If you were to ask Forrest Gump about life, he’d say it’s like a box of chocolates.
Ask Paul Wilkes to describe the Catholic Church, and he’s apt to say it’s like a cafeteria.
But aside from the food references, the comparisons end there. For while the first statement is uttered by an self-described idiot in a popular film, the other is put forth by an educated man as the basis for a refreshingly new way to look at the church of Rome.
Call it “The Good Enough Catholic.” Wilkes does in his new book of that name, which carries the subtitle “A Guide for the Perplexed.”
His reference to “cafeteria Catholics” involves the criticism from conservative corners that if you want to be a Catholic in good standing, you are obligated to accept the whole of church doctrine. All of it, to the last teaching tenet from the Vatican.
Nonsense, Wilkes said recently over the phone from his Wilmington, N.C., office.
“How could it be that there is not a thought process here?” he said. “If there is not a thought process involved, you may have a beautiful faith, but I think you’re a kind of automaton.”
As he writes in the book’s introduction, Wilkes believes that Catholics were freed from mindless adherence to church tradition by the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.
“Once we were required to follow strict laws obediently, and to parrot precise answers to a series of catechism questions in defense of the ‘one, true church,”’ he wrote. “Suddenly, we were given license to employ our intellects and consciences in reaching decisions about our lives, our beliefs, our approach to God.”
The result of such freedom, he said, is not a license to pick and choose what to believe in the way, say, you might sort through what to eat among the offerings on a deli tray. It’s just, he says, that Vatican II decreed “your conscience is your ultimate arbiter of your moral life. It is not a rule of the church.”
Besides, Wilkes said, within the “totality” of church teachings, everyone picks and chooses at one time or another. “The pope picks and chooses, if you want to extend the argument,” he said.
However, self-direction is not meant as a free ride.
“There is nothing wrong with a cafeteria meal,” Wilkes said, “but you cannot have just butterscotch sundaes, OK? You gotta have some salad, you gotta have some meat, you gotta have some potatoes.”
Maybe even some beets on occasion.
Wilkes, 58, writes from experience as well as education. Schooled “from kindergarten to college” in Catholic settings, which resulted in a degree from Marquette University, he fell away from the church in his early adult life. While he devoted himself to such social-service work as serving dinners in homeless shelters, which he wrote “embodied what was good in Catholicism,” he admits to becoming a “rather multifaceted sinner.”
Then, searching for a way to reconcile his need for spiritual fulfillment, he ultimately returned to the fold. Today, besides being the author of 13 books, Wilkes is a confirmed church-goer and a eucharistic minister who gives communion on weekends to hospitalized parishioners.
Still, there is a difference in his attitude.
“When I was younger, I thought Catholicism was the way,” he wrote. “I have found, instead, that it is a way. But it certainly has proved to be my way.”
Departing from traditional Catholic thinking, though, hasn’t been easy. As Wilkes says, no other religious body, not even Judaism, “has more doctrine and dogma than we do.”
And Wilkes is the first to say that such a departure isn’t even necessary. Many people find comfort in the ritualized services and other ceremonial aspects associated with traditional Catholicism.
“This is a wide tent,” he said. “There is a lot of room under it.
“You can go to a Roman Mass, you can recite the catechism and you are a good Catholic. You can work for Planned Parenthood and live a moral life and still be a good Catholic.
“There is not a checkoff list or a litmus test about what makes you a good Catholic.”
At this point, it’s fair to say that more than a few Catholics would not agree with Wilkes. Some might even call him a heretic.
“I’ve been accused of this,” he said, laughing. “They call me a Lutheran sometimes, too.”
He doesn’t mind, he said, “As long as they don’t call me a Unitarian.”
His desire, he says, is simply to bring more people back to the church. Many have fallen away - even become Unitarians - because they’ve felt unable to live according to what they see as harsh church dictates. They feel outside the church.
“And my response to them is you’re not outside the church,” Wilkes said. “You’re not outside God’s love. No human institution can tell you that. That’s not the God that is looking over this church.”
The God that Wilkes believes in is reflected in the Bruno Bettelheim book “The Good Enough Parent,” which not only suggested to him his own book’s title but also provided him with the notion of God as nurturer.
“This is a merciful and loving, a very demanding, very pushy, finger-in-the-small-of-your-back-all-the-time kind of God,” he said. “But forgiving.”
Picture God as the super parent.
“You want your kids to do their best, right?” Wilkes said. “But when they stumble and fall, what do you do? You don’t kick them in the butt. … Ultimately, you say, ‘I love you and I’m on your side.’ “And if they turn around to you and say, ‘Dad, I really screwed up. I know you told me not to do so-and-so and I did it. I’m really sorry about it.’ I mean, your heart melts. What is God gonna do?”
He’s going to forgive, too. And if you adopt that view, Wilkes said, it’s easier to stay rooted in a church that might not meet all your needs. It may even make palatable the struggle to change things more to your liking.
“If you wait for the perfect marriage, the perfect spouse, the perfect church, it’s not coming in this lifetime,” Wilkes said. “So just work within it and make it a better place.”
All it takes is desire. And a bit of faith.
“The whole point of this book is, look, here’s a way to live a life,” Wilkes said. “And if you’re going to really give it a good shot, you’re going to do fine. It’s an affirmation of that.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Paul Wilkes will read from his book “The Good Enough Catholic: A Guide for the Perplexed” at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Auntie’s Bookstore, Main and Washington.