Aquinas Leaves the Cafeteria, Backs Away from the Trees

When the sixth Roman Catholic was appointed to the Supreme Court (Sonya Sotomayor), nervous liberals began asking how this would affect personal religious liberty for the rest of us. This does not appear to be a question that bothers most of these justices, but it cannot be because their personal lives evince a strong commitment to following every aspect of papal doctrine. On the contrary, they represent something that bugs both liberal and conservative Catholic leaders, a theological posture which could be called “cafeteria-ism.” 

We all know about “Cafeteria Catholics.” They love the liturgy and tradition. They want their kids to have some kind of structured religious learning environment, and no one beats Thomas Aquinas, even now. They like that going to mass in their older years activates memories of being roused, dressed, and coached by elders now gone from this world. But when it comes to matters of doctrine, they’ve learned to let their minds wander someplace else. They’ve learned to mumble certain statements, which isn’t as scary as when they absolutely had to go to confession and these dear elders — now departed — would oversee whatever penance the priest had established for that week. In other words, they have embraced the joy of personal religious freedom without leaving or challenging their personal beloved community of memory and hope.

Thomas Aquinas is rolling in his grave over all this. Logic is no longer the highest skill for deepening one’s Roman Catholic faith: what counts now is the skill of tuning out whatever parts one does not like.

The most egregious example of this skill when Clarence Thomas waxes rhapsodic about strict fidelity to the words of the U.S. Constitution as written by the founders, without noticing the irony that full implementation of his mandate would send him back to permanently unpaid labor, with no right to choose his wife, raise his children, read a book, or vote. In return for this complete erasure,  of Clarence’s humanity (he would not have a last name), his owner would receive, by default, an additional 2/3 of a vote for every such laboring, wage-deprived hostage.

You see this skill when the Court says that it’s fine to open public meetings with prayers, hold public ceremonies in spaces dedicated to and decorated to teach particular religious traditions. These rulings, in effect, call on the rest of us to ignore what we don’t like, just the way most Roman Catholics do these days, when the Church reinforces certain teachings — such as even married couples shall not use artificial contraceptives. 

Which brings me to the trees. I have written two blog posts now on the Hobby Lobby ruling, and in neither have I brought up the merits or issues of birth control. In both, I have been struggling to locate a systematic logic by which to counter the systematic logic which lawyers on the right are currently scooping treasure from recent decisions with both hands. My family always taught me that “you can’t beat a bad horse with no horse.” 

But lefties are stuck on the particulars of birth control. Does this apply only to certain kinds of birth control, and how much do they cost? Which employers are going to do this, and which are not? Which states will have greater repercussions due to lack of Medicaid for poor families? The justices have engaged in cafeteria-ism, and the left responds by failing to see the forest for this one tree.

There’s an old joke that only two religions take the Bible literally: the Baptists and the Unitarians. (Universalists preferred the Bible as metaphor.) Taking something literally means getting stuck on, bogged down in, its superficialities. Thomian theology — in which I have no formal training — says its all about the premises and the deductions. That is why he had to defend himself against suspicions of heresy by admitting that faith consists ultimately in agreeing to live with a few mysteries. Was it Schopenhauer who called it “a leap of faith” — I can’t remember that name, either. But I know that while I embrace the mystery of feeling for each person, when it comes to public policy, democracy calls for premises, deductions, and personal liberty to feel whatever you want without hurting anyone else.

That is how these skilled manipulators of cafeteria-ism are totally tying us treehuggers in thick knots. People, people, quit getting stuck on whether it’s a maple or an oak! Urgency about climate chaos only took hold when enough widely-spaced, differently active catastrophes appeared ever faster and faster on our tvs and gutted more than one state and national budget. The struggle for human rights will only take hold when “gay marriage” becomes “freely-chosen marriage” — and moves into places like India, Saudi Arabia, Uganda — with equal status in every economic stratum. Likewise, the powers to develop one’s best self with support from dwindling and more dangerous forms of employment and protect one’s family  from the depredations of the whims of management and owners have faded from far more areas than reproductive decisions.

Please read these posts for what they are. Unitarianism has usually flowered in protest against Roman Catholicism, but defended itself against heresy persecutions by refusing to enter into systematic arguments against the core of Church power. I am not arguing specifically against Roman Catholicism now: indeed, fundamentalist Protestants have become that institution’s energizing renewal.

But as with cafeteria-ism, so systematic thinking also appeals across theological boundaries. Some folks are followers — disciples. We love clear books of rules and practices; UUs counter this not with theology, but with calling on everyone to develop their personal potential for leadership. But that’s like asking the leopard to change her spots. Some minds just are not gonna do that. If religious progressives are going to peel off people who are made nervous by teachings they have been following long enough to examine, we need to respect that their brains will not replace a bad systematic theology with no systematic philosophy. This was the greatness of William Ellery Channing, of John Haynes Holmes. 

So take yourself back and read again what Channing wrote, as quoted in yesterday’s post. He specifically stated that his intention was to find and proclaim a principle that would apply to every type of person and personal situation. When you get tired of venting your rage and shedding your tears, when you’re more and more concerned that preaching to the choir results in a shrinking religion, perhaps then you’ll start to contemplate the value of learning our faith traditions as systematic theologies.


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