The term “cafeteria Catholic” has been used for many years to refer to the fact that Catholics tend to selectively prioritize certain aspects of Catholic theology and tradition while seeing other strands as comparatively less important to the practice of Catholicism. The phrase is typically used dismissively and has prompted some church leaders and observers to suggest that the church might be better off if Catholics who do not subscribe to the full orthodoxy of Catholicism were pruned from its ranks. The sociological reality, however, is more complicated. Catholic orthodoxy is itself heavily encrusted with doctrinal shifts, institutional changes and theological nuance, characteristics befitting Catholicism’s long history and constituting a pluralistic tradition that allows for more thoughtful individual autonomy than some might assume. Additionally, the doctrinal selectivity of contemporary Catholics is much more constrained by, and attuned to, the Catholic tradition than the cafeteria metaphor suggests.
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