Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Catholic Cafeteria Line: Stretching Now to the Right

A lot of people are discussing the Vatican’s decision to make it easier for Anglicans who are uncomfortable with the Church of England’s acceptance of women priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church.

According to the New York Times: “The Vatican will set up a formal conversion structure to allow Anglicans to preserve some of their liturgical traditions, including allowing married Anglican priests to remain married after they convert to [Roman] Catholicism.”

The newspaper also asks four religion commentators to respond to the question: “What does this announcement say about the [Roman] Catholic Church and its willingness to grant such flexibility?”

Following is the response of David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World.

Choosing Your Flavor

“Cafeteria Catholic” is about the worst epithet that conservative Catholics can hurl at liberals, with its implications of a pick-and-choose faith rather than a consistent fidelity to every jot and tittle of the catechism.

But after the news that the Vatican is effectively carving out a special church-within-a-church to shelter traditionalist Anglicans upset at gay priests and women bishops in their own church, one has to wonder if the cafeteria line isn’t forming to the right.

While both Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI have been known as staunch conservatives, they have in fact shown a remarkably liberal willingness to bend the rules when it comes to certain groups.

In 1982, John Paul made use of a novel structure called a “personal prelature” to allow the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei to operate in any diocese around the world while remaining answerable to the pope rather than the local bishop — an innovation that was not always welcomed by the bishops.

Similarly, when a traditionalist Catholic bishop, Marcel Lefebvre, took his anti-modernist movement into schism in 1988, John Paul (with the help of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict) created a special society that would allow defectors from Lefebvre’s movement to stay attached to Rome without giving up their old rites and views — much as the conservative Anglican converts can do now, even if they are married priests.

In 2007, Benedict XVI made another opening to the right by restoring the old Latin Mass to universal usage — over the objections of local bishops around the world — thereby creating two parallel rites in the Western church for the first time ever. (And Pope Benedict this week opened negotiations with the traditionalists who are still in schism in an effort to accommodate them, as well.)

For a church whose leadership has earned a reputation for reprimanding liberal Catholics who color outside the lines, these developments could be more than a bit frustrating. If conservatives can get special consideration, how about Catholics who have divorced and remarried but can’t take communion? Or those who back ordaining women? Or perhaps an exemption for the 25,000 or so priests who left the ministry in recent decades when they married? Many of them are ready, willing and able to return. Priest shortage solved.

Hey, Pope Benedict could be on to something. Some more, please?

Other commentators who responded to the New York Times’ question include the National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen, Jr., EWTN’s Colleen Carroll Campbell, and law and theology professor M. Cathleen Kaveny. To read all of their responses, click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Vatican in Bold Bid to Attract Anglicans - Stacy Meichtry and Amy Merrick (Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2009).
The Anglicans and Us - Michael Sean Winters (America, October 20, 2009).
Are Traditional Anglicans Suddenly the New Catholic Left? - Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, October 20, 2009).
For Canterbury Exiles, Rome Builds a Bridge - Rocco Palmo (Whispers in the Loggia, October 20, 2009).
Can’t Be Rome If It’s the Gays: Vatican Makes Burke a King and Welcomes Anglican Gay-Haters - William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, October 21, 2009).
Vatican Approves Married Priests - Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, October 21, 2009).
Angling for Anglicans - Crystal (Perspective, October 21, 2009). Assails Vatican’s Appeal to Bigotry in Effort to Pilfer Anglican Church - Wayne Besen (, October 21, 2009).
Irony in Catholic Outreach to Anglicans - Dan Rodricks (Baltimore Sun, October 22, 2009).
Converts May Choke on Raw Meat of Catholicism - Libby Purves (London Times, October 22, 2009).
Misogynist? Homophobic? We’ve Got the Church for You! - Jamie L. Manson (National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2009).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Episcopal Fundamentalists Take Their Toys and Run
When Unity Trumps Truth


Anonymous said...

I think Mr. Gibson is missing the mark here. The accomodations he suggests for the "liberal" wing are issues of faith or morals which the Church can't change. The accomodations given for the "conservative" wing, be it Opus Dei, SSPX, Traditional Anglican, are all liturgical or disciplinary in nature. These are things the Church can change and make allowances for.

As one example, Mr. Gibson suggests that people who divorce and remarry be given Holy Communion. Did he miss that part where Jesus taught that those who divorce and remarry are committing adultery? The Church is not going to change that teaching just to make people feel better.

