Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cafeteria Catholic

At the very beginning of his book Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith, sociologist Jerome P. Baggett relates the story of "Bill," a gay man who lives in San Francisco. Bill's partner of eighteen years, Daniel, was a member of Most Holy Redeemer Parish in the Castro District. Daniel attended Mass at Holy Redeemer most Sundays, while Bill, who had long ago closed the door on his Catholic faith, preferred to sleep in.

Everything changed when Daniel contracted AIDS, and Bill became his primary care provider. This tragedy brought Bill agonizing stress and heartache, but it also introduced him to a face of Catholicism that he had not previously known. The AIDS Support Group at Most Holy Redeemer sent volunteers to help tend to Daniel's health and personal needs, which, toward the end of his life, required daily visits. Even in his grief, Bill was impressed by these people's witness to their--and once his--faith.
This was not the intolerably dogmatic "Churchianity" that had come to seem ossified and irrelevant to him. Nor of course was this the vicious "God hates fags" message he had heard while doing some church shopping before moving from Philadelphia. He found this open-hearted and open-minded incarnation of the faith to be very alluring. So much so, in fact, that Bill began attending Mass at Most Holy Redeemer not long after Daniel's death and soon became an active member of first the AIDS Support Group and then the parish itself.

Bill personifies the major theme of Baggett's book:
Bill's story might appear to fit the familiar "lapsed Catholic returns to Mother Church" mold, but Bill has not returned to anything; he has begun something new. On the one hand, he is quite the unabashed Catholic: "I love the traditions, and I love the mystery; I think it's a very, very, very rich religion." On the other hand, though, he is adamant about his freedom, even obligation, to mine those riches on his own terms and in accordance with his own needs....He calls himself a "very strong Catholic" but, without a hint of apology, eagerly embraces the pejoratively intended moniker "cafeteria Catholic" as a testament to his own religious agency and capacity for discernment.

Bill is an intelligent and thoughtful adult who has endured a great deal of suffering and out of that suffering has made the clear-headed and deliberate choice to return to the Catholic faith. This is just one choice--albeit a significant one--that he has made in his life; there have been many others. It is evident then that he does not require others to make decisions for him. As Catholic adults, we also do not need bishops and cardinals and Curia officials to make choices for us; in fact, according to the findings presented in Sense of the Faithful, even the most conservative of Catholics choose to interpret the symbols of the faith and the teachings of the Church in their own way. It does not take the IQ of a rocket scientist to figure out why even traditional Catholic families only have one or two kids.

I too love the tradition and the mystery of the Catholic faith. If it were possible, I would join the small group that arrives at my church before Mass every day and chants the Liturgy of the Hours and then I would attend Mass and receive Holy Communion. But I am also an unashamed cafeteria Catholic, just as I am an unashamed moral relativist.

In an article in America magazine entitled "Little Gray Cells," James J. DiGiacomo, SJ, tells the story of a woman who was upset by what he said in his homily at Mass one day as he had intimated that one of the reasons for the current shortage of priests was that "there are people who feel called but are not accepted, such as women and married men."

The parishioner (I’ll call her Virginia) objected to my bringing up the possibility of women being called to the priesthood, because Rome has pronounced any discussion of the issue as out of bounds. I replied that I was aware of this; but since I have yet to hear any personally convincing arguments against women’s ordination, I continue to wonder. And it was this very wondering that offended her! How could I, a priest, have any reservations when authority has spoken? And worse still, how could I even intimate such reservations from the altar?

Father DiGiacomo sees the disagreement between him and Virginia as a reflection of a more general search for truth in the Church today. "The question," he says, "is how should we search for the truth?"

For Virginia, the answer is simple. Listen to those in authority, especially the pope and those around him, whose judgments are final and not subject to review. The reasons they give for their decisions are irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the source. Her attitude is based on genuine faith in the vicar of Christ, confident that any pronouncement emanating from the Vatican comes from God. Any attempt to question its validity is tantamount to a rejection of the faith. But for me, and others like me, there is a problem. We have these little gray cells that persist in working even after respected authority speaks. We can’t seem to turn these cells off, and we tend to wonder, to question, to speculate, to evaluate, to criticize. In short, we can’t help thinking; and if those of us who are priests think out loud, Virginia and her friends are scandalized. She thinks our job is to tell people when to stop thinking, instead of giving bad example and continuing to speak when we have all presumably heard the last word.

I can sympathize with Virginia and other Catholics like her. They want their faith--and the so-called guardians of that faith--to show them the way, just as their parents, their pastors, and their teachers showed them the way when they were children. They do not want to have to agonize over moral issues or listen to their conscience, which can be capricious and can work like the devil. But there are those of us who believe that questioning and doubting are part of a mature faith and that it is in the questioning and the doubting that we recognize our own imperfection. It is the struggle to recognize and be who we really are that brings us closer to God.

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