In and out of the cafeteria

Father Dwight Longenecker writes some very sharp commentaries. His most recent is not one of them. 1 It is, alas, pretty stupid.

Fr. Longenecker says that “with Pope Francis the cafeteria Catholics are the conservatives,” but the equivalence is entirely false. Let’s start by understanding what we mean by “cafeteria catholic.” That term is an established pejorative with a well-understood meaning: It describes those who are in open, public, and systemic dissent from Catholic teaching: They reject the faith, or at least feel fee to create their own version of it, an à la carte ersatz catholicism by picking and choosing which bits of Catholicism they would take and which they would leave, while clinging to the label. 2 It is the actual rejection of the Catholic proposition or a pattern of behavior that is inconsistent with belief in such. 3 Longenecker knows this; in this very piece he acknowledges this meaning: The Cafeteria Catholics “pick and choose what bits of Catholicism they like[] and reject[] the bits they d[on’t] like.” And he relied on the same definition in faulting cafeteria catholicism last May. 4

While cafeteria catholicism is associated with liberals, there is no particular reason why conservatives could not be cafeteria catholics. Certainly the seeds exist: There are individual issues on which some conservative Catholics are at odds with the Church, paradigmatically John Paul II’s teaching on the death penalty, and one might think that the SSPX provides the closest thing to an example. To be sure, those issues have nothing to do with Francis, whom they antedate, and their scope is both narrower and shallower than the pervasive dissent that justified the “cafeteria catholic” label. (Again, cafeteria catholicism is not isolated single-issue dissent, but rather broad and systematic assertion of a freedom to pick and choose which doctrines one might follow.) But it’s not inconceivable that such a case could be made.

But Longenecker brings no such indictment. “They”—who, specifically?—”splutter and fume” at Francis. The mysterious they “disagree[s] with him about this and reject[s] his words about that,” “pick[s] him to pieces, refuse[s] to give him the benefit of the doubt and paint[s] him as a terrible pope.” Let’s suppose that all that is true: So what? The length and breadth of Longenecker’s accusation is that conservatives don’t seem to like Francis. So what? Whatever that may make they, it doesn’t make they a cafeteria catholic. It doesn’t even allege, let alone show, that they  rejects a teaching, let alone that they has made a broad-based rejection of teachings, or actually or constructively rejected the teaching authority itself. Saying that these allegations are a case that they is a cafeteria catholic is like saying that 2 + 2 = red. It doesn’t even rise to the respectability of being wrong.

So Longenecker fails to state a claim on the face of his post; nor is there any way to parse a viable claim out of what he does allege, i.e. they‘s supposed dislike of Francis. No teaching of the Catholic Church says that Catholics have to think that a pope is wise to grant a second interview to a man who twisted and misrepresented that pope’s words in a previous interview. 5 No teaching of the Catholic Church says that Catholics have to think that a pope has his priorities right, that everything he says is well-worded or felicitously-timed, or that he is a smart man, a good man, a virtuous man, or anything like that. 6  No teaching of the Church says that a pope is ex officio above approach—tell that to St. Catherine of Sienna! The Church does teach that we must obey the governing acts of a pope, being the supreme pastor of the Church—but Longenecker doesn’t allege that conservatives are disobedient to Francis, and neither does anyone else. The Church does teach that a “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will” 7—but Longenecker doen’t allege that conservatives do not show a religious submission of mind and will to Francis’ authentic magisterium, and neither does anyone else. And of course, an ex cathedra judgment must be submitted to—but Francis has made none. In that regard, Longenecker has not even managed to make an accusation as serious as the pretty unserious accusation made by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who at least alleged an item on which conservative catholics were supposedly and could plausibly be in dissent, to wit the “war on terror.” 8 That was silly, but at least it stated a claim.  

The basic problem is this: Longenecker can only show that there is a broad trend toward a conservative cafeteria catholicism (rather than narrow filaments and isolated pockets, at “best”) by relying on either (1) a false and contrived definition of cafeteria catholicism, or else (2) a wildly-inflated and ultramontane view of that which is due to the papacy that does not have solid footing in Catholic doctrine. 9 As to the first, even if it were true that the treatment that Francis is getting from conservatives is “just like [what] the liberals did with Benedict,” it wasn’t their treatment of Benedict the Great or St. John Paul II that got them labelled as cafeteria catholics, so that theory is simply irrelevant. As to the second, Longenecker is free to be an ultramontane—that is a valid, permissible opinion in Catholic theology—but he is not free to fault people as cafeteria catholics if they don’t adhere to an opinion that goes beyond formal doctrine.

Because a cafeteria catholic is, by definition, a person who has a broad-based rejection of church teaching, and because Longenecker has failed to even allege any rejection of anything taught by the church, let alone that such a rejection is broad or deep, alas, his column is, as the kids say, #fail.

Notes:

  1. Rev. Dwight Longenecker, The Rise of Conservative Cafeteria Catholicsism (sic.), Standing on My Head, July 31, 2014
    www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2014/07/the-rise-of-conservative-cafeteria-catholicsism.html (all web resources herein last visited Aug. 1, 2014).
  2. See, e.g., Gary Ferngren, Medicine and Religion 191 (2014); James Wehner, The Evangelization Equation 58 (2011); Jerome Baggett, Sense of the Faithful 24 (2009); Paul Lakeland, Church 83 (2009); John Allen, the Future Church 62 (2009) and All the Pope’s Men 200 (2004); Ari Goldman, Being Jewish 27 (2000); Eileen Flynn, Catholicism: Agenda for Renewal 121 (1994); Rev. Paul Duffner, Cafeteria Catholics, 46 The Rosary Light & Life, no. 4 (1993), available at http://www.rosary-center.org/ll46n4.htm. Wikipedia places the term’s origin in the mid-80s and it has ever since been understood by everyone on every side of every debate to carry the described meaning and derivation
  3. See Simon Dodd, The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA 80 (2012).
  4. Longenecker, What’s killing American Catholicism, part 3, Standing on my Head, May 7, 2013,
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2013/05/whats-killing-american-catholicism-3.html.
  5. The allusion is to Francis’ stunning decision to grant a second interview to an Italian journalist called Scalfari, who had previously provoked controversy by misreporting Francis’ words.
  6. Such a teaching would be laughed out of court if it were proposed, for the same reason that would be  a proposed teaching that the Holy Ghost chooses the pope through the conclave: The history of the papacy, as often sordid as saintly, alas, stands as an insuperable barrier to such claims. See generally John Julius Lord Norwich, Absolute Monarchs (2011).
  7. LG25.
  8. Micklethwait & Wooldridge, God is Back 203 (2009).
  9. Cf. Simon Dodd, The New Ultramontanes, 4 MPA __ (2014), available at http://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1318.