The Cafeteria Faithful

What is the appropriate way to council a cradle Roman Catholic who from her earliest years accepted the teachings of the Church wholeheartedly, but no longer agrees that certain RC-specific dogmatic beliefs are required for a Christian’s salvation?

Let us say that the disagreement is over one or more of the major “…believe this, or let him be anathema…” issues of Roman dogma: Immaculate Conception, papal infallibility, purgatory, indulgence, etc.

If that person – in light of all her RC formation and after much prayerful discernment, cannot retain genuine belief in such teachings – should she dishonestly ascent to them in order to be in compliance with the demands of the Church?

Or might it be better for her to – with a clean heart – seek communion with Christ through non-RC Christian community that does not require these beliefs under penalty of sin?

Or is there another option?


It is my understanding that a properly-instructed Catholic, whose conscience was properly formed regarding the dogmas of faith, commits the sin of apostasy if they subsequently reject those dogmas and depart the Faith. Such an apostasy places them outside the Church and under condemnation of hellfire. I believe the dime turns on the terms “properly instructed” or “properly formed”–if a baptised Catholic were not properly instructed, were their conscience IMPROPERLY formed, then there might be some hope that such a Catholic has not endangered their soul. A Catholic is responsible to God and to their own soul to hold fast to the deposit of faith, to avoid intellectual as well as moral situations likely to undermine, endanger, or compromise their faith; and to humbly pray and seek the aid of competant spiritual guidance if they are beset with doubts or questions, BEFORE such lead to disbelief in those things which Catholics MUST believe to be saved.


Recommend that she talks (an open non intimidating venue) with a very pastoral priest who is very knowledgeable and orthodox… knows the “whats and whys” of the faith…maybe even a canon lawyer…maybe the Vicar for the bishop…in other words…let her gain clarity of conscience…the unvarnished truth of her Faith…and know the stakes at risk.

Recommend this Gospel reading as a spontaneous prayer…an aspiration prayer…said over and over…till it is always resting in/on her heart…even without being articulated in her words:

Mark 9:23
Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)

23 And immediately the father of the boy crying out, with tears said:** I do believe, Lord: help my unbelief.**

My experience is that many like her don’t want to deal with the Truth of their own beliefs and lack of faith in Catholic teachings…and will avoid facing a simple clarity of faith and conscience…discerning where they really are in their Catholic beliefs/faith…and why…and be open to the workings of Holy Spirit in their intellect, conscience and will.

**Blessed John Henry Newman **wrote, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

[INDENT][INDENT]Blessed John Henry Newman Explains Faith Doubts and Difficulties
Share by Father Dwight Longenecker Friday, Sep 16, 2011 5:42 PM[/INDENT]

Read more:


No matter how it shakes out, I would encourage her to still attend Mass (possibly Holy Communion after she talks with a priest-confessor…but not without that sacramental conversation). Holy Mass is the most powerful physical action that she can take and even without a mind/heart seeking for conversion…she can be converted by the power of Christ in his Holy Spirit…by His presence in the Mass. This a great part of the reason why attendance at the Sunday Holy Mass is so strongly and uncompromisingly mandated by the Church in her great wisdom…Holy Communion? Confession?.. once per year minimum…but, Holy Mass once per week…in the Great Assembly every Sunday…seems somewhat odd doesn’t it. This is not just an arbitrary rule or mandated by happenstance…the knows that it is the Holy Mass…being at the foot of the Cross on Calvary…which sustains our faith and is the avenue for deeper conversion…on God’s time table…not the Church’s time table…not yours or mine…not even on the time table of the person struggling with their Faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The real challenge for her is integrity of heart and mind…God will take care of everything else…but without that integrity…he knocks but the door is never opened. Its really a good sign that she will in some way state openly her lack of faith in the Church’s teachings…many Catholics like her don’t…and go silently down the road to perdition…and can’t even get the help you are trying to give her…God bless her for that and Praise the Lord.



2087 Our moral life has its source in faith in God who reveals his love to us. St. Paul speaks of the "obedience of faith"9 as our first obligation. He shows that “ignorance of God” is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations.10 Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him.

2088 The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith:

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.

[2089 **Incredulity

is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. "Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him."11

Pax Christi

I’m addressing this question because I have long struggled with it from the other side of the fence. That is to say, I am drawn to Catholicism in principle, but there are issues (primarily women’s ordination) on which I have difficulty accepting the official position. Obviously the situation is a bit different for a prospective convert, because the bar is naturally higher–the default is always to stay where you are. But the principle is the same.

