One year ago this week I published an essay entitled "New Normal: Subjectifying the Sunday Obligation" (May 19, 2020). I recommend reading that article in its entirety as a preface to this one, but the basic point is that the Covid-19 restrictions have pushed the Sunday obligation into the realm of the subjective, something to be fulfilled entirely based on conscience.
In my diocese, the Sunday obligation has been suspended until Pentecost Sunday. This week our bishop send out an email talking about the return of the obligation. It contained this confusing nugget:
Some may say I am making too much of this. "Oh Boniface, the bishop is just reminding people of traditional teaching that those who are ill or physically incapable of attending Mass are not obligated." But I do not think he is merely stating the return to pre-Covid norms. For one thing, he does not say that. He says the specific Covid dispensation "remains in place" for those who have "a good reason" not to attend. What constitutes a good reason is left to the discernment of the individual, who can seek pastoral guidance if they are conflicted. A return to pre-Covid norms would be more along the lines of "The duty to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days remains obligatory for all Catholics of canonical age who are physically able and not prevented by illness."
Perhaps the bishop was just trying to be diplomatic; perhaps he meant to imply a return to pre-Covid norms that with his statement. But perhaps he didn't. It's too vague to tell, and the delegation to conscience is still troubling. In my article a year ago, I made the following prediction:
Eventually, the bishops will decide that it is safe enough to reinstate the Sunday obligation. Maybe this summer. Maybe later. But eventually the Sunday obligation will be restored. But after months of non-stop Covid-19 hysteria and media fear-mongering, many Catholics will still "not feel safe" returning to Mass...The bishops will waffle on clarifying the matter and issue contradictory statements, essentially saying that while the Sunday obligation remains in place, one must always follow the dictates of ones conscience. The statements will leave enough ambiguity for persons on both sides of the dispute to argue from. Meanwhile goofy parish priests will take to Twitter to confuse the faithful by affirming the right of any Catholic to abstain from physical attendance at Sunday Mass if they don't "feel safe." Essentially, the Sunday obligation will transform entirely into a subjective matter of conscience.
I can foresee some readers saying I am being too harsh in my assessment of the bishop's statement. But again I want to return to what I said in my 2020 article: "The statements will leave enough ambiguity for persons on both sides of the dispute to argue from."
My friends, the Sunday Obligation is not coming back.