Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cafeteria Catholics and Eddie Ben Elson

An article in the State Journal yesterday about the bishop warning his flock not to take advantage of the provision in the diocesan health insurance policy which provides for payment for birth control medications gave me a chuckle. I used to work with a couple of “Cafeteria Catholics”, who loudly professed their faith, but picked and chose which rules and guidelines to follow.

Sorta like one of my favorite Madisonians, Eddie Ben Elson, who ran for D-A decades ago (at one point, in the nude, on the stage at the Dangle Lounge, a long-gone local strip joint) proclaiming that he’d enforce “only the good laws.” The old-timers reading this will remember that Elson actually lived in McFarland, and was given to mowing his lawn in the altogether as well. And that he communed with a “beautiful, black, womanly angel” who told him back in a vision in ‘73 that the Comet Kohoutek would hover over McFarland, an astro-escalator would descend, and good people would ascend with him to escape the big oil spill that was coming.

Eddie was either prescient about the Exxon Valdez or the recent disaster in the Gulf, or lived too close to those huge oil storage tanks on the north end of McFarland.

As usual, I digress.

As I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church says contraception is immoral (for reasons best left unexplored here), and all diocesan employees sign a morals clause saying they’ll follow the church’s rules and teachings. A spokesman for the diocese told the paper diocesan employees would be warned about against using birth control, and failure to obey would constitute defiance and could lead to unemployment.

Since the founder of the Roman Catholic Church is not available to answer questions about rules, morals, and guidelines, the church often calls a meeting where the elders decide how the church feels about things. Like the meeting (First Vatican Council) in 1870, where they voted in the Papal Infallibility rule, a widely misunderstood ruling which many people erroneously think the Pope, when seated on a certain chair in the Vatican, is infallible.

There are still quite a few people of my acquaintance who are annoyed with all the changes Pope John the 23rd got started with the Second Vatican Council back in the early ‘60’s.

I’m OK with people who decide to follow whichever rules they like; I’m fine with people who are spiritual but not necessarily religious; I’m not OK with people who call themselves “good, practicing Catholics” but decide for themselves which rules are good and which aren’t.

Back in my undergrad days, in a group discussion during a mandatory 3-credit Ethics class, the consensus seemed to be “pure anything is F’d” – be it Rational Egoistic Hedonism, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, whatever. We decided as a class that we’d rather pick and choose the best from Kant, Mill,, and that to adopt all the rules and teachings of any philosopher was just not in the cards for any of us.

I guess there’s still a lot of that going around.


  1. Strikes me as curious that the affected Dioceses (Mad, LaX, and Mke) have not sued the State for this egregious trampling of freedom of religion.


    OTOH, maybe they're waiting for Walker and the (R) tsunami in the Legislature. Repeal is cheaper than Matt Flynn, after all.

  2. "I’m OK with people who decide to follow whichever rules they like' I’m not OK with people who call themselves “good, practicing Catholics” but decide for themselves which rules are good and which aren’t."

    Contradiction. Or is it only OK for non Catholics to make up their own rules? I don't know what the hell difference it makes to you, but since you don't like cafeteria Catholics, I'm done reading your blog.

  3. I remember the scene in "The Da Vinci Code" where the great Alfred Molina as Bishop Aringarosa rehearses positions on Opus Dei with a lackey: "We're not 'cafeteria' Catholics," he says.

    I also recall having discussions with a Jewish friend in an e-mail group about the various levels of Jewish faith: Orthodox, ultra-orthodox, Reform, Hasidic, etc. My friend is a Reform Jew. I indelicately asked once (me being a relaxed agnostic, more or less) what the point was to being a Reform Jew if one ignored or bypassed so many of the Mosaic laws. My friend was quite tolerant of my question, but not really forthcoming, which didn't surprise me.

    I'm sorry that you appear to have lost a reader -- though we don't know who s/he was. Perhaps that person is conflicted about his own Catholicism and can't stand any questioning.

    The Town Crank
    Neenah, WI

  4. First, rest assured that the indignant "Anonymous" will be back, if only to see if there was a response to the comment.

    As Crank suggests, the "cafeteria Catholic" appellation could work for a variety of folks who claim to live by rules or a code of conduct, but really tailor their ethics to the convenience of the moment. That's nothing to get steamed up over, unless human nature itself offends you.

    As for flouncing off in a huff after reading something disagreeable, here are some suggestions for Anonymous friend, and any others who might be so tempted:

    -- Avoid the rant. Threaten to quit unless the blogger tremblingly offers an apology. Simply quitting deprives you of the satisfaction of riposte and rejoinder. Consider how the great Winston Churchill chastised a writer who had ended a sentence with a preposition when he replied: "This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put."

    -- Never post while drunk.

    -- Post, then get drunk celebrating how great it is to be exchanging views and literary blows with people you may not even know, using the greatest communication tool since the invention of movable type. Is this a great country, or what?

    -- Laugh a little. Remember, even though the blogger is omnicient and his formidable reasoning is destined to change the world, it's only a blog.