As I understand Catholic teaching, you should always follow your conscience. If your conscience tells you something other than official Church teaching, then there are two possibilities:

  1. Your conscience is badly formed; or
  2. What appears to be fixed Church teaching really isn’t.

Many conservative Catholics deny the second as a possibility, but it’s quite obviously happened in the past on a number of issues, such as, for instance, the execution of heretics. Pretty much any devout Catholic in the sixteenth century would have told you that the Church taught that heretics should be executed.

There’s a third possibility, of course, though the Church naturally isn’t going to see it as an option:

  1. The Church is not what it claims to be.

If the dissenting Catholic concludes that 3 is the case, then it would be reasonable for such a person to leave the Church. I suppose they could stay on the ground that they still believed the Church to be *a *Christian Church and simply wanted it to make more modest claims for itself. But that would be a difficult position to be in.

But if you think 2 is the case, then you should stay.

Furthermore, there is nothing “dishonest” about submitting your judgment to that of the Church, if it’s not a question of conscience. That’s where I am with the women’s ordination issue. I can’t honestly claim that it’s a matter of conscience for me, though I know it is for other people. Maintaining that women are fully equal in dignity to men is a matter of conscience, but I know the Church teaches that. It seems to me that given the Church’s teaching on equal dignity, and given various other theological considerations, women ought to be ordained. But the chain of reasoning leading me to this conclusion is fairly complex, leaving open the distinct possibility that I’m mistaken.

Here’s another way to tackle this whole question:

All of us rank our beliefs, even if we don’t think of it that way. All of us believe some things based on other things and would give up a “lower-ranked” belief if it conflicted with a higher. The question for dissenters, I think, is where they rank

  1. Their belief that the Catholic Church is the true Church
  2. Their belief that the Catholic Church actually teaches the objectionable doctrine in an authoritative manner; and
  3. Their belief that the objectionable doctrine (hereafter OD) is false.

To leave the Church, you’d have to put 1 below both 2 and 3. If 2 were at the bottom, then you could maintain your belief with a good conscience, even if 1 were ranked below 3. If 3 were at the bottom, then submission to the Church would be the obvious course and the relative ranking of 1 and 2 wouldn’t matter.

I believe that it is probably my duty to become Catholic, in spite of serious obstacles and many misgivings, because there is no Catholic doctrine for which the above condition (ranking 1 below both 2 and 3) is true. I certainly would not leave the Church if I were already part of it.


Every time I read a post such as this, I count my blessings that I have been able to submit myself in obedience to the Church during and through the process of my conversion.

I don’t come from a Christian background, so when I began to experience Christian conversion, I was like a sponge. I read and prayed with a compulsion I’ve never felt before or since. The experience of a “cradle” Catholic is likely very different, unless they also, as reasoning adults experience conversion. That is, I believe in order to fully give ones self to the Church is a two party deal. Most Catholics who I have met who are obedient intellectually to the Church, whether they were raised Catholic, or are later converts in the traditional sense of that word, have both experienced a spiritual “conversion” of some kind. At some point, and as an act of their own free will, they DECIDED to be submissive in areas where their opinions as culturally and socially influenced people differ from what they come to regard and believe as the truth of the Church. It really hasn’t come up as much as I thought it would, and certainly not as much as it has come up for other Catholics who I know, but in the couple of very small areas where I do still feel some kind of personal opinion bubbling up that is in variance with the Church teachings, I remember that I trust the Church, because it is the bride of Christ. It has met the criteria of prevailing against the gates of hell for 2000 years. It has met with, and dealt with almost every heresy and worldly opinion that can be hurled against it, and in the end, so long as it is Church teaching, (and not the personal opinion of an individual priest, or even a bishop), that it is truth. Because Jesus is the truth, it is His church, and it is protected from teaching error. This goes a long way with me. It goes all the way with me. I surrender my opinion as an act of free will, and choose instead of my culturally influenced opinion to trust the Church which has stood the test of time. If I don’t agree with something on some level (which again is blessedly rare for me), I can agree that the Church knows better.

This is scary talk in modern terms. None of us seems to want to submit or be obedient in modern society to anything or anyone, let alone a Church which we are constantly reminded by the culture has supported some bad actors over its history. It sounds wrong to us. It seems to grate against everything in us. But I can testify first hand that if you ARE able to humble yourself to the Church, it brings a type of bliss that was unknown to me before. It can be a challenge in conversation sometimes, but it’s a relief to either know the answer from direct cathecesis, or know where to look it up from a trusted source, and know it is the right answer.

Whether one should “fake it till they make it” or something along that line…I’m not sure. Having never experienced it, I haven’t thought about it too much and therefore haven’t studied that much, but if the Church has spoken on it as actual teaching, that would be the answer. The Church places great emphasis on obedience not just to the Church, but a properly formed and rightly ordered conscience as well. I can sleep at night having submitted myself to the magesterium. Others can’t. For some, it is probably an issue of conscience. I know…I know …even MORE facets rather than less. So why did I post at all? Just to say that if one is able to submit, after a time the reward of obedience is a peace with ones conscience as well. I’m just hoping in some small way that some observations from a different perspective may be helpful. If not, forgive me the space and time.

