Pope John Paul II decried “cafeteria Catholicism,” being in the Church while not accepting some of its decreed tenets. He was right.
Even though I was raised Roman Catholic, I am not now and will not be in the Church in the future because there are too many stances that the Vatican takes that I do not agree with. I believe that control of reproduction is and has to be the province of women of childbearing age. I do not believe that abortion is definitionally evil, and that the decision whether any given abortion is morally defensible is between the woman and her God. I believe that everyone regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity is as much a child of God as anyone else, and are entitled to all the rights of anyone else. I believe that women are as spiritually capable as men to be priests.
People who hold similar views and remain Catholic have been scorned by conservatives such as Newt Gingrich. They’re choosing to take the easy path, the conservatives say. They have no moral judgment. They claim to be Catholic yet ignore what the Pope says. They’re “cafeteria Catholics.”
Then comes Pope Francis, who makes a centerpiece of his message stewardship of the earth, who calls for not just lip service but actual care of the poor, who identifies with immigrants, who repeats John Paul II’s call for the end of the death penalty. Who supports the Iran deal. Who has visited Cuba.
He’s the pope – so they are good with all that, right?
They hate his calls to protect the planet. They feel he has no business criticizing capitalism, or pointing out the danger it presents to the poor. They resent his call to welcome immigrants. They are angry that he has shifted the emphasis away from homosexuality and abortion and contraception, all of which John Paul II and Benedict decried. He should stick to “moral issues.”
Francis understands that all of the things he speaks about are moral issues. Jesus never talked about homosexuality, but he repeatedly called for the care of the poor and destitute. Conservatives who criticize the Pope for his economic message do not know their Scripture: in addition to Jesus’ care of the poor, and the sick, and the prisoner, the early church kept all things in common,* and appointed officers to take care of the orphans and widows.*
Francis has an understanding that valuing life goes far beyond abortion or contraception. Valuing life is taking care of people. Valuing life means not killing criminals. Valuing life extends from conception (if you believe that) to death, not simply conception to birth.
Francis is, in many ways, an example of what a Christian should be.
The thing is, all Francis has done is change emphasis. John Paul II spoke out against economic inequality, and the Church has been urging America to end the death penalty for decades. But the discussions around “moral issues” swamped everything else, and conservative American Catholic clergy have used those doctrines to, among other things, deny communion to elected officials who support a woman’s right to choose.** While not changing doctrine, Francis has expanded the conversation of what Christians should be doing in the world.
Francis understands that there is a connection between poverty and spirituality. If your children don’t have enough to eat, contraception and abortion look very attractive. Furthermore, rejection of the prosperity gospel, which views material wealth as a signifier of God’s favor and ignores the plight of struggling people, enables Christians to better bear witness to others.
Conservatives say Francis is a bad pope. Rick Santorum believes that Francis should leave “science to the scientists.” (I don’t know why — Santorum is willing to deny climate change in the face scientific consensus to the contrary.) According to the Washington Post, Robert Sirico, head of a conservative Catholic think tank, “says the Vatican shouldn’t be thinking about markets at all. Its job is to guide people’s spirits, not their purchases. ‘The church doesn’t profess to be an economic think tank,” Sirico says. “If that’s allowed to persist, it in effect dilutes the church’s brand.'”
It’s a faith, not a “brand.” Who’s the “cafeteria Catholic” now?
At least I had the courage of my convictions, and converted to Episcopalianism.
*Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 6:1-7.