It has often been argued that the problem of so-called “cafeteria” Catholics is poor catechesis. This may be so. But not in the way most people mean it. Most people mean that if these people had just been taught the doctrines of the faith properly, they wouldn’t be so antagonistic to the Church, or so dismissive of the teaching authority of the Church, or so darn lukewarm about attending mass. The underlying assumption is that the problem is one of the intellect.
While there may be some such Catholics who might change their minds regarding abortion, or contraception, or infallibility if only the doctrines were better explained to them, most Catholics who disagree with these, and other, doctrines understand well enough why the Church teaches what it teaches, but they still refuse to accept them. So if they understand on an intellectual level the general reasons for a doctrine, why do some Catholics accept doctrine and others reject it? The answer is that the fundamental obstacle lies not with the intellect, but with the will. One can provide all manner of logical arguments for accepting a given doctrine as true, but if the will is not predisposed to divine truth, the arguments will not matter one bit. When the will is turned against divine truth, and thus focused on the self, the intellect tows the line, defending the desires of the will at all costs.
St. Thomas explains that faith is an act of the intellect assenting to divine truth through the movement of the will. What moves the will toward faith? Grace, of course. The gift of God’s very life moves our will toward him, and if we allow that process to develop, eventually our intellect will acquiesce to divine truth. Faith, however, like the other theological virtue of hope, is animated by charity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Fruit of the Spirit and fullness of Law, charity keeps the commandments of God and his Christ. . .” and is “the form of the virtues” (See CCC 1823 and 1827).
But what happens if, over time, we turn away from the grace of God, or simply become lazy? Every Catholic received sanctifying grace through their baptism, and continues to receive it through the eucharist. One might assume, therefore, that as long as Catholics continue to go to mass every Sunday and receive communion, they will maintain grace in their souls moving them toward divine truth.
And they will, assuming they haven’t committed mortal sin. As every Catholic knows, mortal sin destroys sanctifying grace in the soul and separates us from the love of God. Such sin principally destroys charity, which is the root of our desire to be with God. When this happens, inevitably we move further and further away from God. Our will turns back toward the self, and divine truth begins to slip away. The only thing that can repair that fissure is confession, which restores sanctifying grace to the soul.
Now I am sure many such Catholics will argue that they are not in a state of mortal sin. But when was the last time they went to confession? Six months ago? A year? Longer? I would not pass judgment on the state of anyone’s soul, but any Catholic that hasn’t gone to confession in more than a year (I would argue even less, like every few months) should be worried. Venial sins pile up, and one may be committing mortal sins without full knowledge of the fact, e.g., sex outside of marriage, contraception, using pornography, even missing mass on Sundays! Lack of full knowledge may lessen the culpability of the person committing the act, but such things still pull us further and further away from God. Receiving communion in such a state not only won’t help us, it can actually physically harm us, as St. Paul cautions the Corinthians in 1 Cor 11:27-30. Finally, we come to a position where we think that everything we do is right, and just so long as the Church agrees with what we do, than we will accept it.
Such is the state of many Catholics today. The solution is not better catechesis, but repentance, even when we are struggling with certain doctrines. “Oh Lord, give me the grace to understand!” should be our cry. We must become like the Prodigal Son and come back begging for forgiveness and understanding. If we do, our Father will embrace us with love, and scripture tells us that even the angels in heaven rejoice at the repentance of a single sinner. The grace from confession will flow, and the more regularly we go to confession to wipe away even our venial sins, the more grace flows, and the closer we will grow to God. Only when our will is turned toward God, through grace, will our intellect follow. Only then will we truly be able to acquiesce to divine truth and to understand.
But here’s the problem. You can’t go through the motions like a clerk, checking the box and thinking you’ve done your job. The foundation is a turn of the heart. You must want to turn toward God. If you are a Catholic and you don’t believe in confession, you can’t even take the first step. I would say if you don’t believe in confession, pray for the grace to believe. The best way to receive grace outside of the sacraments is through prayer. If you turn toward God with an honest and open heart, scripture tells us He will answer you.
I know, because I used to be a lukewarm Catholic. I took doctrine as I wanted, and left the rest. I had every logical reason in the world to believe what I wanted and reject what I didn’t want. But one thing I came to want, through God’s grace, was a closer relationship with Christ. I wanted that relationship, and I knew I didn’t have it. So I started praying, and going to daily mass, and then one day it occurred to me that I hadn’t been to confession in a long time. Praying before mass, it just hit me that I needed to go to confession. So I went. And then I kept going, at least once a month, sometimes more frequently as I became more attuned to my own failings. Then a remarkable thing happened. I started to receive consolations after communion. I could actually feel an uplifting of my soul that would last most of the day. God was letting me know I was on the right path. Then, miraculously in my mind (because I can be stubborn!) all the logical reasons for my disbelief in certain doctrines didn’t seem so logical anymore. My intellect was starting to see the light of divine truth. Not much later, my last obstinacies faded away. I couldn’t even remember why I thought all those reasons for rejecting the doctrines of the Church were so reasonable! The truths of Church doctrine were like lamps in the darkness. It was a beautiful thing.
The point of the story, of course, is that the problem was with my will, not my intellect. I believe thousands and thousands of Catholics who attend mass every Sunday are in the same situation I was in, to one degree or another. Some are cafeteria Catholics, some are lazy Catholics, some are lifeless Catholics that just go through the motions because that’s what they’ve always done. But God is calling all of us to a closer relationship with Him, and all we need to do is respond. The first step, however, is repentance. Only through the powerful and beautiful sacrament of confession can we re-build, and maintain, our relationship with Christ, and his Church. Only then will we see the Truth for the light, and recognize the darkness.