The only issue he advocates for that is even remotely possible for the Church to accomodate on would be the issue of married clergy, as that is a disciplinary issue.

Br. Anselm Philip King-Lowe, OSB said...

I think this is a very interesting point of view. There are suppose to be no exceptions for the "cafeteria Catholic", but the church can certainly make use of such philosophies. Could this also apply to their use of "culture of moral relativism"? While it is condemned by the Pope, he certainly takes it upon himself (as do many Priests, Bishops and others a like) make use of it in their pastoral practices.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hmm . . . "issues of faith or morals which the Church can't change."

I'm sorry, Anonymous, but that's a total cop-out - not to mention a convenient way out of engaging with and responding to some of the more pressing issues of the day. Plus, history shows it's false. The Church had no problem changing the teaching on usury. That's certainly a moral issue.

This idea that the church is somehow incapable of responding to new insights and contexts is bad theology and reflects a stunted ecclesiology.

Also, even if you stick with "liturgical or disciplinary in nature" issues, so-called "liberal" parishes are still being told that lay homilists and inclusive language are a no-no. The "cafeteria line" sure isn't stretching these days to the left. Only to the right, it seems.

Of course, all of these problems stem from the fact that the church has moved beyond the egalitarian (and, yes, that means democratic) spirit of its roots. The model of absolute monarchy that the hierarchical component of the church clings onto so desperately is relative to a certain (and later) era. Perhaps it was required at that time and served a useful purpose, but times and contexts change. (Speaking of which, for my thoughts on Jesus and divorce, see here.)

There's no reason the church couldn't adopt a more democratic style of leadership. For as church historian Brian Tierney notes:

"The modern practices of representation and consent that characterize secular constitutional government are not alien to the tradition of the church. And if in the future the church should choose to adopt such practices to meet its own needs in a changing world, that would not be a revolutionary departure but a recovery of a lost part of the church’s own early tradition."

I say the time is long overdue for this type of recovery.



Mark Andrews said...

I've followed the Anglican's travails for about 6 years, mostly over at Kendall Harmon's blog (see

There is a great deal of background information missing from this discussion, background info that its hard to have without having participated in the discussion for a while. Many folks don't have time to do that, others don't care to.

One important point of background info I'll over is that the hierarchy of the Traditional Anglican Communion (sometimes called "TAC") opened their discussions with Rome by signing a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and sending it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. You can read Hepworth's description of this here (see

A reason for the accomodation is that one can at least consider accomodating someone with shared faith and belief. Conversely, no shared faith, then no accomodation.

Aaron said...


We simply have a disagreement of both opinion and facts then. On opinion, I would assert that my statement on faith and morals in the Church doesn't mean that I won't engage people and discuss the "controversial" topics. I just think at some point, it becomes a worthless exercise of beating our heads against the wall. You can rail against Church teachings on certain matters and desire to change them and I can defend those same teachings, feeling confident that the Church won't change them but where does that get us?

We can go round and round here. My opinion is that your arguments often show a very poor understanding of theology and ecclesiology as well. We just have very different understandings of what constitutes "good" or "bad" theology and ecclesiology. My first question regarding supposed new theological insights or contexts is "How does this new insight or context fit into the Deposit of Faith as handed down in the Church? Or does it really fit at all?" I won't take credit for those questions either. They are the basic ones the Church always asks as new theological concepts are brought forward. The problem is that you just don't like the conclusions the Church has come to regarding the theological novelties you push for. You, no doubt, disagree with much of what I have just said and that is fine. I just hope you don't really think, deep down, that the Church will ever become what you wish it to become or you will spend the rest of your life disappointed in this area.

Regarding facts, you are simply misinformed in stating that the Church "changed" her teaching on usury. I won't waste the space on your blog with the entire explanation but you can see either of these websites:

On a final note, I read over your link on divorce and I noticed something interesting. You cite Mark 10: 2-16 but in the actual words, you skip verses 10-12. Could that be because that is where Jesus explicitly condemns divorce and remarriage as adultery? 9-12: "In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;
and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." I'm not sure how you could possibly justify changing this teaching from the mouth of Christ Himself. Perhaps you believe He didn't really mean it?

I must apologize for not identifying my name prior, I hit the wrong button. I will include it here.

Terence Weldon said...

As Michael points out, your distinction is a cop-out. What, indeed, about those who have divorced and remarried - in the Anglican church? are they to be refused communion?

