Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why It's a Sin to Miss Mass on Sundays and Holy Days

My private correspondent, a Protestant examining the Catholic Church, who recently wrote to me about Mary and prompted this long and complex answer from me, now writes

Is it true that it is a requirement to go to Mass, a sin to not?
It does not seem like a sin, especially not a "mortal sin".
It would seem like a bad idea to not go at all, but it seems my conscience cannot accept that it is a requirement calling such judgement.
And where did Paul make THIS mortal sin clear? Where did he say "Those who do not attend to services weekly will not enter the kingdom of heaven"? Is the week then a Holy thing? Is it not acceptable for men to think of all days as the same? 

I really like this guy, because he takes questions of the faith very seriously, as we all should.

Here's my answer.


First, if we give St. Paul and his epistles any authority at all, it is, again, because of the Catholic Church.  The Church tells us Paul's epistles are inspired and a portion of the Deposit of Faith.  Paul himself never makes that explicit claim in any of his writing.  So either the Church acted by the prompting of the Holy Spirit in determining what books to include in the canon of Scripture, or she did not.

You, dear friend, must accept that she did; otherwise you - and almost all Protestants - would not accept Paul's epistles as inspired utterances of the Word of God.

So if the Church has the authority to represent the Holy Spirit and act with His authority in one way (by setting the canon of Scripture), she has so in others.

Remember in Acts 15:28, when the Church makes the first list of do's and don'ts for early Christians?  Remember what Peter and the other apostles said in their epistle to the Christians of Antioch, Syria and Cilicia?

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements ...

They then proceed to list the requirements they were to place on all Christians, not rules of behavior they came up with arbitrarily and pulled out of thin air, but behavior fitting to Christians which they had discerned were implicit in the Word of God, the Deposit of Faith - the fullness of Divine Revelation that was passed on to them and us.

And note how they phrase it - "It seemed good to the HOLY SPIRIT AND TO US ..."!  The Church - indeed what we would call the Magisterium - is claiming at the beginning that the apostles have the authority of God, the Holy Spirit, in so far as they cooperate with Him.

And the bishops are simply the successors to the apostles.


However, not every sin has been enumerated in Scripture.  When Paul gives his list of "mortal sins", or sins that keep Christians from the Kingdom of Heaven, he never claims he is covering every single serious sin.

Now certainly missing Mass on a Sunday does not seem to be a serious sin, nor does Paul list it; and unless a Catholic misses Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation deliberately, willfully, and knowingly, he is not sinning.  Nor is a Catholic sinning if he misses Mass for a good reason - sickness or travel to an area where he cannot find a Mass, etc.

But in any event you are on to something when you say that this does not seem like a sin.

It certainly doesn't!  Especially considering how most suburban Masses do more to prevent a person from worshiping than facilitate it.

But missing Mass does not rise to the level of something that is intrinsically evil, or even that is a serious sin (though it violates the Third Commandment); it is not sinful in and of itself (generally speaking - see my caveats that follow).  It's one of those things that becomes a serious sin because of the disobedience it offers to God's representatives on earth.

It is (as I understand it, and I could be wrong), like deliberately eating meat on a Friday during Lent.  It is a matter of disobedience to precept, not really to the Law written in our hearts - though it is a precept that springs from the Law.  

You see, much of what the Church teaches us is a matter of discipline, not a matter of Faith or Morals.  Abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent is a question of discipline.  Priests in the Latin rite generally not being allowed to marry is a question of discipline.  Going to Mass when the Church tells you to go to Mass is (generally speaking, without considering the question of the Third Commandment), a question of discipline.

And questions of discipline are man made.  They may be based upon principles that come from God, but they express these principles in an imperfect and provisional way, a worldly way, and therefore these precepts are subject to a certain degree of change, while the principles that inform them are not.

They are our means of applying the Law of God formally to our lives.

Therefore, bishops can tell Catholics it's OK to eat meat on Fridays (which they did, telling us we could eat meat on Fridays outside of Lent, thereby changing a long standing discipline). This was a change in the discipline of the Church, but not of the Law that informs the discipline.  The Church cannot tell us that sacrifice and penance have no meaning and can be ignored at all times in the life of any Christian, for that would entail more than a change of discipline, it would entail a denial of the atonement and the value of the cross; it would be a change of the Law that informs the discipline, which the apostles have not the power to do.

