“Jesus said to his disciples:
‘The kingdom of heaven 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.'”
Today’s Gospel, from the Gospel According to Matthew, includes the famous parable above. When I read or hear this parable, I can’t help but connect it to what some call “Cafeteria 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 Catholicism 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). There are other Scriptures that also affirm the role of the Church as the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ, and it has been a doctrine of the Church since the preaching of the Apostles (Acts 15:1-29) and the earliest Church Fathers. To put it bluntly, if we cannot have confidence in the Church as instrument of God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot have confidence in that revelation. So, to reject a teaching of the Church is to reject the Church herself as the instrument of God’s revelation. And, to reject the Church as the instrument of God’s revelation is to reject Catholicism. Rather than embracing the Church as God’s instrument of revelation, Cafeteria Catholics 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 un-truth. Rather than embrace the teachings of the Church as God’s revelation, Cafeteria Catholics regard the teachings of the Church as arbitrary positions that are ultimately 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. But she also believed that there was no God. She didn’t see this as a problem, or a contradiction in the slightest. In her mind, her atheism was perfectly in line with her Irish Catholicism, because her Irish 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 are so many of the Church’s teachings to every Cafeteria Catholic.
I wonder if those who claim the privilege of Cafeteria Catholicism, of picking and choosing which teachings of the Church they will embrace or reject, have any idea that what they are really rejecting is Catholicism itself, because they are rejecting a central article of Catholic faith, that of the Church as the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ. 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 not such thing as the revelation of God in Christ. There is only a revelation of God to that particular individual. 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. Which 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).
Now, let me make clear that I’m talking about the actual teachings of the Church and not simply the opinions of particular Catholics, even religious, priests, or bishops. Unfortunately, there are plenty of Catholics who are only too happy to offer their opinions on various matters as official Church teaching. This is why it’s important to know what the Church teaches, and even why the Church teaches what she teaches. This is one of the reasons the Church promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church, so that Catholics could refer to it as a reliable source of Church teaching. When it comes to knowing what the Church teaches, I recommend three sources: a Catholic study Bible (the New American Catholic Study Bible is excellent, in my mind), a reference to the teachings of the Church Fathers (I recommend William A. Jurgens’ three volume The Faith of the Early Fathers) and, of course, a copy of the Catechism. One of the advantage of being Catholic, in fact, is that the Church’s teachings are available to anyone who wants to invest the time in finding out what the Church teaches. BTW, the relationship between Divine Revelation and the Church can be found in paragraphs 74 – 100 in the Catechism.
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 treasure buried in the field, he didn’t sneak in and steal the buried treasure. 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 who “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.
What hope is there for Cafeteria Catholics, then? Are they lost? Are they heretics and schismatics bound for perdition? First of all, let’s acknowledge that we’re all lost. That’s precisely why Christ came to redeem all of us. Let’s acknowledge, too, that the admonition to “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) is a life-long effort for the best of us, and a goal that will require substantial mercy on the part of the Father when each of us stand before His throne if it is ever to be accomplished by any of us. Honesty ought to compel us, however, to recognize that, while those who reject certain truths revealed by God through His Church may be Catholic (I say “may” because, let’s be frank, one cannot deny the existence of God and be Catholic in any meaningful way), they are not yet Catholics who have embraced the fullness of God’s revelation. This is different from those who embrace the fullness of God’s revelation but fail to live it faithfully. That’s all of us. If we hold to the truth, given to us in the Scriptures, in the Church Fathers, and in the consistent teaching of the Church through the centuries, that the Church is the instrument of God’s revelation in Christ, then from a Catholic perspective, Cafeteria Catholics reject the fullness of God’s revelation in Christ. That’s just being honest. If you’re a Cafeteria Catholic, then, it would be good to reflect on why you reject a particular teaching, and how this corresponds to your identifying with a faith tradition that regards the Church as the instrument of God’s revelation.
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. (Honestly, how likely is that?) 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.