Cafeteria Faith Doesn’t Fill
April 11, 2015 § 9 Comments
Catholicism was perhaps the first or the most prominent religion to be known for its half-hearted followers, where we get the term “Cafeteria Catholics”. But I think all religions have their cafeteria believers, adherents inclined to pick and choose which doctrines to follow and which to ignore. This of course results in an incomplete theology that inevitably leads to self-contradiction and irrationality. And it acknowledges no authority but the cherry-picker’s.
In my town, just this past week, Dowling Catholic High School refused to bring volunteer track coach and substitute teacher Tyler McCubbin on full-time(1) because he is openly gay and engaged to another man. Postmodern culture is ripe for a response of surprise and dismay to a Catholic school desiring to remain consistently Catholic by insisting that its faculty hold to Catholic teaching on human sexuality and marriage. And predictably, folks were surprised and dismayed at Dowling.
As a private religious institution, this central Iowa school is protected in principal by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and by the exception for religious institutions under Iowa’s Civil Rights Act(2). Legally, they are allowed to hire or fire anyone according to their Catholic beliefs, and they can require faculty to hold to those beliefs as a condition of employment. While the applicant may claim to be Catholic, his views of sexuality don’t line up with orthodox Catholic doctrine, so that puts him out of the running. Rationally, if Dowling Catholic High School did not limit its hiring to Catholics, that would open the school up to Methodists, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, or Atheists. Morally, if Dowling abandoned its Catholic principals on sexuality and marriage, it would be abandoning principals that the Church has held for centuries and the world has held for millennia—not to mention God’s original revelation in Genesis 2:24 which both Church and State have historically recognized. Legally, rationally or morally, Dowling’s stance is the only one that keeps the school consistently Catholic. Is Dowling’s cessation from orthodoxy what the surprised and dismayed crowd want?
The non-Catholic progressives objecting to Dowling’s decision probably don’t care how the school projects its faith. Their agenda doesn’t really require the pondering of theological consequences. They want to jump at the opportunity and check off another obstacle to complete allegiance to the new moral revolution, where erotic liberty trumps religious liberty, and religious freedom is synonymous with discrimination and bigotry(3) (Religious freedom laws will likely be the the next target, as the recent stink over Indiana’s RFRA law indicated).
But what about Tyler McCubbin? Or the hundred or so Dowling students who staged a walk-out to peacefully protest the school’s discriminative hiring policy(4)? Or to the Dowling alumni, presumably also Catholic, asking the school and the Church to change? Aren’t these religious folks pondering the religious implications of their protest? Here’s where Cafeteria Catholicism comes in.
McCubbin reveals his understanding of the theology relevant to his case when he summarizes the school’s position: “What’s so shocking is in an institution where they preach tolerance and love and respect for everyone, no matter what your background is, they don’t uphold to those teachings.” What’s really shocking is that he doesn’t know or remember that Catholicism preaches more than those three things about this situation. It also teaches that homosexuality, and any other deviation from God’s plan for human relationships, is a sin, that marriage is for one man and one woman, and that love actually requires speaking the truth. Those were left on the buffet, so this applicant is apparently a Cafeteria Catholic.
What is the ideal final goal these protests hope to accomplish? With the utmost cordiality, I respectfully posted a question like this on the new “Dowling Catholic Alumni, Faculty, and Students Against Discrimination” Facebook page(5). A couple students and alumni responded that their pie-in-the-sky would be a gay-friendly hiring policy and a “safe space” for LGBTQ students at Dowling. I then asked if any space would be considered “safe” if the school still taught that homosexuality was a sin, and how such a change in hiring policy would settle with students when it also allowed Mormons, Muslims and Atheists to teach at Dowling. Immediately the comment thread disappeared and I was blocked from the group. Contemplating the endgame was too much I suppose; with the holes in their theology, continued rational discussion was not possible. These students and alums are apparently Cafeteria Catholics.
Openly gay Iowa Senator and Dowling graduate Matt McCoy has encouraged supporters of Dowling to close their checkbooks until the school changes its policy(6). He says of his alma mater, “They have many faculty members that are divorced. They have many faculty that have been involved in extramarital affairs, they have turned their head to other issues in society.” To that I would suggest that another wrong doesn’t make those right. IF faculty members are currently pursuing divorce or involved in extramarital affairs, the answer should be MORE consistency with Catholic doctrine, not less. Where there is hypocrisy, the solution is not to grow it. Mr. McCoy is apparently a Cafeteria Catholic.
The teachers and administrators at Dowling Catholic High School are not perfect. (There was at least some inconsistency evident in the screening process that allowed McCubbin’s gay lifestyle to go unnoticed when he was subbing, though arguably substitute teachers have less of an impact on students and may see less scrutiny as a result.) As an evangelical Christian I differ with Roman Catholics over some pretty fundamental doctrines because I believe they contradict what what the Bible says, particularly on matters of salvation, purgatory, the authority of the Pope, and the sole authority of Scripture.
But in terms of living consistently with one’s faith in a country founded on that right, no religious institution should be held to a standard of perfection (“All have sinned and fall short” anyway—Romans 3:23), but we should see a present pattern of striving for righteousness, systematic theology, and resistance to compromise. For those quick to speculate on the past sins of Dowling’s administrators, do they really expect a Catholic school to further its inconsistency and give up Catholic teachings on sexuality and marriage? Some have expressed a hope that the Church itself will eventually change its opposition to homosexuality. But to expect a religious institution to change its theology on one or two things but keep the rest (for now) is to be totally okay with inconsistency, which is the appetite of “cafeteria faith”. Ultimately it leaves you hungry.
2) Chapter 216 Civil Rights Division (216.6, Section 6D)