Ice cream and Catholicism have more in common than you may think

In the “biography” section on my Twitter account, I describe myself as a “Gelateria Catholic”. When I was recently interviewed, the very first question was about what this term meant. The insinuation was that I define myself a “gelateria Catholic” because there are many flavours and you can choose from an almost infinite number of them. But that is not the case.

As we are in the middle of a hot summer (I write from Australia, where it is a warm winter) it’s a good time to explain the true meaning of “gelateria Catholic”.

One simple reason for the term is that I do not drink coffee. So I am not entitled to claim the more well-known label, “cafeteria Catholic”. Another is that I am Italian, and gelato could be seen as more Italian than coffee.

But there are other reasons as well. The first is my attempt to deflect the accusation made by some that others are merely “cafeteria Catholics”, at ease only in a Catholic Church where each and every one is entitled to his/her own version of coffee as well as Catholicism: tall or ristretto, Italian or American, in a glass or a cup (or chalice, for lovers of Latin).

“Gelateria Catholic” is my way of saying that Catholicism has always been, to some extent, a spectrum of different tastes of the Catholic faith. If only we had the courage to explore what Catholicism has been in different areas of the world in different periods. In the post-Vatican II era we had more visible oscillations and experimentation – but most of it was about its visibility, not its fundamental differences between one taste and another.

The second reason is that we live in an age where the intra-Catholic conversation has become difficult and at times very heated. Coffee is not a good idea when accusations of heresy are just one tweet or one click away. Coffee excites the spirit, but gelato cools it down. On a warm night in Rome back in May, I was in the middle of an overly animated Twitter conversation. I decided to abandon the thread and announced publicly that I was going out to get gelato. I should have done that more often…

The third reason: the term “cafeteria Catholic” brings to mind a kind of cool kids’ club where you belong only if you have your own identity-defining and psychologically reassuring version of coffee. This is not Catholicism as I see it. This is the opposite of gelato, which is good for young and old, for kids that do not need to have an idiosyncratic view of gelato to encourage you to have one. They just want gelato – sometimes any gelato – because they are hungry and thirsty and restless – which could get us started on an interesting conversation about liturgy.

The fourth reason: gelato can be eaten all year around, but is mostly seasonal – especially when it is very good. No gelato when it is freezing outside. This reminds me of something Yves Congar OP wrote in his masterpiece True and False Reform in the Church. He observed that St Augustine’s writing was very Catholic at the moment he wrote it, and when the Jansenists quoted and used it, more than a millennium later, it was still Catholic in the same way. You can freeze and warm up your old coffee: it is more difficult with gelato. You can store coffee in powder form; it is more tricky with gelato.

The fifth reason: gelato is made in many different ways and in all countries. There is no one global cartel in control of gelato. I am referring here to Starbucks and its role in the imposition of new versions of coffee (ask my fellow Italians about it). Gelato is more Catholic in the sense that it is open-source: there is diversity but nobody can put more than three or four flavours in a cone.

The sixth reason: gelato was important for a pope who tried to get rid of corruption in Rome and the Vatican. Pope Innocent XII (1691-1700) was known for his strong anti-corruption and anti-nepotistic stance, for trying to purify the mores of Romans (prohibiting carnival in Rome), and for his personal asceticism. He is said to have dined, in the hot Roman summer evening, with just a cup of gelato.

With the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem (1692), Innocent banned the institution of the cardinal-nephew – a typical and very powerful role in the 17th-century Roman Curia. He called the poor “his nephews”. He did not hide the difference between his public beneficence and the nepotism and the magnificence of many predecessors. Gelato, therefore, is clearly the fuel of reforming popes. Let’s hope that Francis has a plentiful supply…

Dr Massimo Faggioli is a professor at the department of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia and contributing editor to Commonweal

This article first appeared in the August 25 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here