And while the new pope could allow all Latin rite priests to marry, that would be a mere change of discipline; while to say that two men could marry, or to say that divorce and remarriage were henceforth allowable would be a change of the Deposit of Faith, a change of the Revelation that informs the Discipline.  The apostles have the authority to do the former, not the latter.

In a similar manner, it would be a grave sin for me to miss Mass on the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, unless the bishops tell me not to worry about that particular discipline (which they do in the United States if Aug. 15 falls on a Saturday or Monday).  However, to allow Catholics to miss Mass at will any time, or to refuse to honor God by gathering on the Sabbath or on solemn feast days in general would be beyond the scope of mere discipline.

That's why I say the precept concerning Mass attendance is both disciplinary and a bit more than that at the same time.

But even if only disciplinary, the point remains.


Let's say, for example, that I say, "To hell with this nonsense.  It may be a Friday in Lent, but I'm having a Porterhouse steak!"

There's nothing inherently sinful about eating a Porterhouse steak - despite what the vegetarians say - but to willfully disobey God's authority, exercised by the apostles and their successors in the Church Christ established - this is sinful.  To thumb my nose at Church discipline is therefore an act of disobedience - nor merely to men, but to God, for God has given his authority and His Spirit to these men (sinners though they be).


It is therefore the authority of the Holy Spirit that gives the Catholic Church not only its ability to teach infallibly on matters of Faith and Morals, but also to promulgate precepts which are based upon divinely revealed Faith and Morals.

All Catholics are therefore bound, on pain of sin, to accept and follow not merely Church teaching, but also Church discipline, in the form of the following precepts (click here for more detail)

  1. Attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and refrain from servile labor on these days.
  2. Confess at least once a year.
  3. Receive communion at least once a year - during the Easter Season
  4. Observe days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church
  5. Provide for the needs of the Church.

These are all, strictly speaking, disciplinary - matters of adjustable discipline and not foundational dogma (though they're all based on the Rock which is Christ and on what He has revealed to us) - but to willfully and knowingly violate any of these would be a serious sin of disobedience or neglect.


OK, guys, if you want to support my role of part-time volunteer apologist, give five bucks a month to Theater of the Word Incorporated!

After all, I worked on this answer. 

I could have just said, I DUNNO.


Martin Moleski said...

I like your defense of the pastoral authority of the Church very much, Kevin. Well done!

When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He left a body, not a book, to continue His work on earth. The Body of Christ produced the faith of the authors of the New Testament, preserved their writings through time, declared them to be inspired by God, and in so doing produced what we call the New Testament. That same Body requires us to hear the Word of God as a body and to worship God together as a body on the Day of the Lord. All who deny the authority of the Body over themselves ex-communicate themselves. By refusing to act in communion with the Body, they deprive themselves of the Body of Christ. If they do so with a fixed determination to declare their independence from the Body, they can only return to communion by asking the forgiveness of the Body for their sin. They may not take Communion again until they are in communion with the Body of Christ.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Thanks, Fr. Marty!

I take it, then, that in your eyes for a sin to be "mortal", it would have to include an element of malice against God or at least of deliberate rejection of God and His Body?

Kevin O'Brien said...

"Full advertance on the part of the intellect" as it might be called theologically?

Benjamin. said...

Wait, so the Roman Catholic Church teaches that it is a sin to work on Sunday? Do you avoid using the internet on Sunday in fear that you are helping the pagans who run it to sin? Is it not written that some men may think of all days the same? Weren't early Church groups criticized for the way they were still observing special holidays? I mean, you say I get the authority of Scripture from the Church, but don't I get to the Church through personal revelation from the Holy Spirit? And what am I to make of these apparent contradictions between Roman Catholicism and Scripture? Isn't a mortal sin of omission the same as an act for salvation separate from Christ?

Benjamin. said...

So you are saying this is like a boy disobeying his father when his father asks him to do a chore?
That doing the chore is not itself a moral requirement, but the disrespect of the father's authority would require the boy to do it?

