Cafeteria Catholics: A dying breed

August 23, 2009

From Fr. Pelligrino:

In the first years of his papacy, Pope John Paul II made his first trip to the United States as the pope.  Newspapers and magazines carried articles about the Church in the United States.  Those bastions of spirituality, like Newsweek and Time, coined a phrase to describe American Catholics.  They called us cafeteria Catholics.  By that they meant that many American Catholics pick and choose what dogmas to believe and what areas of morality to practice or to ignore.  Those articles were offensive mainly because they contained a lot of truth.  In those days of over-emphasizing positive self esteem, children and Teens were asked what something meant to them rather than what it was.  So questions like, “What is the Eucharist?  or What is confirmation? would elicit as many different responses as the individuals answering, few of which had anything to do with the truth of faith.  The articles were also true when they spoke about morality, or the lack thereof.  People would say, “I’m a good Catholic, but I don’t believe in marriage.  Or, “I’m a good Catholic but I am pro-abortion.”

So there was a lot of truth to referring to American Catholics as cafeteria Catholics. Sadly, there still is.  There are many people who want to simplify our belief system and our morality to make it less demanding and more in conformity with a largely pagan world.  For example, many people have reduced the necessity to receive the Eucharist and end up putting the Eucharist on the same plane as a reminder of Jesus’  action, such as Holy Water.  No the Eucharist is not a reminder of Jesus.  It is Jesus.  But this takes a leap of faith, a leap of trusting in the Word of God.  Or on the morality side, many couples have decided that marriage comes after living together, not before living together.  And I can assure you, they do not want to hear the statistics showing the elevated percentage of failed marriages for those who cohabitate, or that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and that cohabatation is a public proclamation of the sin. Morality also demands a leap of faith, faith that living as a Christian will give the rewards of Christianity.

“But all of this is so hard.  Can’t we just tone down our faith, and our morality?” There is nothing new to this complaint.  We just heard the disciples voicing it to Jesus.  People were leaving because they did not want to take the leap of faith and accept the Eucharist.  Couldn’t Jesus tone this all down?  Jesus’ response was simple: are you going to leave too?

Truth has nothing to do with numbers.  Truth has nothing to do with surveys.  Truth is from Jesus Christ alone.  As I often like to phrase at the beginning of Mass, His Truth gives meaning to the very concept, Truth. 

Thank God, many of our young adults and Teens have rejected the concept of truth by numbers, and are fighting against the temptation to be cafeteria Catholics.  Empowered by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, these people are demanding a following of Christ that some would call radical, but that in reality is merely adhering  to the Truth.  Their faith is Eucharistic centered.  They are adamantly pro-life.  And they are finding meaning in the Lord.

And those of us of the later generations, the former hippie generations turned conservatives, look at the young Moms and Dads, the young singles out of college, in college and in high school, and we see great hope for our Church and, consequently, for the world.

But we also know, that all of us, adamant young and determined less than young, all of us are still tempted to go by the numbers.  So we are tempted to fall for the crock that there is a new morality.  We mess up our lives by falling for the lies of the pagan society and experiment with drugs, with sex, or whatever, under the veil of “This is now acceptable.  Or simply, everybody’s doing it.” The number of people who commit a sin, does not change the sinfulness of the action.  The number of people who stay away from regularly receiving the Eucharist does not change the reality of the Eucharist.

If following Jesus means that we are radicals, then let’s be radicals.  Isn’t it better to be part of a minority that has Jesus Christ in our lives than to be part of the crowd that compromises  His Presence out of their lives?

Joshua in our first reading couldn’t be concerned whether the majority of the people of Israel would choose to live as pagans.  He knew where he stood, “As for me and my family, we will choose the Lord.” Peter made his greatest profession of faith at the conclusion of today’s Gospel.  When confronted with the possibility of leaving Christ, he proclaimed, “Lord, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

It is all laid on the line for us.  We have the choice.  We can live meaningful, purposeful lives. We can possess Jesus Christ.  Or we can join the numbers, be part of the survey the atheists take to degrade religion, and lose ourselves and our lives in that which is not the Lord.

Yes, there are times that it is difficult to follow Christ. Following Christ means taking up the cross.  It means denying ourselves the passing joys of immorality for the eternal joy of living in His Presence forever.  Following Christ means being different than most of society.  Following Christ means being “holy”, for that is what holiness is–being different than all that is not God.

Back in 1925, the great English poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote about the people of his time who lived without God.  He called his poem, “The Hollow Men.” That is what life is without the Lord, hollow. You don’t have to go back to 1925 for examples of hollow existence.  The atheistic existentialists of the fifties and sixties, could find no reason for life.  The reaction to society presently expressed by those who embrace Goth demonstrates the frustration of life without meaning.  Many people live a shallow, hollow existence.  

But, we are not hollow.   We have Jesus Christ.  He gives us all we need.  I love the way Matt Maher phrased this reality in a poem set to music a few years ago:

I’ve been looking for a reason,
I’ve been longing for a purpose,
I’m losing all my meaning
I’m running out of excuses

Lord, it’s hard to know you
I don’t always see your plan
But holiness is calling me,
So take me as I am

You are my everything, you are the song I sing
I’ll do anything for you
Teach me how to pray, to live a life of Grace
I’ll go anywhere with you,
Jesus, be my everything.