YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO TO THE CAFETERIA AT ALL
Atrios, Big Tent Democrat, and Jesse Taylor have addressed this E.J. Dionne column in other ways, but I want to talk about the following passage:
Those of us who are liberal Catholics have remained in the church for reasons beyond tribal loyalties or a desire to honor the traditions of our parents and grandparents. At the heart of the love many of us have for the church -- despite our frustrations over its abysmal handling of the pedophilia scandal and its reluctance to grant women the rights they are due -- is a profound respect for the fact on so many questions that count, Catholicism walks its talk and harnesses its faith to the good works the Gospel demands.
When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers and lay people. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.
What's bizarre to me about this is that Dionne gives three reasons for staying in the church -- good works, family heritage, tribalism -- and never mentions the Church's belief system. Is that really a secondary or tertiary concern for him?
Does Dionne share the Church's beliefs on the subjects of abortion, birth control, in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research, homosexuality, premarital sex, and masturbation? Does he agree with its habit of being awfully quiet when it expresses its objections to the death penalty, immoral wars, and the excesses of capitalism, while shouting about so-called sexual immorality from the housetops? Is he at all disturbed by the Church's habit of always managing to find an enforcer -- some local bishop or other -- to threaten any prominent pro-choice Catholic Democrat with denial of Communion during election years, or otherwise attempting to sway swing voters against non-conservative politicians? Is the second-class status of women in the Church really OK with him?
Or does none of this matter to him? Is it all about the grandparents and the tribe and the good works, with no real concern about the actual moral code? I realize that practically every Catholic in America is a cafeteria Catholic, but once you've left the old neighborhood, as Dionne has, why do you want to remain a cafeteria Catholic? You live in a big world. If you're liberal and your church is dogmatically conservative, if you're appalled by sexual abuse and you're church isn't, if your church regards condom use by a lower-middle-class couple with too many children as immoral and you don't, why not just leave? Because you like the charities? Write a freaking check!
But it's obvious why Dionne would cleave to the Church: As a Beltway insider pundit, he knows too many people who say that being a secular humanist would deprive him of all moral authority, and he's internalized that argument. And Catholicism is a marketing bullet for him as well: Yeah, I'm a liberal, but Sister Mary Discipline whacked my hand with a steel ruler back in third grade at Saint Ignatius! Also, like too many Catholics, perhaps he dreams of a changed Church, even though the actual Church has shown no interest in his kind of change. Perhaps he's clinging to the Church he imagines, not the Church that really exists.
This isn't like sticking with the Democratic Party if you're a real progressive; in that case, you know one of the two major parties is always going to control the White House and each house of Congress, and you have to name your poison. Religion is different. It's not binary. You can choose from a thousand religious affiliations or choose none at all. And you will if you have core convictions -- unless you see some other advantage in not bothering.