“… In Name Only”?

by | Sep 18, 2020 | Formation, Reflections | 4 comments

The phrase “… in name only” is used often these days. Probably too much. Often with varying degrees of disdain.

In political contexts, we hear “RINO” or Republican in name only. Of course, there is also “DINO” or Democrat in name only.

In religious contexts, it translates as “Cafeteria Catholic.” This evokes the image of being in a supermarket picking and choosing what one wishes to buy… in this case what one considers essential in terms of being a Catholic. Who is a cafeteria catholic depends on one’s starting point.

We find it difficult to admit there is something to be said for truth in another’s opinion and that we are not infallible nor always see a bigger picture. It is becoming all too rare that we can listen to the truth of another’s views. We believe if the other is right then I am wrong.

We will defend our own infallible beliefs. But in doing so we miss that truth is many-faceted.

The whole truth

For years I have observed the connotation of “Cafeteria Catholic“ varying according to who is doing the calling and what the issue is. A classic case is one’s attitude toward the Pope.

In the 1960s and for the following 50 years I noticed that whenever the Pope said something related to sexual matters one group would stand up for strict adherence to what he said. Another group would say something to the effect that change was necessary. I always found it revealing that when the Pope would speak of social issues the groups would shift sides!

It became clear to me that people would invoke the Pope when he was saying things that they agreed with. Thus, the shifting support or questioning for the encyclical on issues of sexual morality (Humanae Vitae) and social justice (Mater et Magistra).  Few would say it, but the way one would rally around the Pope seemed to depend upon whether the Pope agreed with them.

Today those who used to take cudgels to anyone who disagreed with a Pope now often lead the charge seriously asking whether the current Pope is Catholic. And those who tended to ignore some Popes cheer on the current Pope. But the truth is larger than what they are willing to see and struggle to understand.

Recognizing tendencies in myself.

It has taken me a long time to become aware of how I read scripture. I finally realized that I read the scriptures with a “cafeteria” mentality. I would read the parables of Jesus as stories of what happened long ago. I would fail to see myself as each of the persons in the scripture.  Focusing on just a part, I missed the deeper challenge for me contained in the story.

I would fantasize myself as the good Samaritan. Indeed, there were many times when I have been. However, I would never ask myself when and how today have I used excuses and passed by my wounded brother or sister. After taking care of the immediate needs have I provided for follow-up care? Have I thought about how to make the road he was traveling safer? All these are parts of the truths contained in the story.

I also began to ask myself if I am a Cafeteria Vincentian. Do I focus on one or other aspect of Vincent?

Cafeteria Vincentians?

  • Am I concerned about the spiritual and physical needs of my brothers and sisters?
  • Do I work toward long term solutions as well as meeting immediate needs?
  • Do I balance working with the sweat of my brow and nourishing myself in prayer as Vincent did?

An earlier version of this reflection appeared on Vincentian Mindwalk.


  1. s.clara scherr

    Thank You for this reminder to examine my own thinking, acting in the face of the gospel.

  2. Larry Huber

    I think this has been a aspect of Christian life since the very beginning. Not all the apostles thought the same way, not all Christians responded the same way to the circumstances they found themselves in, not all of us agree on “fundamental” issues, as some have catalogued them.

    While we certainly enjoy a communal life of grace through the Sacraments and Liturgy, we are still individuals who cling to that Jesus we have encountered at some point in our lives, the primary draw that makes us come back to the Table to see what else there might be.

    The designation “Cafeteria Catholic” has a different connotation for me. No one can eat all that is available on the cafeteria line. We each have to select something that nourishes us and meets our personal needs. Some things on that cafeteria line might be deadly for me. I will not embrace them, but I won’t deny someone else from embracing them. Shrimp might be a great pleasure for you, but it will cause me immense discomfort and anguish.

    Jesus was far more forgiving of our individual weaknesses and uncertainties than we ever seem to be for one another.

  3. Ross

    Rom 13, 8-10 says that love is the fulfillment of all the commandments. So then, those who effectively and truly love also everyone who chooses the exact opposite of what they choose can rest assured that they are not “cafeteria Catholics.”

    • Ross

      Opposites loving one another, perhaps in the way that Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia are said to have loved and respected one another.