Patrick O’Donnell’s wonderful post on Spirituality, Religion, and Philosophy here reminded me of the claim that liberal Catholics are “cafeteria” Catholics (a claim not made by Patrick). In the midst of the post, he observes that, “New Age devotees are also inclined to invoke a consumer preference model of religiosity, selecting this or that belief or practice from existing religions to suit their personal tastes, sans the forms of self-discipline, the nature of moral and religious authority, and the reliance on spiritual exemplars that are an integral part of commitment to a religious tradition.”
This is the comment that reminded me of the “cafeteria” Catholic claim. An important source of this derisive and dismissive claim is the view that such Catholics inappropriately do not follow the legitimate authority of the Church. Fair enough, liberal and traditional Catholics disagree about the scope of the Church’s authority.
But a part of the rhetorical bite of the epithet is precisely the consumerist orientation that Patrick points to in his post (the post is more broad-ranging than this issue). Liberal and traditional Catholics agree with the Church’s criticism of consumerism. The reply of the liberal Catholics is that they are not cafeteria Catholics, but Catholics of conscience.
Patrick would, of course, agree that it is possible to be a self-disciplined liberal Catholic, a Catholic that lives a life recognizing Jesus not only as a spiritual exemplar, but also as a moral and religious authority. Of course, it is possible to be a narcissistic undisciplined liberal Catholic, and many regard the whole idea of liberal Catholicism as oxymoronic (because of the liberal Catholic’s “protestant” conception of authority). Moreover, the suggestion about consumerism may be on the mark for many (including some who are self deceived). But the term “cafeteria” Catholic draws some of its rhetorical force from a consumerist charge that is unfair in too many cases.