Benjamin. said...

Still, this seems to close to the slavery we are warned to not return to.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Benjamin, there is more than a trace of contempt in your comments. Open up a bit to what we're actually saying and try again.

Kevin O'Brien said...

"When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He left a body, not a book, to continue His work on earth," so says Fr. Marty above, and it's one of his best lines. It's also absolutely accurate Scripturally. These apparent contradictions between the Church and Scripture really don't exist. Take the following, when it comes to the initial question "Why should I go to Mass on Sunday?"

"Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not
neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging
one another..." (Heb 10:24-25).

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you, rejects me"
(Lk 10:16).

"Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way" (Hebrews 13:17-18).

It personally confuses me why Protestants keep claiming Catholics don't follow Scripture. The only things outside of Scripture that we believe are some of the Marian doctrines - and even those are implied in Scripture. Everything else, from the authority of Peter on down, is strongly supported by Scripture.

As to your claim that you can be content with the personal prompting of the Holy Spirit, then how do you explain your brother Protestant from a neighboring denomination who says the Spirit teaches him things that doctrines that contradict yours?

Christ left a Body, not a book. We claim that that Body has been given a protection by the Holy Spirit from teaching wrong on matters of Faith and Morals. You claim that this is a shocking example of infallibility. And then you claim that every individual Christian, by virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit, is infallible. Even when one Christian contradicts another. Which of us is making a more bizarre claim?

At any rate, your defensiveness is getting in the way. My case, and Fr. Marty's comment, said a heck of a lot more than "obey your dad when he tells you to do something". To reduce it to that level - something which would have been much easier for me to write and would have taken much less time - is unfair. I spent the time on this I did to cover the nuances of the issue. Follow it logically step by step and do me the favor, please, of addressing it patiently and prayerfully.

Thanks, Benjamin!

Kevin said...

"Not forsaking our assembly, as some are accustomed; but comforting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching" Hebrews 10:25 (start from 23 and go to verse 26 for a bit of context)

The next verse states that if we sin willfully, there remains no more sacrifice for sin, only judgement. The Hebrew writer uses not only ones obligation to God as a reason to go to the assmebly, but also our obligations to our brothers, to worhsip with those who are suffering and to provide a powerful witness.

So while it is always good to emphasize that authority, I also think it is a good idea to outline the reasons the Church has set out this guideline.

Tom Leith said...

What ever happened to "obey the laws of the Church concerning marriage?" Well, even if they're not mentioned in the current list called "precepts" we're still obliged to obey.

Fr Levi said...

Excellent post ... but perhaps you would amend 'despite what vegetarians say' to 'despite what some vegetarians say'? I am vegan and I don't go around calling meat-eaters sinners ... there all kinds of reasons why people don't eat meat, after all!

Fr Weldon said...

A person in my RCIA asked what kind of sin it is to break a civil law that is not enumerated in the Church's teaching. In some places it is against the law to spit on the sidewalk. Is it a sin to do that?

Kevin O'Brien said...

A "positive law", or a civil law "put forth" that has no connection to natural law does not necessarily entail a sin when it is broken - except for the disregard shown to public authority by breaking it. Some civil "positive law", however, contradicts Natural Law and God's Law, and therefore is not a true law - such as the "legalization" of abortion. So not all "positive law" is law at all.

Scott W. said...

Just FYI: Here is Cardinal Arinze rejecting the "Fundamental Option"--That is, the idea that mortal sin only happens if a gravely evil act is accompanied with an explicit and formal intention to alienate oneself from God.


Anonymous said...

I think it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday because we are not only blowing off God which is a big deal on its own, but we are blowing off every Catholic who came before us and who will come after us. Thus, we are deliberately saying to the whole heavenly realm "I don't need you." This is a choice that is mortal.


Michelle said...

As a cradle Catholic, I have never really understood the "why" (I did CCD all thru HS, but there are still so many things I just don't get or realize I'm even doing wrong). However, this sums it up pretty simply. I still find Holy Days of Obligation grating, but I'm grateful to have basic way to understand and break it down to my kids now. Thank you for that.

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