Classifying Catholics

As a break from a much more serious and involved post on sacrifice and the economy of salvation (which is taking longer to articulate than anticipated), I thought I’d get the following set of observations out into the ether for some possible discussion.

In the process of my conversion, both online and off, I’ve encountered a surprisingly wide variety of (self-professed) Catholics. Over on a back-burner of my brain I started organizing those experiences and the result is a loose system of classification. It’s neither complete nor definitive, and I’m not even sure how I feel about doing it, but I think it may be helpful just to work through the ideas. Oh, and I don’t think these categories are rigid and mutually exclusive, nor do I mean them to be judgmental; they just reflect certain trends in my observations (though my tongue is, at times, firmly in cheek). Please, consider yourself encouraged to critique or add on in the comments. Anyway, here goes:

Cafeteria Catholics

A label that is already in common use, the Cafes treat the teachings and defined doctrines of the Church as a kind of buffet from which they can pick and choose – or, more commonly, reject as they see fit. As near as I can tell Cafes assert their identity as Catholics on the implicit premise that, if Catholicism is the primary buffet table from which you’re choosing, then you’re Catholic… or something. [Most of the behaviors that define these categories make little to no sense to me but then, the behaviors of most people make little to no sense to me either, so it’s probably my problem.]

Cultural Catholics

The Culs seem only to claim the name “Catholic” when pressed on the question of their religion, as opposed to asserting it as a defining characteristic of their identity. This is most likely because the cultures in which they live or from which they come are so popularly Catholic that saying “I’m Catholic!” would be like announcing “I use the bathroom!” or “I breathe!”. They probably haven’t been to Confession in a decade or more, feel no need to treat Sunday any differently than Saturday, and might not even attend Mass for Christmas or Easter. At the same time, Culs will usually have some items of popular piety around the house, might engage some form of syncretic “magical” practice to help bring in money or improve health, and may make easy and casual reference to Saints, angels, and even the devil.

Conjugal Catholics

This outlook seems to be more common among a certain class of converts but I have at least anecdotal evidence of its existence among those who’ve received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The most identifiable feature of Cons tends to come out in relation to weddings: A non-Catholic is marrying a Catholic; the Catholic (or his/her family) is insistent that the wedding be in the Church, so the non-Catholic “converts” not out of some movement of faith but just because it’s a requirement for having a Catholic wedding. On the flip-side of this scenario, the Catholic pressing for conversion often also seems to be a Con since they seem to be far less interested in the spiritual [and even marital] commitment of their intended than with wedding planning.

Cradle Catholics

As advertised on the label, in its most basic and direct form this term comprises all those who were Baptized into the Catholic Church while still in the cradle. Adding more specificity to the term, Cradles have also been raised in the Church, are likely to have gone to a Catholic school for at least some substantial portion of their education, and often seem to have seen Confirmation as a kind of ‘graduation’ ceremony. They can usually also recite any common liturgical prayer or response (if only in the translation/version that was in use during their childhood). These loose commonalities aside, Cradles (like converts) will be colored by one or more of the other classifications listed here; the Cradle designation is more about their past than their present.

Corporate Catholics

A group overwhelmingly populated by Cradles and whom we might also cross-identified as a subset of Cafes (e.g., Chris Christie on contraception, or Jeb Bush et. al. on Laudato Si), the Corps have an identity that is primarily determined according to political and economic positions. Consistently right-wing, capitalistic, nostalgic, and patriotic, Corps tend to have much in common with their Evangelical neighbors… who remain nevertheless convinced that the Corps, as Catholics, are necessarily hell bound. Members of this group seem, by my diagnosis, to be motivated to proclaim their Catholic identity by way of a contemporary cultural narrative [driven in no small part by the fundamentally Protestant views and values that have shaped Western (and especially American) culture over the last 300 or so years – but that’s another post entirely] that has equated Catholicism with political Conservatism. Corps can often be identified when they repeat one of their standard platitudes, such as, “Catholics have to be Republicans.”

