic may be able to proof-text from the Catechism or the Scripture if you challenge some doctrine, but he hasn’t gone any deeper. He hasn’t claimed his Faith with a Credo born of prayer, sacrifice, discernment and study.

If you, like me, find yourself dining at the “other” cafeteria from time to time, perhaps a good examination of conscience is in order. Before you engage a fallen away friend or relative in a theological debate, ask yourself the following:

  • Is this matter really essential to my friend’s salvation or is it an issue of personal opinion? For instance, while it would be wonderful if all Catholics appreciated the beauty of the Tridentine Liturgy, it is a matter of preference, not necessity. On the other hand, going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation is a matter of grave importance.
  • Can I engage my friend in conversation charitably or am I out to prove a point? If you find yourself getting hot around the collar, step back and take a deep breath. Ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your words and to remove the obstacle of pride.
  • Do I really know what the Church teaches on this subject or have I picked through the Catechism selectively to back up my own opinions? Be brutally honest with yourself. If you are going to represent the Church, represent her well. Don’t distort the Truth to justify your own lifestyle.
  • Am I experiencing fear or uncertainty about the subject at hand? Again, be honest. Share what you know the Church teaches, but don’t be afraid to confess your doubts too.

Finally, consider this admonition from St. Paul:

“Let us cease, then, to lay down rules for one another, and make this rule for ourselves instead, not to trip up or entangle a brother’s conscience.” (Romans 14. 13)

The laws which the Church prescribes are given to us — with the wisdom of thousands of years and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — to bring us into the freedom of Christ. All the devotions, practices and forms of worship are a way for each of us personally to experience the beauty and generosity of God. Through the Church, God invites each one of us to a marvelous banquet. Here a myriad of spiritual dishes whet our appetite for our true food and drink — the Lord Himself.


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About the Author:

Elizabeth Hoxie is a 2010 graduate of St. Vincent College where she studied Catholic Theology and biology. She is a freelance health and nutrition by trade and amateur theologian when both children nap simultaneously. She lives with her family at Beale, AFB in sunny California where her husband serves in the United States Air Force.