Yours in Christ,


A properly catechized Catholic will not leave the faith. But at some point in time they may question some of the doctrines and be disappointed with the Church. That may cause them to question their own belief and in extreme case may lead them to even leave the Church.

It is not so much about disagreement with the Church’s teaching because ultimately it takes faith to believe. Not everything can be explained in human term or explicit proof. If a Catholic begin to lose that faith, then his faith should be in question in the first place. There are many reasons to this. Among them, lack of prayer life, preoccupation with worldly things, personal relationship problem and a host of personal problems. The person therefore has to examine these areas honestly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit like meditation before the Blessed Sacrament.

Ultimately, every person has to be accountable for him or herself in matter of salvation. We can do as much to help and facilitate.

I can tell you an inappropriate way. Maybe counsel she is less than fully faithful or fully practicing. Or perhaps is somewhat dissident even. But never ever tell her she is not a Catholic or can not call herself one. Because based on the teachings of the Catholic Church she is. And to tell her otherwise might only result in driving her further away, perhaps to no return. And I don’t think if it’s a Catholic trying to counsel, that this would be the result they seek. God’s blessings and peace to all who walk in faith.

My dear brother Edwin :slight_smile:

Your no.2 strikes me as akin to what a younger Pope Benedict XVI once wrote in the 1960s, when he was still Fr Joseph Ratzinger and wrote a commentary on the Second Vatican Council in which he said:

“Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition…. There is a distorting tradition as well as a legitimate tradition, ….[and] …consequently tradition must not be considered only affirmatively but also critically.”

PS I do fully support the Church’s teaching on prohibiting women priests, although I am open to women deacons unless the Vatican ever rules on that as well, just in case anyone thinks otherwise :blush: I am - sort of - in the same position as yourself with regards to one other church teaching, although I keep this too myself and submit to the church, even though I have problems with it in this one area (I will not tell anyone what it is). The way I see it is that we are all imperfect beings, and therefore we are bound to have difficulties with certain revealed truths. Its a matter of how hard we try to adhere - God loves a trier, as they say, and will note our good intentions.

As per conscience, Aquinas insisted that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority. (Indeed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cites Aquinas on this point in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.) Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that it is wrong to not follow your conscience, as you are denying what you know to be true. Even if your conscience is misinformed, it is essential to follow your conscience in order to be true to yourself and to your creator. And so, according to this mighty theologian, it is sinful not to follow the subjectively right but objectively wrong conscience. And so a person is obliged to follow one’s conscience if one believes the judgment of one’s conscience is true, even if that judgment is objectively speaking incorrect. Aquinas said that as long as you apply the moral principles that your conscience has shown you, then you are following the correct course of action.

Nevertheless a Catholic has the duty of forming his conscience appropriately in accordance with revealed truth and he must be open to that truth and try to remove all errors blocking that truth. However if he tries and fails, then I think that he must make a private decision of conscience and trust in the mercy of God. God knows how hard it is for people trying to follow the dictates of their consciences.

We must though, assent to the Church’s authority, even if we privately disagree. Yet still, a Catholic must obey his conscience above all:

“Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after dinner toasts…I shall drink - to the Pope, if you please, - still to Conscience first, and to the pope afterwards…I wish for the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom…Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise…[Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ…”

- Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, (1801 –1890) from his letter to the Duke of Norfolk quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in, "Conscience and Truth"

"…Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. The conscience of the individual confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church. In all activity man is bound to follow his conscience… It follows he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor…to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious…”

- Pope Benedict XVI, Commentary on the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in vol.5

Vouthon, You quoted the pope as saying:

"…Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. The conscience of the individual confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church. In all activity man is bound to follow his conscience… It follows he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor…to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious…”

  • Pope Benedict XVI, Commentary on the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in vol.5

Since this thread is about cafeterians, would this mean that those who say “I don’t believe God is going to send me to hell for missing Mass.” are following their conscience in religious matters as the Pope indicated?

Or those who think the solitary sin of impurity is ok. I actually heard a catholic man in a catholic conference on TV actually say this before the whole auditorium of people. He said something like this, “Noone can convince me that this is a sin.” Is this following his conscience in religious matters as the Pope indicated?

Or those who are scrupulous follow their own conscience, is this what the Pope indicated?

Or so many catholics seem to thing that there is nothing wrong with birth control pills, and is this following their conscience in religious matters as the Pope indicated?