Any attempt to apply this with a degree of consistency is going to open up several cans of worms.

In the long run, it will surely demonstrate still further that much
as the hierarchs may try to pretend otherwise, there are indeed many interpretations and approaches in Catholicism.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Aaron,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. You're correct in saying that we're simply not going to agree on what constitutes good or bad theology and ecclesiology.

I also have to say that I'm totally unconvinced by the arguments against the reality that the church has changed its teaching on usury.

The issue as I see it is that many within the Church consider change to be undesirable - so much so that all kinds of mental gymnastics and word games must be employed to deny certain historical realities. I think a greater threat is the idea that certain church teachings are somehow above change. This is especially problematic when it comes to teachings related to the complex issue of sexuality.

As to the missing verses from Mark 10:2-16. What I reprinted was what was provided to me as I prepared my homily. I'm not sure why those verses were not included. I believe they should have been. Still, even if they had been included, it would not have changed my reading of the passage. As I say in my homily, Jesus was living and responding to a specific historical and social context. I don't believe that divorce always and everywhere is wrong.

And as Terence points out, that's a view held by the incoming disaffected Anglicans to Roman Catholicism. In 1981, for instance, the Church of England issued a statement which, in part, reads: "[The Church] considers that there are circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former spouse."

In addition, I'm sure that not all the Anglicans that will be now entering Roman Catholicism buy into the Vatican's stance on contraception. Yet they'll nevertheless be welcomed with open arms. Will they be allowed to dissent from that particular teaching and possibly others? How will the Vatican explain this dissent to those already within the fold?



crystal said...

I've been following this event oo (thanks for the mention). What I find interesting is that those accepted - the trad Anglicans and the SSPX bishops - do not actually agree on all matters of faith and morality with the Catholic Church ..... the Anglicans priests/bishps are married and they have signed off on divorce and (I believe) birth control, the SSPX bishops disrespect parts (all?) of Vatican II.

Mark Andrews said...

Crystal, are you referring to disciplinary issues or doctrinal ones?

I fully expect clerics in the Traditional Anglican Communion to be vetted individually before any prospective ordination as Roman Catholic transitional deacons, vocational deacons or priests. Those who have been married more than once will likely not be ordained at all, regardless of what role they might have played in their former communion.

Since the TAC clerics were the ones who petitioned Rome to become Roman Catholics, and since the bishops of that same body personally assented to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church by signing the Catechism, Rome is going to take those folks at their word, unless those petitioning for entry publicly say otherwise.

If people have doubts they need help resolving, that something they'll take up with their spiritual director and/or their confessor, just like any other Catholic. As to who serves as a director and/or confessor, and how that person performs their role, in truth your guess is as good as mine. My current guess is, if the TAC is as traditionally and conservatively Catholic as they claim to be, or hope to be, Catholics (I guess we can call them that now, or at least Real Soon Now) in that part of the Church may be expected to seek guidance from like-minded folks - not because they "must," but because it suits them.

crystal said...


I don't doubt you're right. I'm not up on the differences between Catholic and Anglcan doctrine, but transubstantiation would seem to be an important difference. If those of the TAC do believe all that we believe, why do they not just convert? It just seems odd that Benedict would accept the Anglicans after having said Protestant churches are not "real" churches,.

Liam said...

His acceptance of them is not saying the TAC is a true church at all: it's merely welcoming into the Roman Catholic Church with provision for a liturgical use and governance under personal (as opposed to territorial) ordinaries. To my knowledge, there are only two Anglican clerics who were conditionally ordained when they assumed Catholic Orders (because they could trace a consistent line to Old Catholic bishops); otherwise, all the rest have been absolutely ordained as if they were laymen. No married Anglicans (with their lives still alive) will be ordained as Catholic bishops under the pending plan; at least one TAC prelate who has had multiple marriages would be considered lay until his situation is cleared up, shall we say.

And I would fully expect that anyone from the TAC publicly advocating artificial contraception - especially in a clerical or teaching position - would be treated like any Catholic in a cognate position would be treated.

kevin57 said...

It will be interesting to see the specifics of the process for taking in the TAC, but if the SSPX is any indicator, the cafeteria line definitely extends to the right, but not the left. For all the efforts to welcome with a fraternal kiss the SSPX they have shown little, or better yet, no effort to "reciprocate." In fact, in their various publications they are cheering the fact that Rome is slowly, albeit surely, coming to its senses and accepting the "true faith." *Sigh*