A long, long time before the term ‘cafeteria Christian’ was coined, the holy Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, had to deal with the lapsi. These were Christians who abandoned their faith –obviously out of fear of being executed or exiled– by offering incense to the Roman Emperor’s image. Naturally, after the persecutions ended, they were considered traitors since they were not ready to die for their faith.
Overzealous persons clamored for the ‘re-baptism’ of these unfaithful lot. But St. Augustine reminded them that once one was baptized, he was permanently marked as a Christian. What was important, whether in persecution season or not, was to discover how to begin again contritely and to strive to faithfully live one’s identification with Christ.
Now, identification with Christ is rooted in a simple invitation that is never imposed. Jesus’ job description for any aspiring would-be disciple is quite clear: …deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. The Cross thus becomes the evident and unmistakable brand of ‘becoming and being Christian.’
Bishop Fulton Sheen describes two interesting images of receiving Christ’s cross. During his time, communism matured into a rabid anti-human and anti-Christian political system. It was rapidly and violently spreading her errors throughout the world and was clearly aimed at eradicating what it called the people’s opium: religion. Thus, Sheen described Communism as a society gravely marked by the cross of suffering and injustice, but without Christ.
He then gives the opposing image to the Christ-less Cross. Unlike in communist states, people in democratic countries have undoubtedly embraced Christ, but without His Cross because it clashes with their materialistic and consumerist lifestyle. It is a situation that continues to prevail and is becoming more prominent today.
But without the seal of the Cross, Christ’s invitation will be unable to work the person’s conversion. Some have called this phenomenon a ‘hippy Christianity.’ It fancies togetherness, holding hands, singing songs and feeling good, etc., but without a hint of Christ’s Cross.
The term ‘cafeteria Christian’ does not exactly fit in with the previous categories of lapsi or hippy Christians. They don’t exactly reject their faith nor do they in certain cases take it lightly.
Moreover, we cannot overgeneralize the negative connotation in the label ‘cafeteria Christian.’ In reality, it would be unimaginable and ridiculous for anyone to enter a cafeteria, order and eat everything available. Likewise, I don’t believe there is any one Christian who can claim that he or she lives everything our faith teaches and demands. Besides, the doing everything isn’t all that our faith is about.
Nevertheless, the ‘matter of choosing’ is still the cafeteria Christian’s distinctive trait. Now what’s so bad about that? Aren’t we after all free to somehow customize our faith according to our personal situations? Didn’t our Lord give us this liberty to choose how to follow him?
Indeed, tailoring how we live our faith actually refers to making finer adjustments –obviously not with the objective truths and demands of faith and morals– to efficiently adapt it with one’s family, professional and social circumstances. What would not be right is to attempt to ‘re-program’ one’s faith to his own convenience and comfort. This doesn’t really affect or change the truth of faith itself, but when faith is taken in a diluted form, the person (not faith) loses the capacity to be authentically transformed into Christ’s disciple.
But what is more important than what and how they choose to live certain points of faith and morals would be why they choose to live some and forgo others. This will further enlighten us to understand what may have sadly led some to say ‘yes’ to Christ but ‘no!’ to the Church.
Despite this, we must never consider them ill-willed or lacking in generosity. Perhaps, their why is rooted in a ‘not as of yet’ –like the rich young man who was not as of yet ready for our Lord’s more demanding invitation of self-denial and carrying the cross– which impedes them, hopefully only temporarily, in embracing wholeheartedly God’s will.
Moreover, attitude may be tied to fine threads of worldly attachments, half-baked virtues, past fears and mistrust of authority, a lurking unknown cause of insecurity, ignorance of certain matters of faith and morals, etc. All these restrain them from fully giving themselves trustingly to God and His Church.
In time, however, if they trustingly embrace the light of the Christ’s Cross they will begin to sincerely seek the truth, slowly remove past experienced negativities and seek adequate guidance. And with the help of grace, the fire of piety, the Sacraments, sacrifice and virtue, their minds and hearts will be gradually enlightened and pacified. The cross will eventually give them the grace to take a more determined step to follow Christ and embrace the full consequence of being His disciple.