Sunday, May 16, 2021

Obliged To Come To Mass—Unless You Don't Feel Like It

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:

"Upon the great Solemnity of Pentecost, May 23...the dispensation from attending Sunday Mass will expire. The dispensation remains in place, of course, for those who have good reason not to attend. If in doubt, speak to your pastor." 

I found this statement extremely puzzling. It sounds as if he is saying "The Sunday Obligation is returning, but if you feel like you have a good reason not to attend, it's ultimately up to you." In other words, while the canonical obligation is returning, how and whether it is fulfilled is being tossed into the realm of conscience, something to be sorted out in pastoral dialogue between a Catholic and his parish priest. 

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.

This is exactly where we are now in 2021. And its frustrating that few see the the inherent illogic in the approach: If it is safe to resume public Masses, then there is no reason to dispense from the Sunday obligation. But if it is not safe to resume public Masses, the obligation should be dispensed. What makes no sense is to say "The Sunday Obligation is returning, but whether you attend is still up to you."

Having spent the last year telling the faithful that watching Mass from at home was spiritually equivalent to attending in person, the bishops now lack the moral authority and intestinal fortitude to compel all Catholics to return. My bishop has spent the last few weeks sending emails trying to explain to Catholics why they ought to come back to Mass. Always a very good thing! Every Catholic should know why they should want to attend Mass. But it's very clear that this emphasis on encouragement is meant to replace the canonical obligation—the bishop is encouraging people to return to Mass because he will no longer tell them they must.

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. 


Anonymous said...

I'm thinking that the bishop wants to saddle his priests with the burden of saying "no dispensation" in cases where "no" is the answer, and then let the priests deal with the unhappy laity.

jorgey said...

After an exchange with Dave Stretch Armstrong today, I did a search for "Patheticos" and am going to all the blogs wherein I find that word mentioned, seeing if they are still actively blogging, and then thanking them for not selling out to Patheticos! So thank you!

Anonymous said...

It is sooo much worse that that.

The whole Covid drama showed how feckless our priests and bishops are.

Every Sacrament was downplayed, and we were all told the non-sacrament was just as good.

Watch mass on tv. Make a spiritual communion. Make a perfect act of contrition. No baptisms, confirmations, weddings, or last rites.

No obligation to attend mass.

And certainly no bishop or priest with the stones to lay down the law and tell Catholics that they are in Mortal Sin, if they do not go to mass.

I mean really. Did anyone ever mention the Sunday Obligation before Covid? Like perhaps on Christmas or Easter?

Yeah. I didn't think so.

The Sunday Obligation, and Holy Days along with it, are about as dead as the Church's teachings on Usury...(or marriage, or confession before communion, or ....)

Charlie Estridsen said...

Here in the Archdiocese of New York His Eminence is taking an entirely different approach...

Public Masses were suspended in the Archdiocese from March 14 - May 21, 2020. Once public Masses were allowed again, all churches in the Archdiocese had a chancery memo posted to their doors which read in all caps at the top: "THE OBLIGATION TO ATTEND MASS IS SUSPENDED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE."

But apparently that memo was never approved by the Cardinal, who has been saying all throughout 2021 that he never dispensed the Sunday obligation. According to His Eminence the Sunday obligation has remained in full force throughout the pandemic. In fact, according to him the Sunday obligation is a divine command and therefore not within his power to dispense! The canon lawyers I know have said this is nonsense, if a bishop suspends public Mass he necessarily dispenses with the obligation to attend Mass which must later be reinstated. Cardinal Dolan disagrees. So it seems that the Archdiocese of New York exists in a state of limbo where the laity think the Sunday obligation is suspended, the canon lawyers think the laity are right, but Cardinal Dolan insists the Sunday obligation was never suspended / cannot be suspended so therefore reinstating it is unnecessary.

Be grateful for what you have, folks.