day 21 – free me from obligation!

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

Unless you’re a Catholic – or so we`re told! I’ve struggled all my life with the teaching of Sunday obligation. As children we were taught that missing Sunday Mass was a mortal sin. If we did, we had to traipse off to confession on Saturday in order to receive communion the following day. The constant reminders of hell-fire and damnation resulted in painful scrupulosity – something that we Catholics are good at. Unhealthy scruples lead to obsessing about sin, and worrying that you will never be good enough for salvation and heaven’s rewards.  Not a good thing for a young child. Not a good thing for any person.

As a young adult, I was finally able to let go of these anxieties. Slowly I discovered a more loving God, not one who was ready to condemn me for the slightest infraction. And I don’t want to let go of this God. So it really burns me to still hear priests preaching of Sunday obligation and mortal sins. Is it still a teaching of our church? It was time to do some Googling…..

Dang, apparently it is. But, some theologians are making a distinction between mortal and grave sins. And, of course, there is the question of culpability, knowledge, intention, etc. Sigh… much theological wrangling.

As a society we have really lost the sense of Sabbath with its call to rest from work and to nourish one`s spirit. Keeping the Sabbath holy is a way to acknowledge the God who created us, and to show gratitude for the many gifts we have received. And, for Catholics, we gather as a community to celebrate the Eucharist – the source and summit of our faith.

But what if the circumstances of your local parish have driven you to despair? What if you have been hurt, disillusioned, or just drifted away from regular mass attendance? Does this automatically make you a grave sinner?

Sunday Liturgy is a life-giving gift that needs to be cherished and celebrated and it should be promoted as such. How I wish we could let go of the language of obligations and mortal sins.

9 thoughts on “day 21 – free me from obligation!

  1. I think the scrupulosity around going to communion in the pre-Vatican II era has been replaced or gone underground with the neurotic preoccupation with health and fitness issues. Diets, special vitamins, fitness centers, personal trainers, and designer clothes that make you look good while pursuing health and fitness are the new scrupulosity. This is now true for both men and women. Because I facilitate male spirituality retreats, I occasionally look at Mens’ Heath magazines at the book store. They are not really about health but about a preoccupation with sex, fashion, and the way your body looks. The men pictured in these magazines look better than any human person that has ever lived.
    As Isabella states, religious people, especially priests and nuns, appeared to have cultivated this mental torture even in children. I have noticed adults returning to Church after a long absence, and week after week not going to communion. They really stand out because everyone else has to climb over them getting out of the pews. My wife and I have assisted some people over the years who are coming home to the Church after having been away for a long time. We have noticed, and the Church studies confirm this, when people come back, they go to Eucharist and receive communion first, then perhaps to the sacrament of reconciliation sometime later. I think that we as people first have to experience that we are loved, and then we can look at how we got hurt.
    Being human is about messing up, falling off the wagon, getting on the wagon at the next corner, and sharing your story of God’s mercy with those still on or off the wagon. Everyone needs a Savior and trying to scrupulously observe every jot and tittle of the law doesn’t cut it. Spirituality is about relationship with Holy Mystery.

  2. Wow, Ray! I loved your metaphor of how people are human and experience God–getting on and off the wagon and God is always there around the next corner lovingly waiting for us. That is a keeper description!

  3. Couldn’t agree more with this post. To me, obligation is an empty form of obedience. I want my community of faith to be compelling, not compulsory.

    1. Wow, loved the line: “I want my community of faith to be compelling not compulsory.” That too is a keeper!

  4. In his “The Shape of the Liturgy”, famous Anglican monk/scholar Dom Gregory Dix describes the absolutely crucial character of Sunday morning Eucharistic gatherings for the earliest Christians, who went to them under cover of darkness and usually in danger of arrest and death. Dom Gregory noted that the pull wasn’t just personal Communion, for Christians were allowed to reserve the Sacrament at home. It wasn’t just prayer, for Christians certainly prayed at home. And it might not even have been just public prayer, for in communities where Christians were late to be separated or separate themselves from their Jewish antecedents, they still met at the synagogue. However, for whatever reason, Christians continued to sneak into their house churches, and if caught, at least half prefered to say they were Christians and perish than to burn incense before a statue and be forever (or for a very long time indeed) banished from Sunday house church worship.

    It is significant perhaps, that our most recent martyrs of Egypt and Iraq died at Mass, in their churches, celebrating the Eucharist. Why did they go, knowing how endangered they were? How to explain their fidelity to the teenage son or brother who just doesn’t feel like going, or who dislikes the priest, or who can’t stand the choir?

    1. So true, Dorothy. Times of persecution are also times of deep and courageous faith and witness. And, it`s also true that we take our freedom to worship for granted. Which is better for the faith – a time of persecution or a time of peace? Ah, the big Constantine debate…..

