I was interested in the recent survey published at National Catholic Reporter that discusses the attitudes of Catholics in the US. This is the fifth such survey, sponsored by NCR as well as several other groups (see the bottom of the linked article). It is done every six years, and gives a snapshot of Catholics’ views of themselves in relation to culture and church at any one particular time. The survey results are lengthy and can be accessed via additional links at the page above.
What I was most interested in is the way Catholics understand what it means to be Catholic. Various groups of Catholics love to throw around the phrase “Cafeteria Catholic” to name negatively those they perceive to be “picking and choosing” their faith. There are often online debates – often in election years – about who is “Catholic enough” and who is the “real Catholic”.
Maybe the study suggests that “cafeteria Catholicism” is alive and well. I note, for example, the contrast between the numbers of Catholics that say the sacraments and helping the poor are “very important” to Catholic identity (about two-thirds), while about a third say that church authority is “very important.”
But as well:
Large majorities say that a person can be a good Catholic without going to church every Sunday (78 percent), without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control (78 percent), without their marriage being approved by the church (72 percent), and without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on divorce and remarriage (69 percent). Though still well over a majority, fewer Catholics agree that one can be a good Catholic without obeying church teaching on abortion (60 percent).
Lest we think that this means Catholics find the church to be irrelevant to their lives, the study finds that “More than three-quarters (77 percent) of American Catholics say that the Catholic church is important in their lives, with more than a third of these (37 percent) seeing it as among the most important parts of their lives, and an additional 40 percent regarding it as quite important, similar to other important aspects of their lives.”
By contrast, Catholics have a strong sense that belief in certain doctrinal views is more important than the way in which one lives:
For example, 40 percent say that one can be a good Catholic without believing that in Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ, compared to 36 percent who said so in 2005; and 31 percent in 2011, compared to 23 percent in 2005, say that a person can be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus physically rose from the dead.
What I see in these numbers is less “cafeteria Catholicism” but maybe something more troubling (especially speaking as a moral theologian): a divide between belief and practice, and between soul and body. There seems to be a strong sense that having particular beliefs is what makes one a Catholic.
On the one hand, I want to affirm that sense. I’ve always been suspicious, actually, of a charge of “cafeteria Catholicism” because it seems to suggest that there is such a thing as a “perfect” group of people called “Catholic. But in fact, I think the tradition would suggest otherwise. We are a collection of sinners – led by Peter, who surely sinned by denying Christ – but sinners always seeking forgiveness and seeking to forgive. Jesus talked about removing the logs from our own eyes in order to see clearly to remove the splinters from others. We are called, I think, to humility and a spirit of forgiveness.
What it takes to be a Catholic – to be a person starting on that journey toward friendship with God – is baptism, and to be baptised requires an affirmation of beliefs. “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” the priest will ask. “I do!” the potential baptizand is supposed to respond. Belief is important; sacraments are important; liturgy is important. Baptism makes us “Catholic enough.”
But the thing is – baptism and this statement of belief is a beginning, rather than an end, in this journey. Jesus asks us to love God and to love neighbor; what we say about God and what we do in practice are inextricably linked. If what we think about God is not connected to the ways in which we live life – all of life – there is a disconnection somewhere. On this blog, we take the time to write weekly reflections on Sunday’s scriptures because we see that there is a connection and we want to make that connection much more strong. So while I want to affirm how intensely important it is that the sacraments are part of Catholic life and identity, I also want to say that it isn’t good enough to end there and not seek to have the Eucharist inform the rest of our lives together – including our stance on the death penalty, our treatment of the poor, our stance on abortion, and so on.
Those issues are not simple ones; on many issues (like the death penalty) I know there is honest disagreement. But what is important is that we are willing to be on the journey with each other, to wrestle with the questions, to be willing to seek forgiveness and to struggle to forgive. What this survey didn’t measure – and couldn’t – was the degree to which Catholics are doing that.
“Catholic enough?” ultimately isn’t a very good question. Asking it only pits people against each other – the NFP users versus the artificial birth control users; those who are concerned about capitalism against those who see capitalism as the best economic system, and so on. But if all of us baptized are members of Christ’s body, then what matters is our striving together rather than trying to point out all the places where another member appears to be a cafeteria Catholic – rather than trying to remove other peoples’ splinters?