Kieran Tapsell: The Catholic Cafeteria

On 29 July 2011, Cardinal George Pell gave a speech in which he accused many Catholics of being “Cafeteria Catholics”, by picking and choosing from the doctrinal menu.

Having moved to Rome, he is now attending the Synod of Catholic Chefs de Cuisine to decide what is wrong with the menu at the Catholic Cafeteria, particularly when it comes to the Family Meal. There is an argument for taking some of the old recipes off the menu, like Haggis Humanae Vitae, because no one buys it anymore, and for relaxing the dress rules to allow divorced and same sex couples to dine there.

There are a number of items on the menu at the Catholic Cafeteria that are definitely worth preserving. The first is its Social Justice Stew: giving those who did not do so well in life’s lottery a bit of a leg up. One could argue endlessly as to where this came from. The Catholic Cafeteria waiters always say that their Supreme Chef de Cuisine, Leo XIII created it with his recipe, Rerum Novarum, but the Secular Cafeteria up the road says that the great Chefs de Cuisine of the Enlightenment, Diderot, Voltaire and Thomas Paine were responsible for the original recipe, and Leo pinched it. They point to the fact that Leo’s predecessor as Supreme Chef de Cuisine, Pio Nono in his famous Syllabus of Errors (a compendium of what not to cook) condemned the separation of Church cheese from State sauce, and said that the canons of the Catholic Cafeteria should be imposed at the Secular Cafeteria, because they had been handed down by the Almighty Chef de Cuisine in Heaven, and should apply everywhere.

The second things worth preserving are the musical recipes at the Catholic Cafeteria which has always employed the finest Chefs de Musique, like Palestrina, Allegri, Tallis, Vivaldi and Bach. Even today Bach is recognized by the Secular Cafeteria as without peer. The Catholic Cafeteria cheats a bit when they claim Bach as one of their chefs, because he really cooked for the Lutheran Cafeteria down the road, and the Catholic Cafeteria stole his recipes. Nevertheless the Mass in B Minor has to be one of the greatest recipes of all time. And it is, after all, a Mass, so it was something the Catholic Cafeteria could adopt without embarrassment. It is true that the Secular Cafeteria started to lift its game with Beethoven, especially with his Ninth Symphony and its Ode to Joy. But even Beethoven could not resist the temptation to throw a Missa Solemnis through the door of the Catholic Cafeteria.

The third good thing on the menu of the Catholic Cafeteria is that it gives free meals to the needy, and helps out not only its own sick customers, but even those who spend all their time in the Secular or other cafeterias. Sometimes, however, it has some funny rules about helping them out – like refusing to supply condoms to HIV positive customers. I can’t understand this rule because the recipe, Haggis Humanae Vitae, the creation of the Supreme Chef de Cuisine, Paul VI, specifically said that the contraceptive pill could be used for legitimate medical purposes, something that comes from Thomas Aquinas’s famous scrambled egg recipe, Principle of the Double Effect. However, granted that the Catholic Cafeteria is a bit eccentric with the application of its own recipes, it still does do a lot of good, and tries to make all customers feel comfortable.

In recent years, the Catholic Cafeteria has had a lot of competition from the Secular Cafeteria in the good works section of the menu. The Secular Cafeteria has introduced tapas dishes such as Amnesty International, Medecin sans Frontiers and Oxfam, all of which are proving to be very popular, particularly amongst the young.

The Catholic Cafeteria claims that its founder from Nazareth was the best chef ever, the Escoffier of Escoffiers, and that he will come back one day. His Sermon on the Mount Soufflé has to be one of the best. But the problem is that all his chefs at the Catholic Cafeteria, from the Supreme Chefs de Cuisine down, have never been able to cook his recipes properly. They always make excuses for watering down his pure ingredients, and customers have suffered as a result.

The Catholic Cafeteria claims that the Nazarene’s recipes, Do unto Others and Love One Another, are the best ever. The Secular Cafeteria has these two very high up on its menu, but it challenges the Catholic Cafeteria’s claim to the copyright on the grounds that they had been used for centuries by older cafeterias, and therefore are in the public domain. On the other hand, the Secular Cafeteria accuses the Catholic Cafeteria of neglecting the famous recipe found in the ancient Delphi Café: Know Thyself, sometimes known as Truth and Honesty Tart. This old recipe has gone right off the Catholic Cafeteria’s menu when they replaced it with the Pontifical Secret Pie that caused of lot of children to suffer severe indigestion. Despite the United Nations Cafeteria’s request to remove the Pontifical Secret Pie from the menu, and to restore the Truth and Honesty Tart, Francis, the current Supreme Chef de Cuisine, has declined the invitation.

Some Scandinavian Cafeterias have discarded many of the Catholic Cafeteria recipes, but have a very successful adaptation of the Social Justice Stew. This version has been far more successful than the one used in the thousands of Catholic Cafeterias in places like Latin America. All customers are treated equally, or at least have the possibility of earning their place at a more prominent table by judicious choices on the menu. On the other hand, in Latin America, dominated by the Catholic Cafeterias, there are always beggars on the floor tugging at the gowns of the filthy rich and famous for a few crumbs from the table. No cafeteria can survive that sort of difference in clientele for too long.

Any successful cafeteria needs to be underscored by some intellectual vision that is grounded in “truth”, a word that should be at the very top of every menu. The trouble is that one famous Roman customer in an old Jewish Cafeteria saw this at the top of the menu and asked: What is truth? And every customer in every cafeteria in the world has been arguing over it ever since. Sometimes, they even go to war over it.

Kieran Tapsell is the author of ‘Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse’ (ATF Press 2014)

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