  5. There is also a justice issue. Dulia, worship, is that which we owe to God. We are obliged to worship God. Christians have always worshipped God together as a Christian (and not simply Jewish, if applicable) community on Sundays. It is THE weekly profession of faith that marks a Christian a Christian and, historically, the LITERAL evidence that a Christian IS a Christian.

    As people who say we are Roman Catholics, we have certain other obligations. Roman Catholicism is not the birthright of certain ethnic groups nor an ethnic group itself. It is a voluntary membership in a community which has certain, easily discovered, rules, as do other communities, like the City of Saskatoon or even marriage (whose rules are in the vows and codified in law).

    The chief rules for membership in the Church, as every a child in a Catholic school before 1965 was taught, are:

    1. To keep holy Sundays and Holydays of obligation by hearing Mass and (if possible) avoiding servile work.
    2. To keep the days of fasting and absolution appointed by the Church.
    3. To go to confession at least once a year.
    4. To receive the Blessed Sacrament at least once a year, and that at Easter or thereabouts.
    5. To contribute to the support of our pastors.
    6. Not to marry within certain degrees of kindred, nor to solemnize marriage at the forbidden times.

    That’s it. Of course we have other responsibilities to God and to people-in-general (the spiritual and corporal works of mercy come to mind), but these are the basic membership rules of our voluntary, open, welcoming community of Roman Catholics. Six laws. The Girl Guides have twelve.

    To discover the logic of these particular rules, it might be helpful to consult St. Thomas Aquinas or some online source for apologetics.

  6. Hi Dorothy,

    If you kindly re-read my post, my issue is not around the importance of gathering as a Eucharistic community on Sundays. My issue is with the language of obligation. Bo`s comment above, about a community of faith being compelling not compulsory, holds a lot of wisdom for me. There are many shameful moments in the history of Christianity (and other religions) when belief was forced and enforced. For me, it`s the language of enforcement that I struggle with – whether it`s the threat of burning at the stake here on earth if I don’t convert, or burning in the fires of hell for all eternity if I don’t attend Sunday mass. Sure, it might bring some to worship out of fear. But is this what we want or need as a faith community? Is it what God wants or needs?

    As to the six laws that you present, it takes little effort to go through the motions and fulfill these requirements. It’s also easy to judge the faithfulness of each other. All you need is an attendance record, a collections record, and a back-ground check for marriage. But, does this really prove that you are a good Catholic or better Catholic than someone who doesn’t meet all these requirements?

    It’s interesting that the spiritual and corporal works of mercy are relegated to a side-bar or foot-note. Now these DO take an effort and real conversion of heart to fulfill. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and our neighbour. Love should be the basis of all we do. Not fear and threats.

    In peace,

  7. I don’t understand why the language of obligation is itself offensive. It is certainly unfashionable, as any child of a deadbeat dad could tell you. We have obligations to our spouses, families, employers, the state. Why the idea that we should resent obligations to our church communities and God, stated in the language of obligation, is beyond me. Of course a parent should love his/her child, but the parent pays for the child’s support not because the parent loves him/her , but because the parent OWES the child support.

    Of course we are asked to go BEYOND these six “chief commandments of the Church”, but we don’t do this by scrapping the six obligations. I am surprised by your comment about “judging.” Surely the most important judgement (under God) is a person’s honest evaluation of him/herself.

    The one time I think someone might want to ask a Catholic about his/her participation in Catholic worship is when he/she claims to speak “as a Catholic.” Life becomes more difficult for Catholics when Catholics who do not share in the life of the Church claim to speak “as a Catholic,” e.g. “Well, I’m a Catholic, and I think abortion-on-demand is okay.” At that point, I would certainly feel no compunction in saying, “And to what parish do you belong?” At a certain point, a Catholic who does not participate in Catholicism resembles the vegetarian who eats meat.

    Thomas Aquinas would agree that love is superior to fear; as a matter of fact, when he talks about “fear of the Lord” (one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit), he distinguishes “filial fear” from “servile fear”. When you have”filial fear” you wish not to displease God for you love God. When you have merely “servile fear” you wish not to displease God because you fear punishment. But Thomas does not condemn servile fear, even though he thinks filial fear vastly superior to it. Nor does he deny that there is punishment for sins. Nor does the New Testament deny it. God’s justice seems to demand it.

    I certainly think it takes little effort to fulfill the six “membership rules,” but something like 65% of Canadian Catholics don’t make it to Mass every Sunday, which is sad.

    Sorry to stick my oar in (I seem to be the only dialoguer), but Ray’s comment about having to climb over penitents not ready yet to go back to communion really got my goat. Now that I found judgemental.

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