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Cafeteria Christianity

The following commentary by Guyana-based Jesuit priest Fr Jerri Dias appeared in the September 8 issue of the Catholic Standard, the weekly publication of the Diocese of Georgetown.

The world witnessed a terrible protest in Charlottesville, USA when neo -Nazis marched in the streets with Nazi flags and torches. This not only stunned the world but also made everyone aware that the tendency to do evil is rampant in our society. A specific photograph of the protest that went viral intrigued me: the photo was of a police officer who seemed to be protecting the neo-Nazis.

I was dazed when I enlarged the picture to read a few Biblical references on a placard hoisted by a protester. One of the references is from the Gospel of John 8:31–47. This protester obviously seems to have Googled for an apt biblical reference to match his ideology of anti-Semitism. He had not done an in-depth study of the scripture to deduce what Jesus is speaking about.

In the above-mentioned scripture, Jesus and Jews are having a heated discussion about Abraham and his descendants. The Jews were aggravated to hear from Jesus that if they made His word their home, they would be His disciples, who will then learn the truth which will make them free. The matter of freedom annoyed the Jews even more because as the descendants of Abraham they were never slaves. What Jesus tries to explain is anyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. Sin will bind us but the Son will free us from sin.

Let me now come to the real topic of my discussion. “Cafeteria Catholicism” is the term used by Michael Jones’, Fidelity Magazine in 1986. Richard Holloway also used it in an interview in ‘Third Way’ in 2001, “You get cafeteria Christianity, a kind of shopping for ideas you approve of. They turned out to be right for the wrong reasons, because I think that once you admit that there are in Scripture large sections that by our standards are not just inappropriate but scarcely moral – such as the justification of slavery.”

The term, ‘cafeteria Christianity’ has taken root in the society today. I had written an article a while ago, in which, I discussed ‘Convenient Christianity’ or another term that I think of is, ‘Bookshelf Christianity’. One picks and chooses as if sliding our food tray along a cafeteria’s counter, referring to some Christians’ making a personal selection of Christian teaching. One picks and chooses the stuff that one wants and discards the rest.

The term implies that an individual’s professed religious belief is actually a proxy for their personal opinions rather than an acceptance of Christian doctrine. This is what happened when the Charlottesville protester chose that Scripture passage to match his ideology of distancing the Jewish community.

In his case, he chose to reject whole scripture and embrace only the parts that he liked. He would have left out the full Christian precept and tried to validate his advocacy of a different precept entirely.

In our post-modern times, the texts that we read have put ample emphasis on ‘cherry-picking theology’ where one chooses to propose an argument to sensationalise without adequate analysis.

Generally, cafeteria Catholicism is applied to Catholics who dissent from official Roman Catholic moral teaching on hot-button issues such as abortion, birth control, premarital sex or homosexuality. The term has been in use since the issuance of Humanae Vitae.

Cafeteria Christianity can also be applied to the people who choose religious duties as and when it pleases them, in other words, follow religious duties whenever it is convenient, hence, making God and His teachings negotiable according to our whims and fancies.

In this way, one limits God to only mere human faculties and does away with God’s incomprehensive power over humanity. It is important to be aware of ourselves and our relationship with God, so that we may not become cafeteria Christians; rather, we might truly be Christians and make Christ the focus of our lives, both in times of challenge and joy.

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