Friday, March 5, 2010

The Problem With "A La Carte" Catholicism

Pretty in Pink
If you were to ask 10 Catholics what it means to be a Catholic, you would probably receive 10 different answers. I would hope that they would be 10 minor variations of the same answer, but I'm not so sure they would be. There seems to be a lot of confusion in modern society as to what it means to be a member of the Catholic Church. Before we delve into that, let's first take a look at the definition of the Catholic Church:

Catholic Church
- noun Roman Catholic Church
A visible society of baptised Christians professing the same faith under the authority of the invisible head (Christ) and the authority of the visible head (the pope and the bishops in communion with him).

An important point to glean from this definition is that members of the Catholic Church share the same faith. What does it mean to share the same
faith? That means Catholics share the same beliefs and values. Catholics are united with other Catholics in what they believe about God, and what it means to live as a Christian.

One of the most beautiful explanations that I have ever heard of what it means to be Catholic can be found in a highly publicized letter written by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., to U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy regarding the congressman's support of abortion rights. Here is an excerpt from that letter (the full letter can be found here):

What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right? Well, in simple terms – and here I refer only to those more visible, structural elements of Church membership – being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

Notice that Bishop Tobin says that being Catholic means that you "believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals". If that is true (and I believe it is), why do so many Catholics think, like Congressman Kennedy, that they can violate Catholic Church teachings and support laws that are in opposition to Church teachings and still consider themselves Catholics in good standing with the Church? Such Catholics are deluding themselves. The Catholic faith isn't like an a la carte menu at a restaurant where you can pick and choose which doctrines you want to believe, and which ones you don't. If you profess to be a member of the Catholic Church, and go against Church doctrine, you are not being "progressive", you are being sinful.

Catholics need to understand the difference between theological rules, and dogma. Theological rules can be changed, but dogma cannot change. An example of a theological rule is priestly celebacy. The Catholic Church currently requires priests to take a vow of celebacy before they are ordained. This rule could be done away with at any time by the Church. It is not unchangeable. Dogma, on the other hand, cannot be changed. An example of Catholic dogma is the belief that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is not possible for the Catholic Church to one day change its mind and declare that the Eucharist is only a symbol of Jesus Christ, and not his actual body. For a list of the dogmas of the Catholic Church, go here.

Catholics that disagree with a dogmatic teaching of the Church needs to seek deeper understanding of the teaching. They might come to agree with the teaching if they know more about it. Unfortunately, many Catholics think it's OK to disagree with dogmatic Catholic teachings, and take an "a la carte" approach to determining what teachings they believe and don't believe. The problem with being an "a la carte Catholic" is that it not only puts their salvation in jeopardy, but it causes scandal, both inside and outside the Church. When a Catholic publicly declares "I'm Catholic, but I support a woman's right to abortion", uninformed listeners might think that the official position of the Catholic Church is that it is ok for Catholics to support abortion rights, when in fact it is not.

If you are a Catholic, and disagree with a Catholic Church teaching, seek deeper understanding of the teaching. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you can pick and choose what teachings you want to believe of not believe, and remain in good standing with the Catholic Church. If you do, you're putting your salvation in jeopardy, and causing damage to the body of Christ, which is the Church.


  1. That's the problem with many who profess Christ as their Lord and Savior regardless of their church background. Say that you believe, but then not live out that belief. It reminds me of the man in Matthew 7 who built his house on the rock. This man is the one who believes what Jesus says and practices what he hears. So many, and sometimes me included, hear the words of Jesus, but do not practice them. Unfortunately, that's what Jesus calls the man who builds his house on the sand. One good storm and its all blown away.

  2. You're looking at this from the wrong side of the coin. This is a problem with religion in general. God ultimately serves as a justification for things you want to do, but can not justify logically. It's why holy texts are open and vague. Why else are there thousands of sects of Christianity? Ultimately the way a person interprets God is a method of justifying their personal gains.

  3. Paul, i read with interest your description of yourself and what you believe. All you had to say was that you have a closed mind and believe everything you were told. A grand pa who cares

    1. I have a couple questions for you, anonymous:

      1. What do you mean by "closed minded"?

      2. How do you know I believe everything I was told?


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