A parable that connects to ‘Cafeteria Catholicism’

We need to invest in the whole truth of God’s revelation in Christ, not just those parts we like

By Bob Hunt

“The kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).

When I read or hear this parable, I can’t help but connect it to what some call “Cafeteria Catholicism,” or what St. John Paul the Great called “Supermarket Catholicism,” that is, the practice of some Catholics to pick and choose those doctrines they like and embrace and those they don’t like and reject.

There’s a foundational problem with Cafeteria Catholicism. A central doctrine of the faith, as taught by the Apostles (Acts 15:1-29), is that the Church is the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ. St. Paul himself says so in his letter to the Ephesians (3:8-12) and in his First Letter to Timothy (3:15). So, to reject a teaching of the Church is to at least question and possibly reject the Church herself as the instrument of God’s revelation. To reject the Church as the instrument of God’s revelation is to reject Catholicism. Rather than believing in the Church as God’s instrument of revelation, Cafeteria Catholics too often regard the Church as merely one voice among many, and that it’s the responsibility of the individual believer to sort out this snatch of truth from that snatch of untruth, essentially claiming that the teachings of the Church are arbitrary and optional.

A rather extreme example of Cafeteria Catholicism is that of a doctor with whom I once worked who proudly identified herself as an Irish Catholic and who would never think of missing Mass on Sunday. She also believed that there was no God. She didn’t see this as a problem. In her mind, her atheism was perfectly in line with her Catholicism, because her Catholicism had nothing to do with actual faith. It was part of her family history, her cultural heritage, and nothing more. The Church’s foundational teaching that ‘God is’ was optional to her Catholicism, just as is so much of the Church’s faith to many Cafeteria Catholics.

Yes, there is much that can and should be said about the development of a well-formed conscience. That discussion would take several articles. I encourage all to read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the formation of conscience (Nos. 1776-1802) and to discuss it with one’s pastor and/or spiritual director. But, suffice it to say for now that a well-formed conscience is a lifelong endeavor and is not a free pass to reject authoritative teaching out of hand.

If the Church is not the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ, then we are forced to conclude that either there is no revelation of God in Christ, or that each particular individual believer is the instrument of God’s revelation to that particular individual believer, and there is no such thing as the revelation of God in Christ. There is no universal truth, no universal gospel. Each of us is saved by our adherence to whatever we think God has revealed to each one of us personally. Which is really the same as saying that each of us is saved, not by what God has revealed, but by what we believe about God. This is dangerously close to the sin of Adam: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil” (Genesis 3:4b-5).

So, what does this have to do with the parable of the treasure buried in the field? You’ll notice that when the man learned of the buried treasure, he didn’t sneak in, dig it up, and steal it. Rather, he bought the field. To get to the kingdom, then, it is necessary to invest in the field. In this analogy, the treasure is the Kingdom of God. The field is the revelation of God in Christ. The one that “sells” us the field, or who makes it available to us, is the Church. The Church makes available to us the whole truth of God’s revelation in Christ. To get the kingdom, we need to invest in the whole truth of God’s revelation in Christ, not just those parts we like, or find palatable, or with which we already agree.

God’s truth is not always easy to accept. God’s truth isn’t meant to accommodate us; it’s meant to save us. It isn’t meant to make us feel good about ourselves by confirming the miraculous coincidence that

God’s truth perfectly corresponds to what I already believe. When it comes to the truth, especially God’s truth revealed for the sake of our salvation, it’s best to develop a will that is willing to let go of my own beliefs, even those nearest and dearest to my heart, in favor of conforming my will to the will of God, so that God’s truth becomes the truth of my life.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

Bob Hunt is a husband, father, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville and is a candidate for the permanent diaconate.

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