Conservative ‘Cafeteria Catholics’ Favor Opposition to Gay Marriage Over Health Care

The Roman Catholic bishops in New Jersey are using the power of their pulpits and the authority of the Church to insert themselves into the gay marriage debate. New Jersey recognizes civil unions for same-sex couples, but investigations into the equality of these legal arrangements has shown that they are not effective in ensuring that all state marriage rights apply to same-sex couples. Despite the intentions of the legislators in creating the civil union law passed in 2006, same-sex couples do not enjoy all of the same benefits of marriage and, thus, have second-class status. These findings have prompted a new legislative push for same-sex marriage within the state; debate over the measure will begin this fall.

To fight potential legislation that would provide marriage rights to same-sex couples in New Jersey, the bishops have joined conservative Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus that are aligned with right-wing Republicans. The bishops have asked parishes to read letters stating their position, and have instructed parishes to gather anti-same-sex marriage signatures to be presented to the legislature.

That may seem like an unsurprising response from the bishops. But taking a broader look at their activism (or inactivism) on another current issue is in order. By getting involved in this conservative cause while opposing or remaining silent on universal health care, the men ordained to leadership positions within the Church are behaving like the “cafeteria Catholics” they usually speak of with disapproval.

“Cafeteria Catholics” is a term often used by conservatives to describe members of the church who are not in alignment with Church teaching on every issue. Using this term, conservatives claim that liberals are too willing to pick and choose which teachings they will follow. But conservatives overlook the reality that the Catholic Church has a very liberal social teaching that places the dignity of the person at its core. This influences the way the Church teaches about aid to the poor, economic justice within taxation systems, and universal health care. Since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the Church has formally taught that a social approach to health care was necessary to ensure equal access for all. The burden of providing health care to everyone belonged to the society at large. Catholic Social Ethics has further developed this notion since the Council and consistently articulated support for universal health care within society.

Catholic Bishops in the United States, however, have opposed universal health care out of fear that abortion will be included in whatever bill that Congress might pass. Instead of proudly stating the Catholic tradition on universal health care and then demanding that abortion be excluded from public option benefits, the Catholic bishops have started from a place of opposition and, in so doing, failed to uphold a core social teaching of the Church.

Catholic bishops in this country have shown that they are only willing to speak out politically in support of deeply conservative causes associated with the culture wars (i.e., abortion and same-sex relationships). They are not willing to stand up for the liberal principles that have shaped the Church’s official teaching and the work of its theologians. In other words, the bishops are picking and choosing at the cafeteria of Church teaching and behaving like right-wing political ideologues.

The call to serve the sick is found in the New Testament teaching of Jesus. The Gospel is clear on the topic of health care when it states*, “distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” The principle of the Common Good means that merit is not a factor in health care. Followers of Jesus are called to defend the needy, not ignore them.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Bishops can pretend that marriage has been a universal principle within the Catholic Church for the last 2,000 years; but that would be untrue. The sacrament of marriage was the last of the sacraments to be established, and the Church has long regarded marriage as a lesser vocation than ordination to the priesthood. Strangely enough, the first systematic theology to promote the dignity of marriage came from Martin Luther, who established his position in direct opposition to Catholic teaching at the start of the Protestant Reformation. Today, over 90 percent of Catholic couples receive annulments for their marriages after going through the perfunctory request process. The same bishops who claim to be defenders of marriage in the same-sex debate oversee the tribunals that allow these annulments.

It’s important to realize that the official teaching on marriage in the Catholic Church has been written by men who have never been married. These men also teach that birth control can never be used by a married couple. Aside from the fact that much of the official teaching of the Church contradicts the understanding of healthy sexuality within the field of modern psychology, it is stunning that those whom the Church authorizes to speak on these topics have often defended, hidden, or participated in a system of sexual abuse that highlights their own deeply disordered relationship with human sexuality.

While the New Jersey bishops offer their theological musings on the importance of marriage and the need to defend it, we need to ask them to prove to us why heterosexual marriage needs to be defended against same-sex marriage. First, sacramental and civil marriage have been distinguished by the church for centuries, and civil marriages that do not comply with sacramental marriages have never been seen as a risk to Catholic marriages. Second, if heterosexual marriage is threatened when same-sex marriages are allowed, why do Massachusetts and Connecticut have the lowest divorce rates in the United States? These are two of the states that allow gay marriage, and marriages there (both same-sex and otherwise) seem to the most stable in the country.

The Catholic bishops in New Jersey and in the rest of this country have decided to align themselves with right-wing politics. The bishops in Washington DC recently launched a campaign similar to the one now being waged by their counterparts in New Jersey. This stance by the bishops goes against the tradition of American Catholicism and suggests that Catholics should decide their positions on social issues based on their political alliances and not their core principles. While conservative Catholic leaders have bemoaned “cafeteria” approaches to Catholicism, they are now prime examples of this behavior.


*This line originally implied that “From each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs,” appeared in the Bible. This quote, sometimes attributed to Karl Marx, seems to be an old socialist slogan from the 19th century. The sentiment is nearly identical though we do regret the error.

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Paul Gorrell earned his doctorate in Christian Social Ethics at Drew University in 2004 and co-chairs the Gay Men?s Issues in Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion. His essays have been published in Theology and Sexuality and Gay Religion. A former Catholic priest, he provides leadership development coaching and programs to companies of all sizes.