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Last Word - July 2009

Cafeteria Catholics

Stanley Hauerwas is a Protestant theologian and ethicist. He is usually thought of as a Methodist and holds a chair of theology at Duke University. In 2001, TIME Magazine called him “America’s best theologian.” “Cafeteria Catholics” is a term used for those Catholics who pick and choose which teachings of the Church to accept. The Pope and hierarchy generally have been very critical of such a notion, urging Catholics to see and embrace our faith as a systematic whole. I would not have expected Professor Hauerwas to be the most eloquent opponent of “cafeteria Catholicism.”

In a lecture at Duke University, Hauerwas was exploring the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. He said that he thought one of the legacies of the Reformation was “the notion that Christians can range over Christian tradition deciding what we like and do not like.” He then went on to say, “Protestants tend to have the attitude: ‘How much of this past stuff that Christians used to believe do I need to believe in order that I can still think of myself as a Christian?’ In contrast, Catholics tend to think: ‘Goodness, look at all the great stuff we get to believe.’ Catholics rightly understand they do not have to ‘believe’ X or Y as an individual belief since that is the function of the whole Church. What matters is not what I may believe, but what the Church believes.”

I like that. I like the idea that Tradition poses many insights and perspectives on the mystery of God as revealed in Christ Jesus. No one age or generation or culture or individual can grasp it all. Some ages are better at understanding certain teachings and other generations are better at understanding other teachings. It would be the height of arrogance and intellectual chauvinism for twenty-first century Americans to think they could scrap vast tracks of the inherited treasure of the faith because we are so much smarter, more sophisticated and advanced than other ages of the Church’s life. A healthier attitude is to acknowledge that our cultural and intellectual prejudices make it difficult for us to understand the meaning of some particular truth, well attested in the Tradition, but accept that truth nonetheless in humility, as a mystery, a foreign world yet to be explored. Hold on to it, even when you do not fully grasp it, in the hope that another age will again understand it.

The alternative is that each generation tosses out what it does not understand and within a few centuries there is nothing at all left to believe, for it has all been discarded. And, then, notions that would have been understood once again are not there for belief because they have been lost forever. And with that I end with a quotation from another Protestant minister, Alistair Begg, "Marry the spirit of the age and you will be a widow in the next generation."

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal