President Biden’s Cafeteria Is Open to Everyone


Wilton Cardinal Gregory, who is the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., recently called President Joe Biden a “cafeteria Catholic.” That means he follows some elements of his Catholic faith, but chooses to ignore others. “There is a phrase that we have used in the past, a ‘cafeteria Catholic,’ you choose that which is attractive, and dismiss that which is challenging.” Bishops, who lead the Catholic Church, would prefer that all Catholics follow all elements of the Catholic religion.

Biden is usually criticized for supporting abortion rights. He also supports LGBTQ+ equality, transgender rights, and contraception. These are choices that the bishops and some Catholics oppose.

Being called a “cafeteria Catholic” is supposed to be an insult. I remember an earlier cafeteria Catholic, Governor Mario Cuomo of New York. He spoke at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, in 1984. His text was entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective.” Abortion was among the subjects he covered.

Governor Mario Cuomo

Cuomo noted, “newspaper accounts had created the impression in some quarters that official church spokespeople would ask Catholics to vote for or against specific candidates on the basis of their political position on the abortion issue.” To that, Cuomo responded, “Now all of us are saying one thing—in chorus—reiterating the statement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that they will not ‘take positions for or against political candidates’ and that their stand on specific issues should not be perceived ‘as an expression of political partisanship.’” And then he added, the bishops “have said they will not use the power of their position, and the great respect it receives from all Catholics, to give an imprimatur to individual politicians or parties.”

Cuomo spoke as a politician and lawyer, and explicitly not as a theologian or a philosopher. He talked as a loyal member of the Catholic Church. Being a Catholic politician could be hard, he noted, in a pluralistic society like the United States. The “Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy—who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics—bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones—sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion.”

Cuomo explained that he “gladly” took an oath to support the Constitution, because its freedom also protected Catholic freedom of religion, “our right to pray, to use the sacraments, to refuse birth control devices, to reject abortion, not to divorce and remarry if we believe it to be wrong.” American history teaches Catholics, he said, that if they are to have freedom, others must have freedom to do even things that Catholics think are sinful. He then defended his right to advocate against contraception and abortion if he thought the whole community would do better if they were illegal. He repeated the difficulties of complying with everything the bishops said, including economic and war and peace issues as well as sexual ones.

Because we are a country of many religions, not just one, Cuomo argued, public morality “depends on a consensus view of right and wrong.” He believes agnostics have joined religious people in working for civil rights. He admitted, “‘Yes’ we create our public morality through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But ‘no,’ all religiously based values don’t have an a priori place in our public morality.” Instead, the community decides public policy and how it restricts or favors freedom.

Cuomo opposed the idea of a Christian nation, and said Christians and non-Christians should do that too. “God should not be made into a celestial party chairman.” Politics is not a “matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.” Cuomo noted that he worked with the American Lutheran Church, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, B’nai B’rith Women, and the Women of the Episcopal Church. Politicians have to be practical, and he said banning abortion “would be ‘Prohibition’ revisited, legislating what couldn’t be enforced and in the process creating a disrespect for law in general.” Instead, Catholics should work for rights for mothers and children, giving families the best possibilities for raising their children, while acknowledging the law.

Other Cafeteria Catholics

Not all Catholics are cafeteria Catholics. One writer noted that Supreme Court Justice “Antonin Scalia was a truly devout Catholic—not a cafeteria Catholic, not a Christmas and Easter Catholic, not even a once a week Sunday Catholic.”

However, many others were. In 1984, Catholic Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic nominee for vice president and was criticized for supporting legal abortion. In 1990, John Cardinal O’Connor threatened excommunication of Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights. In 2003, Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley told abortion supporters to stop receiving communion. In 2004, Catholic presidential candidate John Kerry was refused communion because of his support of abortion rights. In 2005, Pope Benedict “decrie[d] ‘cafeteria Catholicism,’” and cited Pope John Paul II in support of that conclusion.

And now there is Biden. In 2020, Bishop Gregory did not refuse communion to Joe Biden. Other bishops have argued that Biden must be denied communion, although the Vatican warned against using communion as a political punishment.

The reason these leaders got so much criticism is that they were all cafeteria Catholics, who were not obedient enough to the church. Sometimes the blame goes to the first Catholic president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. Others have said “Mario Cuomo is dead, yes. But ‘Cuomo Catholicism’ will likely long outlast him.” Joe Biden is proof of that.

Cafeteria Catholicism Is Good

But cafeteria Catholicism is a good thing. Why? Think of what Cuomo defended. The Constitution, pluralism, dignity, freedom, rights, prudence, and disagreement.

Many years ago, when I was a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, I studied the work of John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit priest who convinced the Roman Catholic Church to change its teaching on religious liberty so that everyone could enjoy it. His book, We Hold These Truths, was released before the 1960 election to give its readers the idea that Catholics accepted pluralism. Murray believed that political and legal discourse and decision-making should be conducted according to norms accessible to all citizens, i.e., according to what he called the natural law. Pluralism meant that people could not agree if they all argued their religions; instead, they had to find common norms based on consensus.

Catholics, for example, should live the church’s teaching against contraception. But they should not vote that ban into law, because opposition to contraception was not shared in the consensus. Many religious believers supported contraception. The state should not ban something Catholics opposed, but others accepted as right. Murray said religious and moral pluralism meant that Catholics could not ask the state to criminalize contraception for everyone. As he recommended, “out of their understanding of the distinction between morality and law and between public and private morality, and out of their understanding of religious freedom, Catholics repudiate in principle a resort to the coercive instrument of law to enforce upon the whole community moral standards that the community itself does not commonly accept.” As he kept saying, “It is difficult to see how the state can forbid, as contrary to public morality, a practice that numerous religious leaders approve as morally right.”

Catholics may participate in the overlapping consensus. They should not expect their religion to become the law of the United States. That is a lesson from John Courtney Murray.

Murray died in 1967, before Pope Paul VI issued his famous letter against contraception and the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. Cafeteria Catholics are living some of the insights of Murray’s experience. They are not having abortions. But they recognize that all religions do not agree about abortion. Many Jews, for example, support laws allowing abortion for religious reasons. An Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled that the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not allow the state to impose its abortion restrictions on religious women. Think of the lesson of that ruling. We do not live by laws subscribed by each other’s religion. Jews must not be ordered to obey Christian theology. We should be governed by consensus.

President Joseph Biden, like Fr. John Courtney Murray, Governor Mario Cuomo, and President John F. Kennedy, is trying to base his rule on consensus. Religions have always disagreed about abortion. Some people oppose LGBTQ+ rights, trying to keep gays and lesbians from the equality our laws promise. Numerous people still, after all these years, oppose women’s use of contraception.

Cafeteria Catholics do not. They want a consensus that protects everyone, not a rule that orders everyone to be Catholic. They make excellent politicians for everyone, not just for Catholic bishops. Welcome to Joe Biden’s cafeteria!

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