Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum chooses the Catholic teachings he likes and disregards the rest. (More)


The phrase “Cafeteria Catholic” refers to people who identify as being Catholics, but who do not follow all of the teachings of the Catholic Church. The phrase is most frequently used pejoratively by some conservative Catholics to describe more socially progressive Catholics who do not strictly follow the Church’s teachings against reproductive freedom, LGBT equality, divorce, and pre-marital sex. But the phrase can and should be used just as much to describe Catholics who seek to enforce Catholic views on issues such as abortion, contraception, and gay rights, while ignoring or even actively working against the Church’s progressive teachings on issues such as torture, unjust wars, economic justice, and the death penalty. The poster child for such conservative Cafeteria Catholicism is GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who is happy to use his Catholic faith as the basis for attacking reproductive rights and LGBT equality, but promotes conservative policies that oppose Catholic teachings on a wide array of other issues.

Conservative Cafeteria Catholics frequently try to excuse their refusal to follow progressive Church teachings on the grounds that issues related to the sanctity of life – i.e., abortion and euthanasia – are given a preeminent position in Catholic theology. And while that is true, the Church has also made clear that its teachings on numerous other issues should not be ignored. For example, in 2007 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document entitled Faithful Citizenship that addresses how Catholic teaching should impact the political views and activity of Catholics in the US. While that document states that abortion and euthanasia are wrongs that “must always be opposed,” the Bishops continued by explaining that those issues should not be misused:

as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed.
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Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture, unjust war, and the use of the death penalty; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; to oppose racism; and to overcome poverty and suffering. Nations are called to protect the right to life by seeking effective ways to combat evil and terror without resorting to armed conflicts except as a last resort, always seeking first to resolve disputes by peaceful means.

Yet Rick Santorum, and many other conservative Cafeteria Catholics, ignore these teachings and actually promote policies that are directly contrary to Catholic teaching. For example, below is a list of the Bishop’s statements from Faithful Citizenship on various issues contrasted with the policy positions taken by avowed Catholic Santorum:

Torture

As noted above, “Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to oppose torture.” Santorum, however, actively cheerleads for actions such as waterboarding that, while he euphemistically calls them “enhanced interrogation techniques,” plainly constitute torture. In defending the use of waterboarding and other torture to obtain information from detainees, Santorum went so far as to claim that torture victim John McCain “doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works

Death Penalty

Faithful Citizenship notes that “our nation’s continued reliance on the death penalty cannot be justified.” By contrast, Santorum voted against replacing the death penalty with life in prison in the 1994 Crime Bill and supported limiting death penalty appeals that death row inmates could use to challenge their convictions and sentences.

Climate Change

The Bishops were clear that Catholic theology calls for protecting the environment and addressing climate change, stating that:

Care for the earth and for the environment is a moral issue. Protecting the land, water, and air we share is a religious duty of stewardship and reflects our responsibility to born and unborn children, who are most vulnerable to environmental assault. Effective initiatives are required for energy conservation and the development of alternate, renewable, and clean-energy resources. Our Conference offers a distinctive call to seriously address global climate change.

By contrast, Santorum claims that climate change is a fraud, stating that it is “an absolute travesty of scientific research that was motivated by those who, in my opinion, saw this as an opportunity to create a panic and a crisis for government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life.” Similarly, in June 2011, Santorum had the following to say about climate change:

I believe the earth gets warmer and I also believe the earth gets cooler, and I think history points out that it does that and that the idea that man, through the production of CO2 – which is a trace gas in the atmosphere, and the manmade part of that trace gas is itself a trace gas – is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd.

To me this is an opportunity for the left to create – it’s really a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the earth is gonna cool and warm. It’s been on a warming trend so they said, ‘Oh, let’s take advantage of that and say that we need the government to come in and regulate your life some more because it’s getting warmer.’”

It’s just an excuse for more government control of your life, and I’ve never been for any scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative.

War

Faithful Citizenship explains that “Catholics must also work to avoid war and to promote peace” as the Church allows only for “just wars” as an option of last resort. Santorum, however, was a strong and active supporter of President W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and now he is aggressively promoting war with Iran.

Immigration

With regards to immigration, the bishops noted that:

The Gospel mandate to “welcome the stranger” requires Catholics to care for and stand with immigrants, both documented and undocumented, including immigrant children. Comprehensive reform is urgently necessary to fix a broken immigration system and should include a temporary work program with worker protections and a path to permanent residency; family reunification policies; a broad and fair legalization program; access to legal protections, including due process and essential public programs; refuge for those fleeing persecution and exploitation; and policies to address the root causes of migration.

Santorum’s campaign website statement regarding immigration prioritizes “securing” the border, while also stating his opposition to any program of legalization for undocumented immigrants. Santorum has referred to himself as a “Steve King guy on immigration,” referring to the Republican Congressman who is so virulently anti-immigrant that the House GOP passed him over for the chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration.

Health Care

The Church teaches that “Affordable and accessible health care is an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right. With an estimated 47 million Americans lacking health care coverage, it is also an urgent national priority.” By contrast, Santorum is a vocal critic who wants to repeal President Obama’s health care reform, which would extend affordable health insurance coverage to an additional 32 million Americans. Santorum has also publicly supported the idea that health insurance companies should be able to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.

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The simple fact is that Santorum’s shtick about being a defender of Catholic values is limited to a very small number of issues that share a common theme – using the power of government to tell others how to live their personal lives. When it comes to a wide array of other Catholic teachings, Santorum is silent or actively opposed to the position taken by the Church. So, next time you hear Santorum talking about Catholic values, keep in mind that he is a Cafeteria Catholic who is interested in only a limited number of the items that are on the menu.