Cast-Iron Catholics

Though they may be found among the Corps, the conservatism of the Cast-Irons is much more liturgical than political. Usually referred to as “Traditionalists” or “Trads,” I opted to change the name here for three reasons: 1) because the use of “tradition” here is different from (and thereby confuses) “Tradition” as a term of the Church, 2) because I believe that one can enjoy (and even prefer) the tradition of the Extraordinary Rite without necessarily being a “Trad”, and 3) because I’ve got a nice theme of alliteration going here and a “T” would mess it up. While I don’t count sedevacantists among the Cast-Irons, they can come pretty close (as with the SSPX). Despite a tenacious devotion to the doctrine of the Church, Cast-Irons seem to operate on the hope that some day soon we’ll all wake up and realize that the last 53 years were all a strange and fitful fever-dream. Until that alarm goes off, most of them are willing to begrudgingly submit to current teaching, although they will complain about it… frequently… and loudly.

Cognitive-dissonance Catholics

Here’s where I stick the sedevacantists [i.e., those who believe there is not now – and has not been since at least 1958 – a true Pope of the Church]. With them I place some individuals, the existence of whom I’ve only recently discovered, who (as near as I can tell) are of the opinion that they themselves, as individuals, are the defining authority of the Catholic Church and that, consequently, anyone who does not agree with their views (including, of course, the last several Popes, numerous saints, and in one case even Christ Himself) is not Catholic… …and is definitely going to hell. Or something. I have no idea at all how any of these views are meant to work out, hence the name. Somewhat less bizarre and yet to my mind just as dissonant, I’d also place the “Roman Catholic Womenpriests” [sic], all of whom apparently regard Papal condemnation and excommunication as mere nuisances with all the spiritual gravity of unpaid parking tickets. And since I can’t make any logical sense out of New Ways Ministry, I’d toss them in this bucket as well. Regardless of my confusion, these folks are running about with “Catholic” writ large on their banners and so are included on this list.

Confessing Catholics

Sundays and all Days of Obligation? They’re there, on time and appropriately dressed. Reconciliation at least twice a year? Check. Involved in some sort of volunteer work for the Church? Probably. Use their parish offering envelopes? You betcha. Pay any attention to anything else going on in any other category on this list? Nope. The Confessing knows the physical requirements and, with varying degrees of spiritual and intellectual involvement, meets them. They tend to be perfectly nice, if tired, people with whom you’d gladly share a pew and the peace. They’re likely to be the first to offer to call AAA for you when your car stalls in the church parking lot. They will probably place that call, however, on a flip-phone with over-sized numbers because the youngest member of their Sunday brunch group has been getting the senior citizen discount for at least five years.

Catechetical Catholics

This is the neologism that started this post cooking and marks the category into which I try to conform myself. In short, Cats are those who study (or at least accept the authority of) the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and who, consequently, submit to its teachings. In my experience thus far, it is also the case that these are most often the Catholics who will actually read Papal Encyclicals and Exhortations as opposed to, say, just following the mass media narratives spun out about them. Cats claim their identity as Catholic just because they fulfill (or diligently attempt to fulfill) the requirements of Catholic identity as doctrinally defined by the CCC and/or the Code of Canon Law (CIC).

When my conversion began I was under the [naive and, I now know, radically mistaken] impression that this was not a subset of Catholic identity but rather the very definition of Catholic identity.

I’d figured [and this still makes sense to me, though I’m trying to see different perspectives] that – since there were so many other Christianities out there and the Catholic Church no longer has the military-grade capacity to impose and enforce adherence – if you wouldn’t accept the teachings of the Church (and thus were, by doctrinal definition, excluding yourself from her), then you’d simply join one of the post-Reformation congregations that teaches what you will accept. What I couldn’t (and still don’t) understand is why anyone would choose to identify as Catholic if they weren’t or didn’t want to be subject to her Magisterium. [More on this will likely appear in a later post that has the working title, “Wherein Heretics Confuse Me”.] Whatever their reasons, the non-Cats are out there and it appears that they dramatically outnumber the Cats… though I do hope to be a small part of changing that statistic.


Well, there you have it. As I say, this is all just me articulating some ideas that’ve been bouncing around the back of my brain for a while. I’m not sure what to make of it all. What do you think?

9 thoughts on “Classifying Catholics

  1. What about us screwed-up Catholics? The flopped out of university Catholics? The materially, sexually, or intellectually unfulfilled Catholics?

    In the Church, I met some smart people who introduced me to philosophy, theology, and the works of all sorts of writers; to live simply and keep my marriage vows. Catholics are nutcases – I have found my tribe.

