Rosemary Esmay has started an interesting discussion, the essence of which is whether one can simultaneously be a Catholic and yet pick and choose the tenets of its beliefs that you wish to adhere to. I take the “no” position on this one.

The essential element of Roman Catholicism, it seems to me, is the claim to unbroken apostolic succession of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. If you believe the pontiff is the infallible interpreter of God’s word on this Earth then you’re Catholic. If you think he’s a nice old man in a funny hat who renders judgments from which you can pick and choose as if in a cafeteria, you are not Catholic. By this definition, the vast majority of American “Catholics” aren’t Catholics.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Randy says:

    I agree. That is why I left the church, but don’t tell them – they still count me as one, I am sure. It makes them feel good to pretend all of us are still believers, when it is convenient to do so, of course.

  2. Dean Esmay says:

    Well actually it’s a bit more complicated than that, since the pope only very rarely speaks “ex cathedra,” meaning that he’s speaking directly as God’s representative. He’s otherwise the leader of the church, and you have freedom of conscience to disagree with him, within certain limits.

    It didn’t used to be that way, but the church is much more tolerant of dissent now.

    There’s also something very much akin to being a Jew to being a Catholic. Just as there are cultural Jews, there are cultural Catholics. It’s not exactly the same but it’s very similar. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say things like this: “Yes, I’m Catholic, but I don’t go to church or believe much of that crap they taught me as a kid.” I mean…. it’s weird, but there it is.

  3. BTD Steve says:

    As I understand it, the Catholic church places a great deal of importance (perhaps primacy) on the conscience of the individual – at least as to those matters about which the pope has not spoken ex cathedra. You’re not supposed to work actively against the church, I think, but at the end of the day it’s perfectly OK for a “good Catholic” to disagree with church doctrine.

  4. James Joyner says:

    BTD Steve,

    Interesting. Sounds suspiciously Protestant to me! If they’re adopting the Priesthood of All Believers, might as well fire the guy in the funny hat.

  5. jen says:

    Dean beat me to the punch on the distinction between practicing Catholics and cultural Catholics. I’d say it’s much more prevalent than other countries with large Catholic populations.

    Besides, Americans by nature pick and choose what they believe about just about everything, right? We are the cafeteria consumer of all things.

  6. John Lemon says:

    Yes and No (how’s that for a response?!),

    Historically, the Catholic Church has an incredible record of containing dissent. All those orders (e.g., Dominicans, Franciscans, etc.) that arose over the years evolved over disagreements in various interpretations of Catholic doctrine. Providing for a variety of different orders allowed the Church to stay remarkably unified for about 2,000 years. Of course there is the Orthodox split, the Protestant Reformation and that French pope thing, but in historical perspective the Catholic Church as a hierarchical organization, with followers scattered hither and yon, of allowing for dissent but remaining unified.

    On the other hand, the Church basically provides its followers with a set of theological doctrines that it must demand 100% loyalty to. The reason is that it is difficult to verify the quality (or veracity) of these doctrines. Maintaining a credible product requires them to assert the eternal truths of these doctrines unequivocally. To say, “well, we think original sin is kinda right, but might not be,” reduces the credibility of the Church. In other words, a “we philosophize, you decide” approach won’t work for the Church. Denominations that allow for lots of “cafeteria” choosing — particularly among the main tenents — are some of the most anemic denominations around. Think Unitarians (and the Episcopalians aren’t far behind).

    This is why I don’t think it is a good idea for the Catholic Church to consider married priests or female priests. Despite the doctrine relating to the composition of the priesthood arising after some 300 years in the Church, changing it now would signal that they are not so sure about certain “steadfast” doctrines. This would signal a weakness in the certitude of other doctrines as well. (I previously thought married priests would be good for the Church, but am now against it.)

    Finally, note that Vatican Council II tried to lighten up the Church. The result were disastrous. They didn’t pick up any more European adherents (as was one of the goals), many American adherents dropped off, and the number of priests and nuns entering the profession dropped dramatically. John Paul II has been trying to reverse this trend with some fairly good success. Mel Gibson probably has it right, at least for the institutional health of the Church.