If these are not what the Pope included under his statement, then could you give me an example of one that he intended?

I can readly see that noone should be forced to sin against his conscience for any reason.
But this dosen’t seem to be what the Pope is saying here.

Could you give some further explaination? If not, I will understand because it is an egg shell question.

Just a question of clarification.

There is a difference between belief and understanding. Your friend is seeking understanding so that she can believe, and therefor has it backwards. It is a common mistake.

Belief is a decision. We make a concious decision to believe. We decide to believe, and then God give us light to understand. It’s not the other way around.

We don’t believe because it sounds good, or because it makes sense, or because it is easy. We believe because it has been revealed to us, and then God gives us light. That’s the way Faith works. That is the definition of the theological virtue of Faith in the Catechism.

Faith is not understanding. Faith comes first. The person should not abandon the Church because what the Church teaches can’t be understood, running off to a Church which teaches something that is easier to understand, but should instead accept what the Church teaches as revealed truth, and then God will grant understanding.

Faith comes first. We don’t abandon math class because it is difficult to understand and look for math that is easier to understand. We have faith that the math is correct and then seek to understand it. Faith comes first.


Thank you all for the responses.

My sister in Christ is more than thirty years my senior. She is in fact, older than my mother. She was responsible for leading me back to the RCC after many years away. I am convinced that her RC formation was consistent with the standards that existed when she was catechized as a Catholic school student in the 1960’s. For decades, she accepted the teachings of the Church without question, as did her parents and grandparents. That was the “default” position for her family: comfortable, effortless, safe.

I do not consider her a “fallen” Catholic. She attends the Tridentine Mass on Sunday, regular Mass several times a week, receives the Eucharist and confesses her sins regularly to a priest.

In recent years she has become interested in the history of the Church from its beginning in the first century to the present day. As a result, she is now aware of the sources of the doctrinal issues that were mentioned in the OP. That she may be receptive to cannon lawyers or “apologists” is totally out of the question. In her view, those of their ilk are culpable in advancing a distorted version of the true Christian Faith.


Well said.

Lack of faith does not seem to be the issue. God is a mystery of the highest order. What mankind knows of God was revealed through the ministry of Jesus on earth. Belief in God, as defined by the early Church requires faith. My friend finds no problem in professing the Creed.

But was it really necessary to invent a whole public-sector “machine” out of such a small sliver of revelation? What’s the result of the ongoing policy of employing a full time staff of politicians, legislators and lawyers? A catechism that seeks to define every stitch of divine revelation and dispel all “mystery”?. A penal code complete with sentences, fines and bail? More lawyers to prosecutors the offenders? Where is the faith in that?


:shrug: Good question. But my guess is authority will have something to do with their answer. I tend to find 2 types of people of faith. One type prefers to have everything spelled out. The other type prefers to use their own reasoning and mind to explore for themselves and consider other possibilities. They tend not to think that their human finite minds can possibly understand an infinite God. The latter I find are the people who keep the door more open.

An illustration which I’ve always enjoyed from Mormonism: “Iron Rod” believers versus “Liahona” believers. Both illustrations found in the Book of Mormon. The iron rod was part of a vision, wherein believers, surrounded by mist, in the midst of treacherous terrain, could only make their way safely by holding fast to a handrail (the iron rod). Those who did not were likely to be lost in the mist or perish. The liahona was similar in form to a compass; but similar in function to a GPS. It alerted the owner if they strayed off-track, and recalculated a new route. But it allowed greater liberty of motion in progressing to God.

I am a “high church” Episcopalian because I don’t believe the Catholic Church’s claims about itself. I believe it’s a valid Christian Church, but not the valid Christian Church.

I could be Catholic… but I disagree with too much. I would be a “cafeteria Catholic” at best, and I don’t see the point. But then again, I have mostly the same objections as Garry Wills (one of my favorite Christian authors) and he is able to remain Catholic, but he grew up with it and I didn’t.

I think growing up with it can make a difference. When someone is indoctrinated with “'the”, even one who eats at the cafeteria, might have in the back of their minds a fear of what if “a” is 'the".

Very easily I could be a cafeteria Catholic, I am pro-life, believe in the Real Presence, and the Theotokos. I also believe in the Lutheran Confessions. I could easily gloss over the doctrine that I differ with and join the Catholic Church but I would never do that. Either fully support the Catholic Church doctrine or leave, don’t lie to God, the Catholic Church or yourself.

If you knew how the Catholic Church answers the question of who is a Catholic, it’s not a lie when “cafeteria Catholics” use the term Catholic in the description of themselves. They are actually the ones following Catholic Church teaching and who are not “cafeteria” on that one. It’s the ones who deny them that right who are on that point, picking and choosing from the “cafeteria”.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit