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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.

  • JQ Tomanek

    Great list Elizabeth! Another I might add continues to keep the flame of this type going. It is something like pride of intellect, the thought that “I am worth more than you because I can recite the Lord’s prayer in ancient Aramaic.”

    There is also the tendency of others to add to the 7 Sacraments. These may include: mandated pilgrimage to apparition sites, must enjoy and promote “Fireproof”, and the Second Vatican Council itself is the cause of the Church’s contemporary problems.

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  • Elizabeth

    Am I more worthy because I took Biblical Greek in college or less because I was a terrible student? 😉

  • Justin


    Great article, thank you for your words and your challange. I found myself called out personally on at least a few of these, and I feel called to share my own experience perhaps as lesson to those who struggle similarly. I have just ended an online forum based discussion with a few of my family members who had engaged in the discussion because they had expressed an interest in returning to their faith. The discussion began in love, but I quickly found difficulty as my families profound distance from and even enmity for the church became clearer. Despite sincere prayer, I found myself repeatedly “hot under the collar” and I really ended up alienting them from the conversation though I pray not from conversion. I would offer a few lessons learned to all those who struggle with fallen away Catholics in their families/friends

    1. Online is a bad forum for the deeply personal experience of conversion
    2. I forgot too often how truly miraculous my own conversion has been and how thoroughly scales had to fall from my own eyes to see truth even after my initial conversion.
    3. I won every battle and lost the war. don’t lose focus on what’s really important in conversion of hearts
    4. I responded too quickly without patience, even short, sincere prayers don’t quell frustrated speech like time and the peace of Christ.

    • Elizabeth

      Thank you for having the humility to share your story. It’s hard to remember sometimes that only the Holy Spirit makes converts. Even our best arguments fall very far short. I will be praying for you and your family and please pray for me and mine.

    • Tracy


      Are you my long-lost twin? 🙂 I, too, am a convert and have learned the hard way (still learning, btw), to give God time to work and quit trying to do the job of the Holy Spirit. So often I want to jump ahead and give them the solution as if they don’t need the process. Often I remind myself it took thousands of years for God to even send the Savior. I need to chill out and simply say what needs to be said and leave the rest to another time when the person asks for more.

      I pray God gives you other opportunities to speak with your family and, perhaps, start a new dialogue.

  • In the beginning of the spiritual life a lot of people are like violin players. The only person who think they sound good is their mother. But with time and instruction
    they can a cause a hardened man to weep with sorrow, and bring joy to all.

    It is easy to make fun, ridicule and mock while it is difficult to instruct, admonish and encourage. I think you should step back from your article and ask is this article going to provoke anger in people who are
    trying to serve God with zeal, but may be beginners?

    It seems to be it does by belittling peoples desire to do good and serve God. There are varying degrees of scruplosity, ignorance and levels of religious observance. To put people who are trying to observe their religion with strictness in with the same name as the one
    associated with those who reject church teaching on abortion or homosexuality would seem to be injuring fraternal charity.

    I too have an apostolate were I have
    started to post Audiobooks on the lives of the
    saints, old Homilies etc. My desire is to encourage people to imitate the Saints and to practice our Faith with great generosity. It seems the goal of this article is the opposite. But rather to encourage laxity and condemn strictness and discipline of life. In your very first
    paragraph appears to be either a veiled or indirect attack
    on monasticism which does leave the world, are you saying that Monks and those who live a life of retirement are unChrist like? How did Christ live his life for the first 30 years? You then go on to suggest that others who have firm beliefs or fear God may suffer from psychological problems, poor catechisis, or a lack of hope.

    By the way the reason why people are afraid about skirts above the knee is because Saints like St Padre Pio would chase the women out of the church if they dared to show up dressed in that manner. Do you think he had psychological
    problems? St Kateri Tekakwitha removed all her friends who were not seeking after perfection and “created a bubble” for herself, are you now condemning her?

    I encourage you to spend some time reading the lives of the saints, and examine their tears, repentance, mortification, penance, strictness of life and then consider if this article would seem to be condemning them.

    I say imitate the Saints, who will be at the heavenly banquet, who are the Friends of Christ and enemies of the world flesh and devil.

    I believe it was St Bernard who said “With eternity you can never be too careful.” The scriptures also say “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Psalm 111:10. It is not wrong to encourage devotions, wear head coverings, observe strict rules, and not practice NFP.

    Lets rather encourage people to do and be good and take up their cross and follow Christ.

    “When a man begins to grow lax, he fears a little toil and welcomes external comfort, but when he begins perfectly to conquer himself and to walk bravely in the ways of God, then he thinks those things less difficult which he
    thought so hard before.” The Imitation of Christ, Thomas A Kempis

  • Nic Davidson


    The blog world is funny, isn’t it? We can have the best of intentions, produced by valid experiences and growth in Christ, yet, when they’re put down in e-ink, they come across askew and are very easily mistaken for something else, even seemingly accomplishing the opposite of the intent of the article.

    I’m taking it for granted that you extended that benefit of the doubt to Elizabeth when you read her article, because that’s what we’re to do for each other. And that, in turn, is what I’m doing for you. I am jealous of the depth of knowledge, experience, and familiarity you have with the lives of the saints and doctors of the church. I sometimes feel so restless being such a baby Catholic (not even 5 years old, yet). However, I think there may have been a level of depth to Elizabeth’s article that you may have overlooked in your understandably natural urge to compare her to the saints.

    For someone who has found freedom from a tradition which had bound her and made her a slave to fear of a randomly angry God who may smiteth thee for any offhanded mistake, the liberation of grace and mercy CANNOT be over-emphasized. Maybe you’ve not needed to experience that particular liberation (praise God), but she has, and her well of love has overflowed into an expression aimed at leading others who may have had similar experiences to the same joy. I might add that THAT could very well be the joy you were referring to in your opening violin paragraph…

    I can see no way in which her article would “provoke anger in people who are trying to serve God with zeal”, beginners or not. She found what I see as a nice median between self-discipline and freedom in Christ. She made fun of, ridiculed, and mocked nobody. She belittled no one’s desires to do good and serve God. In fact, she went as far as to encourage Confession and depth of intimacy with Christ.

    You said, “My desire is to encourage people to imitate the Saints and to practice our Faith with great generosity…”, but you only came across as combative and condescending. Again, you didn’t intend to be those things, most likely, and that’s my point: I think you misread her article.

    She does not attack monasticism, but merely asks people to examine (or let the Holy Spirit examine) themselves for inconsistencies and the like.

    As for skirts and knees, SOME are afraid of skirts because of folks like St. Padre Pio; others, because they’be been told they’re slutty or worthless and God is miffed at them for not having enough cloth in their outfit. This particular culture desperately needs longer skirts (heck, skirts at ALL would be good), but not out of fear of God’s wrath, but out of earnest desire to preserve the dignity of the “image and likeness” that is inherent in us all.

    No, Elizabeth is not condemning St. Kateri Tekakwitha. If I understand it correctly, she’s encouraging us to go deep enough with Christ that we are able to answer the question of “why” we might be kicking friends out of our lives, because there are SOME who would be doing it for less-than-holy reasons.

    You said, “I encourage you to spend some time reading the lives of the saints, and examine their tears, repentance, mortification, penance, strictness of life and then consider if this article would seem to be condemning them.” Well put, point taken. I would encourage you to read about the woman caught in adultery.

    All in all, man, as much as you seem to be concerned with how the saints would have read, interpreted, and taken this article, it would also be a good exercise and discipline to do the same before clicking “submit”. Every single time someone bears their soul, especially when they’ve admitted they’re coming out of years of anxiety, it is a wonderful moment and worthy of encouragement and compassion. I really, truly appreciate your dedication to Christ, and I will follow your lead in emulating the saints as best I can, so thank you for that witness.

  • Honestly Nic,

    I did not see the top part of this article in Italics earlier, either I did not see it or it was added later. It certainly helps my perspective of where the author is coming from.

    God Bless You.

    • Elizabeth

      I’m glad you saw the intro. I truly did not mean this article to come off as belittling or hypocritical. Both pt. 1 and pt.2 of this series was primarily a personal examination of conscience.
      -I have a deep respect for the monastic vocation. As I mentioned, Benedictine monks played an integral role in my conversion. I was talking about the cult where I grew up where a “holier than thou” mentality kept the community separated from the rest of the world. Catholic monastics, even those who are cloistered, are deeply immersed in the world. Through their prayers, they carry all the sins and sufferings of many they never meet face to face.
      -It’s true that many of the Saints lived lives of extraordinary austerity, and that is commendable. Others, though, were led by the Holy Spirit on a gentler path like St. Therese. For those of us who struggle with a fear of God’s wrath, the “little way” of trust in God’s Mercy is healing and sanctifying.
      -Keep in mind that all of the Saints were sinners too. They had their flaws just like us. Was it a good thing for Padre Pio to chase women out of the confessional? That’s between him and God. Would it be a good idea for all priests to imitate his example…probably not. Confessional lines are too short as it is.
      -Fear of God is a good thing to be sure, but it needs to be tempered by love. Scrupulosity is a very real, spiritual disease which doesn’t get a lot of press.
      Again, I apologize if anything I said came across as ridicule. That certainly wasn’t my intent. Thank you for the good work you are doing with your website. Blessings!

  • Marie Fischer

    “No judgment here. Now that we have that out of the way, take a look around the room…”

    Or we could pretend to actually mean what we claim to be doing (not judging) and look to Christ rather than pointing fingers at people who point out our blatant hypocrisy?

    “The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give Thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican.” Luke 18:11

    Now, reverse it. “The publican standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give Thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, fear-mongers, as also is this Pharisee.”

    • Tracy


      I think you have missed the point of the article (which has been of great encouragement to me) and that is to be cautious of why we’re doing our spiritual practices and whether we have fallen into the trap of binding up burdens for other men’s backs, too heavy for them to carry. At same time, I thought Elizabeth has done an excellent job of reminding us that sometimes people have genuine issues that lead to scrupulosity, etc.

      I am a convert of ten years and was immediately drawn into the world of the TLM through a prominent magazine and reading about the SSPX. At the same time, just a month after being received into the Church (not a TLM parish, there wasn’t one near us), our priest was moved and the new one was so extreme on the liberal end that he said he’d give communion to those outside the Church if he determined they were in a state of grace! Wow! (We won’t even start about the puppets at Mass.) No wonder I had such sympathy for the SSPX for years!

      Because of that experience and my own faith journey before becoming Catholic (and my perfectionistic peronality), it took me a long time to find truth, balance, and charity in my spiritual practices. This article was comforting to me as Elizabeth shared her experiences because it reaffirms my own journey and where it has led me and where I must continually be cautious. If these have not been your own struggles, then perhaps this hasn’t resonated with you. In that case, perhaps it would be best for you to simply allow it to speak to those of us who have been those pharisees and are trying to stay out of that trap again without condemning us because we have struggled and see others still in that struggle.

      • Elizabeth

        Thank you! You put into words what I couldn’t. It is reassuring to know that others have struggled as I have in their faith journey.

  • Jim

    ” 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.”

    First, I would like to say how much I enjoyed your objectivity. It is blissfully refreshing to see someone so genuine tackle this under studied phenonoma.
    For some lax Catholics however this shared background does not hold water.
    After 12 years of tutelege under the Sisters of Saint Joseph and Notre Dame,
    some of us picky eaters know why we pick and choose. Some foods contain
    allegens. I will not use graffiti to mar the overall beauty of the Church, but will
    say that the %70 who have left, or like myself, are C & E Catholics, play an
    important part. We are the Church’s conscience. The last time such a guilt
    trip was imposed it was a German monk who nailed a thesis to the door of a
    cathedral. The Church, in its adolescense, fell to (among so many other
    lows) selling indulgences. Today it would be unheard of to float such an idea that you can buy your way to salavation. Same too that missing Mass is the
    equivalent of murder, a capital offense, both worthy of hell. Pope JPII, in his
    clarification of missing Mass and mortal sin, upheld the one while dispensing
    with the other by saying that although it is, it isn’t mortal for those who do not have the knowledge (belief) as to how grave it is. Very true. A condition for any sin is that the person must know it is wrong. My point is, those clinging to the side of Mother Church know that there isn’t a better boat in the world even
    if there are subjectively better theologies in this beautiful eccumenical world.