    Whenever I find myself wanting to walk out the door, a voice tells me, “Stick around. It’s just about to get interesting.” I think it’s God.

    Others presume – because of our line on sexual morality – that Catholics are prudes and bigots who wouldn’t know a good time if it booked them a room at the Ritz with a $1000-hooker. The reality is quite the opposite. Catholicism is a community of sinners seeking grace, taking strength in each other’s company – a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous for screw-ups. As such, I’ve never known an environment more compassionate and comfortably eccentric.

    I am (in truth, always was) a Catholic not because I was full of religious chauvinism or intellectual conviction but because it offered hope to someone who was very alone. I was burnt out, rapidly sinking into insanity and mostly drunk.

    Those who truly loved me helped me. At first, psychoanalysis and a daily dose of 5mg escilatopram merely pushed me deeper into the pit of despond and cost a fortune, to boot. Then I met a devout Buddhist who, intriguingly, jumped into the pit with me claiming that as he had been in this pit himself, he knew the way out: He pointed me toward Christianity. Then I met an Anglican priest who introduced me to Mark’s gospel. It was here I had what you might call a ‘religious experience’ and encountered God.

    What was I to do?

    Could I find a church that would help me? All of them seemed either compromised or hopelessly idealistic. Well, St. Mark had led me back to Christianity and an unseen and to this day unknown Carmelite Nun opened the door and showed me the seat at the table that had been waiting for me for most of my life.

    I GIVE you the end of a golden string;
    Only wind it into a ball,
    It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
    Built in Jerusalem’s wall.…

    Slowly I was drawn into the Catholic community. Here was a place where monks brewed and drank beer, priests smoked and filthy jokes were at a premium. It wasn’t hypocritical, just human. And behind the humanity was a concern with encountering the divine – made possible by a very practical, step-by-step approach to salvation. Go to Confession, make penance, take Communion at Mass, buy the priest a pint afterwards. As soon as I understood Catholicism, it became second nature. My soul was saved. I suspect that my life was saved, too.

    Since then, I have never once doubted the Truth of the Church’s teachings, but I have struggled to be faithful. If I skip Mass it’s usually because the petty minutiae of the rest of my life distracts me. Things go wrong, hope is lost and it feels like ‘Gordon’ is the only man who understands me. But something wonderful always draws me back.

    I see the light on in the breakfast room, smelled the toast and heard a babble of mad voices discussing what’s wrong and what’s right about this Argentine Pope. I open the door and walk in to love, knowing that I am returning home – to my tribe.

    The tribe of screw-ups.


    1. Thanks for sharing your story and for highlighting the fact that humans are too complicated to fit neatly into any category.
      Pressed to do so, however, I’d guess you fall somewhere between Catechetical and Confessing? Or do you think there’s another category to be named in what you’ve described?


  2. I thought this post was very entertaining. I found myself classifying my friends as I was reading. But I never really found a classification for myself. I am definitely a cradle Catholic, and somewhat what you called a Cast-Iron (I prefer Latin hymns and Extraordinary Form and absolutely love Catholic Tradition), but I wouldn’t really feel comfortable saying that the last 50 years or so has been full of corrupt teachings and is like a sickness. Yes, there have been some rough spots, but still. I am almost in the Cats, but I honestly couldn’t cite a single paragraph from the CCC, but I could probably explain to you the topic in my own words. One category I wished was there were the Pro-Life/Apologetic ones. I would probably fit somewhere in there. Anyway, thanks and God Bless!

    In Christ, Catholic2theMax


    1. I’m sure I need to meet more Catholics in general but, thus far at least, I haven’t met enough to define another full category. Mostly because, of course, the person who is only one of these is exceptionally rare and I’ve not found another ‘group’ with a comparable set of prominent characteristics… So I guess the implied additional (and most common) category would be, “Composite Catholics” who are a mix of other categories? For example, “Confessing Cradle with a Catechetical appreciation and a Cast-Iron streak”. Or, you know, just “Catholic.”
      I also tend to apply “Catechetical” more broadly than described here. Basically, if you willingly submit to the Catechism and/or the Code of Canon Law because you consider them authoritative and definitive, then I’d call you a Catechetical Catholic–which it sounds like you are.
      But this is mostly just a bit of fun.
      Anyway, thanks for reading!
      Misericordia tibi et pax et caritas Dei adimpleatur

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We have many cultural Catholics in Scotland like we have cultural Protestants, I think. They normally have gone to Catholic schools (a bone of contention here), do not attend church or Mass, but for them it’s a cultural heritage. Very often if you ask them they’ll say “I believe in God” and remember a few prayers but that’s it basically. If they are older they will have (excuse my bad terminology) Catholic things in the house like a cross on the wall, if they are younger they support traditionally Catholic football teams like Celtic. I’m now related to a few of them and I have a lot for mates, if you ask them they will say they are Catholic, if you ask them do you go to church they’ll say NO and laugh.

