Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

(Author’s Note: For the next few issues, in honor of school starting, all of the questions come from a group of college students studying the Catholic Faith.)
Dear Father Tharp,
Is it really a mortal sin to miss Mass? If I sleep late on Sunday and then later get hit by a bus on the way to dinner, will I really go to Hell? What if I believe sincerely as God as my savior (Jesus) and do good but just don’t believe that Mass is necessary for heaven? What if I am a regular Mass go-er and sometimes go instead to church with my protestant boy friend?
Sincerely Yours,
Trish Brown, Alva, OK

By way of review, there are three conditions for a sin to be mortal: 1. the object of the act must be grave, 2. the act must be committed with full knowledge of the evil, and 3. the act must be committed with deliberate and full consent (CCC #1857). In your question, you give the example of someone who accidentally over-sleeps and misses Sunday Mass. In this example, the person probably is not guilty of a mortal sin because it was not deliberate. Your question revolves, it seems to me, around whether or not the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday qualifies as grave matter.

For modern people, worship is an odd thing. Frequently, I hear the complaint that someone no longer attends Sunday Mass because it is boring or that they "get nothing out of it." This mentality reveals an attitude that worship is for the participant, but this is not properly speaking, a Christian line of reasoning. Worship, first and foremost, is service that we render back to God, in thanksgiving for everything that He has rendered to us in His goodness. We go to worship, not to receive something, but rather to GIVE something, a gift of ourselves, through active, participation in worship. Only after we have presented our gifts of self does Christ respond with a gift of His own.

When we look at the Ten Commandments, you will notice that the Commandments do not begin with how do we treat our neighbor. The first matter they address is what are my obligations to God. We are given three: that we have no idols or other gods that we worship, that we honor and reverence the name of God, and that we keep holy the Sabbath (Cf. Exodus 20:1-11, Deuteronomy 5:6-15, CCC #2168-2173). Thus, belonging to the Covenant God makes with His people involves the necessity of rendering worship and service back to Him. While it is laudable that people do good, they are still objectively out of step with God and His plan if they do not render Him the worship that in justice we owe to Him.

We find this notion strengthened in the New Testament in two senses. First, that on the eve of His sacrificial Death which will bring a new Covenant of Grace into the world, Jesus institutes a new definitive form of worship, the Holy Mass. He does this by taking the Passover celebration, which celebrated the first covenant and the liberation of Israel from Egypt, and instituting the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which represents for all generations the saving Death and Resurrection that liberates from our greatest oppressors sin, suffering, and death. When Jesus commands that the Apostles should "do this in memory of [Him]," the Greek verb tense used here for "do" is translated more fittingly as "keep on or continue to do this in memory of me." In short, the Holy Mass is a perpetual offering for the Church to connect us to this life-giving Mystery of the Lord. Through this sacrifice, we make clear our belonging to this covenant.
Second, we see the Sabbath moved from the last day of the week to the first in honor of the Resurrection. The Sabbath was the high point of God’s creation because it pointed to what we were made for, union with God. Due to sin and the Fall, we could not attain to this union. The Resurrection confirms that Christ’s sacrifice has redeemed Man and initiates a new covenant, one sealed in the Blood of Christ. As in the previous Covenant, the heart of the Sabbath centered on the worship of the temple. In the New Covenant, if the Sabbath is to be fulfilled, it too must center on worship, otherwise it would lose its essential connection to work of God in previous ages.

It goes without saying then that a person who misses Holy Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation without grave reason, e.g. serious illness, commits a mortal sin (cf. CCC #2174-2188). Furthermore, if we recognize that the Mass is divinely instituted worship, instituted by Christ, we see that while the intention of our Protestant brothers and sisters is to worship God, it cannot hold a candle to the Mass. No matter how good the preacher might be, or how lovely the choir, it is not the worship that Christ demands of us and that the Church through the centuries, in various forms, has celebrated.

Dear Father Tharp:
My girl friend would like me to join the Catholic Church. She says it doesn’t matter if we don’t agree on all the same things as long as we believe in God and in Christ as our Savior. She says it is ok for me to not believe in all of the teachings, since most Catholics don’t anyway. Is it ok to join if you don’t agree with all of the doctrines? I respect the Catholic Church and my girlfriend’s beliefs, I just can’t share some of them. What do you think?
Jesse Whitaker
St. Louis, MO.

The short answer to your question is "Absolutely not." With all due respect to your girlfriend, it doesn’t make a lick of sense to join the Catholic Church when you don’t agree with her teachings. It would akin to saying to an immigrant who wanted to be a U.S. citizen, "We’re so pleased to have you in the United States, but don’t feel like you have to follow our laws."

When one becomes a Catholic, either through baptism or through a public profession of faith, the person assents to all that Church teaches and binds themselves to follow the Church’s laws and practices. This derives from the fact that Catholics recognize the teaching authority of the Church comes not from men but from Christ Himself. To the apostles, He gave the authority to teach and to govern in His name (e.g. Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 10:16ff). This authority was handed over to the Bishops so that the voice of Christ can be heard even until the end of time. It follows then that when we follow and obey the Church’s teachings, we are actually following Christ.

Professing the Faith of the Church requires further growth and development on our part. While a candidate or a catechumen must understand the basic aspects of the Faith, this doesn’t mean he has exhausted it. As the teaching of the Church pertains to the mystery of God, what she professes can be understood while never being utterly spent. Each day to grow in knowledge is the task of a Catholic because ultimately Faith is not a matter of mastery of a topic; it is to know intimately the person of God.

However, with all that said, you, and every other authentic searcher for the truth, have an obligation placed upon them. You have the obligation to make sure you know to what and to whom you are saying "no." Archbishop Fulton Sheen had the line that most non-Catholics don’t hate the Church, but hate what they think the Church is. In the same way, you have to take the appropriate effort to understand what the content of the Church’s Faith actually is. I would recommend to you either The Catechism of the Catholic Church or The Catholic Catechism by Fr. John Hardon. Both works will be able to give you the proper perspective on your questions concerning the Catholic Faith. Your respect for both your girlfriend and for the Church are healthy signs, to me, for what it’s worth, of a search that is just beginning.

When it comes to being a Catholic, there are two approaches. On the one hand, you can treat the Church and her teachings like a cafeteria, where you take only the parts you like or want. You can see how that isn’t nourishing in terms of food and is less so when it comes to spiritual matters. On the other hand, you can treat the Church and her teachings as a rich banquet where one fills their belly with every wondrous, delightful thing. That’s all the Church offers, a chance to taste the fullness of the good things that Christ has given us for our salvation.