No, American politics didn’t create ‘Cafeteria Catholics.’ Catholicism did.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
CREDIT: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

What does it mean to be a “good” Catholic in the voting booth?

That was the question being batted about on Wednesday, when The Atlantic published a lengthy reported piece entitled “Why Only Cafeteria Catholics Can Survive in American Politics.” In it, religion writer Emma Green gives voice to an argument often repeated by centrist Catholics in election years: that America’s rigid two-party system, divided along deeply entrenched ideological lines, makes it impossible for rank-and-file Catholics to register with a party that matches all aspects of official Church theology. She argues this forces American Catholics to “pick and choose” their theology—making them dreaded “cafeteria Catholics”—resulting in a “diluted identity” for American Catholicism.

It is objectively true that neither party lines up perfectly with the policy priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which boasts opposition to both same-sex marriage and the death penalty in most cases. It’s also true that many American Catholics espouse beliefs directly contrary to those preached by the Catholic hierarchy.

But there remains a major flaw in Green’s analysis: claiming a Catholic identity and harboring views contrary to Church hierarchy isn’t an American invention. It’s the norm in Catholicism, because being Catholic doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with bishops, or voting the way they want you to. And it never has.

“Claiming a Catholic identity and harboring views contrary to Church hierarchy isn’t an American invention. It’s the norm in Catholicism.”

No one disputes that American Catholics, once a beleaguered religious minority beset by rampant anti-Catholicism reminiscent of today’s Islamophobia, flocked to the Democratic Party to support Catholic candidates such as Al Smith in the 1920s and John F. Kennedy in the 1960s. They’re certainly not the first minority group to do so; America’s brand of democracy encourages minority groups to form alliances and cling to one party out of self-preservation. The same could be said of today’s American Muslims, for instance, who switched from voting for Republican George W. Bush to Democrat John Kerry in one election cycle, and remain firmly Democratic—even though many express conservative sensibilities on several issues.


But claiming a single party out of political necessity is not the same thing as ideological/theological purity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church guarantees freedom of conscience for believers, and Catholics in America and elsewhere have long been willing to challenge the Church in the political sphere. To wit, the very existence of liberation theology, a deeply political — and deeply Catholic—movement that directly challenged aspects of the Church in Central and South America, is proof that devout Catholics can often be those challenging the Church, not obeying it.

Granted, if this sort of dissenting spirit was unique among modern American Catholics, one could plausibly argue that the United States has created an environment that bifurcates Catholics in unusual ways. But it’s not: In 2014, a global survey conducted by Univision found that most of the planet’s Catholics disagree with the church on birth control, abortion rights, divorce, and priestly celibacy. This corroborates with several other polls showing the leftward tilt of many Catholic-majority nations: a 2013 Pew poll found that 65 percent of those in Brazil —which is still one of the world’s most Catholic countries—believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, which is probably why Brazil legalized same-sex marriage that same year. In Argentina, which Pope Francis calls home and where 70 percent of the population claims a Catholic identity, marriage equality is widely supported.

“If this sort of dissenting spirit was unique among modern American Catholics, one could plausibly argue that the United States has created an environment that bifurcates Catholics in unusual ways. But it’s not.”

It would be easy to argue these “defiant” Catholics have sacrificed their Catholic-ness on the altar of politics or culture, but the truth is that their views emerge at least partly out of a distinctly theological debate within Catholicism itself. One need only look to Pope Francis’ recent synods on “family” issues to see evidence of this holy discourse, where the pontiff gathered hundreds of Catholic leaders to discuss topics such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and divorce. Bishops and laypeople offered differing perspectives—rooted in theology—on a variety of topics that arguably challenged aspects of existing church teaching, and one group of Cardinals even had to walk back a preliminary document that carved out a far more conciliatory spiritual approach to LGBT people. This in addition to several bishops and priests the world over who have openly called on the church to shift on homosexuality, or the multitude of lay Catholic organizations demanding the church alter its stance on abortion.

This is also why, when Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine said that the Catholic Church could change its stance on same-sex marriage, his justification was theological—not political.


“I think [the Church’s position] is going to change because my church also teaches me about a creator who, in the first chapter of Genesis, surveyed the entire world, including mankind, and said, ‘It is very good,’” Kaine said. He then cited Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” line, which was delivered in reference to gay priests.

“I want to add: ‘who am I to challenge God for the beautiful diversity of the human family?’ I think we’re supposed to celebrate it, not challenge it,” Kaine said.

In other words, if American Catholics are “cafeteria Catholics,” then they’re dining at a buffet prepared by the Church itself—not American election cycles.

This isn’t to say Catholic bishops are especially happy about this reality. A flurry of Church leaders have pushed for stricter enforcement of doctrine, firing Catholic workers simply for being LGBT and openly decrying Pope Francis’ intentional shift away from high-level engagement in the global culture wars. As Green noted, Kaine’s own bishop even refuted the vice presidential candidate’s prediction of a same-sex marriage affirming Church. It behooves established powers to insist that those who deviate from Church teaching are just that—deviants.

But that doesn’t make theological diversity within the Church new, nor does it reify the notion that there was ever a Catholic candidate the faithful could support without theological concerns or spiritual caveats. The very nature of American democracy is such that virtually all citizens are forced to sacrifice something on election day. The question is how much, how soon, and at what cost—spiritually or otherwise.

Admittedly, this legacy of Catholic debate may not matter this year. As Green notes, there is significantly less theological dissent among Catholics this election cycle, when the two forms of Catholicism represented by the two vice presidential candidates are far less important than the views of those at the top of the ticket. The 2016 Catholic cafeteria menu appears to be unusually short: As of August, Hillary Clinton currently enjoys a commanding 23 point lead over rival Donald Trump among U.S. Catholics.