    Incidentally I was having a conversation with a Catholic bloke about going to confession and he was telling me about the repentance for having sexual thoughts. “It’s always the same, it’s…”

    “How do you know?” “Errr….” 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You make as good job of classification here. I find myself in more categories than I like to admit (if I’m honest about it.)
    You did, however, miss the biggest identifier of the Cultural Catholic – this constantly repeated beginner of sentences: “I went to twelve years of Catholic school so . . . .”

    Anyhow, an enjoyable read.


    1. Good point on the “Catholic school” bit. It strikes me as ridiculously odd, though, that the majority of recent Catholic school graduates I’ve met (and as I work in a college, I’ve met many) are so poorly catechized. I’m wondering if the “Catholic school” line will still be indicative of any particular religious identity at all in another decade, unless something changes.
      Thanks for reading. Hope you find more here worth thinking about.


      1. I have recently finished sending three kids through twelve years of Catholic school and agree with you on the level of catechesis. My results are mixed, with one agnostic, one in a Dominican seminary and one in between. I guess it depends on the kid, and his/her willingness to inquire. I am hopeful that I have at laid a foundation that my agnostic can eventually rediscover. I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I found this blog from a comment on Agellius’s blog, and I’ve really enjoyed reading through a lot of the posts.

    Anyway, I particularly liked this post, because I think there are a lot of commonalities to my Mormon backgrounds (but of course, you may or may not be aware that some Mormons informally like to compare/contrast themselves with Catholics).

    Anyway, I think that a lot of the categories’ existences occur precisely because Catholicism, like Mormonism, is a religion in which there can be a strong based of “born and raised” members in addition to converts. I think you get at this with the idea that there are cradle Catholics — and that cradle describes past, not present, and that cradle can combine with other categories.

    So, to address your question here (sorry, I haven’t read to see if you’ve published that later post yet), I would say:

    What I couldn’t (and still don’t) understand is why anyone would choose to identify as Catholic if they weren’t or didn’t want to be subject to her Magisterium. [More on this will likely appear in a later post that has the working title, “Wherein Heretics Confuse Me”.]

    I think what converts to various religious traditions miss (as I think is really captured in your summary of a Catechetical Catholics) is that many (if not most) people don’t join religions because of Magisterium and institutional authority, etc., (And I know I’ve read a comment elsewhere on this blog where you dismiss this…you wrote something to the effect that the Catholic church doesn’t really offer anything you can’t get elsewhere for cheaper..except its Magisterium).

    Especially for those raised in a church, that church represents family and friends. Leaving means being excluded. This runs through several of your categories…cultural…cafeteria…conjugal. If growing up Catholic is anything like growing up Mormon, then there’s a sense of being raised in a different culture with its own language and habits and so forth. I would imagine one could feel a distinction between themselves and the non-Catholic (or, in my case, non-Mormon) world…even if one no longer attends Mass/church, or even believes many tenets of the faith.

    But then, that brings me to the next thing…I think that the tenets of the faith have to be separated from authority of the institution. So, I think that your Cognitive Dissonance Catholics and Cast-Iron Catholics fit here…here, they are Catholic precisely because of their belief in certain tenets…of course, they hold these tenets more foundationally than they do the authority of the institution — hence, they judge the institution *against* the tenets. They still consider themselves Catholic because they consider believers of those core tenets to be Catholic — not those who follow the institution. It’s the Catholic Church that has apostasized, they might say.

    I see this same sort of dynamic in Mormonism (down to the example of Ordain Women to contrast the Catholic women’s ordination movement.)

    Anyway, as a “cradle/cultural Mormon” as it were, I am always interested in trying to figure out what makes “catechetical” versions of religious adherents tick…so I will keep on reading!


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