A common charge against the Catholic Church that I’ve heard from a number of opponents is against the fact that the Church obligates her children to attend Mass each Sunday and on other declared holy days of obligation, and especially against the fact that “it’s a mortal sin to miss Mass.” Supposedly this is an example of the flagrant and tyrannical legalism of the Church, that she would dare to assert authority over how Christians spend their weekends and even dare to declare, arbitrarily, what is sin and what is not.
I’ve always had a simple answer to this challenge, but never had any particular scriptural support to cite. But today in my private Bible study I happened upon it: a clear statement of the mind of God on the matter, and what has always been the mind of the Church. But first, addressing the objections is in order.
Not Dictating Sin, but Labeling Sin
First, it’s important to realize that the Church does not have the authority to dictate what is and isn’t sin. The Church’s authority and duty is to teach the truth she has received from Scripture and Tradition. When the Church teaches that something is a sin, it is not arbitrary: it’s because something about that act or behavior objectively places one in opposition to God and His order and plan for us.
It is that opposition, not anything arbitrary, that makes an act a mortal sin. The Church teaches that in order to be a mortal sin, an act must be of a grave matter, objectively opposed to God’s order, and done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). A sin is a sin because it is those things, not because the Church declares it sinful; and yes, there are certainly cases, when an act is done in ignorance or against one’s will, that it is not a sin after all. The moral teachings of Scripture and of the Church are there to guide and to guard, to direct God’s people to a safe path; it is only God who judges. The Church declares something a sin not to condemn the sinner, but to warn him, to correct him, to save him.
Those who object to the idea of mortal sin in the first place ought to read my recent series on grace and justification and “falling from grace.” Does mortal sin — and does missing Mass — cause a Christian to “lose his salvation”? No — not in the terms that Protestants understand such things. Mortal sin, for a Christian, is more akin to stumbling into mud and hurting oneself than being cast out from the Lord’s kingdom.
“Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?
So, “missing Mass is a mortal sin.” Well — it’s not quite that simple. Yes, I know any one of you can dig up quotations from popes, teachers, catechisms, that state in plain terms, “missing Mass is a mortal sin” — when taken out of context. But I am here to say, as anything more than a topical reading would reveal, that there is more to the matter than such a flat declaration. Is simply missing Mass, not going to church on a Sunday, for whatever reason, “grave matter”? Many in today’s western (largely Protestant) world — where church attendance has become casual and inconsequential — would say no, of course not; it is an optional and personal decision. But the more important question to ask is, why did you miss Mass? Was it intentional and deliberate? Could it have been avoided? Did you know better?
There are plenty of cases — more than I could possibly name — when missing Mass would not be a sin. Were you elderly and homebound, or even simply sick in bed? Did you have to work, and there was no possible way around it? Were you traveling and not in a place or situation where you could reasonably find a Mass to attend? Were you caring for a new baby or a sick loved one? Did you have other, important family or social obligations that could not be missed or rescheduled? Or did you simply choose, deliberately and intentionally, not to go to Mass? Did you decide that there was something else, a football game or holiday party, that you would rather go to instead? Did you simply not feel like it, out of anger or spite or even apathy? Any priest would tell you that in the former cases, and many more, you were not at fault; the latter are a different situation entirely.
Missing the Lord’s Banquet
Jesus gave several parables in His preaching to the kingdom of God being a great banquet or feast (Matthew 22:1–14, Luke 14:7–24, cf. Revelation 19:6–9). Throughout His ministry, He invited the lost to dine with Him (e.g. Luke 15:2). The Mass, the Eucharist, is the Lord’s Supper — the great feast He has prepared for us, at great cost to Himself, and invited each of us to come and dine with Him (John 6:35; cf. Revelation 3:20), promising to feed us richly with the bread of life, to reward us with the great bounty that awaits, eternal life, and to share with us the most intimate fellowship and communion with Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16). Missing Mass is more than simply “deciding not to go to church today”; to deliberately choose not to go to Mass is to refuse the Lord’s invitation, to say to Him that there are more important things to you. This is the mortal sin: not merely “missing Mass” — which, by itself, might not be a sin at all — but the deliberate rejection of the Lord.
And there’s more, a striking biblical support for this teaching, that I was stunned to discover today.
Offering the Lord’s Offering at the Appointed Time
Of course, as everyone knows, we are to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) — and, barring the objections of “Seventh-Day” Christians and some “Hebrew Roots” proponents (which I will address another time), most Christians generally accept the traditional teaching of the Church, that from apostolic times Christians have transferred the Old Testament Sabbath obligation to Sunday in honor of our Lord’s Resurrection. But today I found an even more explicit statement of the Church’s teaching on the Sunday obligation, in the ordinances of the Israelites concerning the Passover:
And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Let the people of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, in the evening, you shall keep it at its appointed time; according to all its statutes and all its ordinances you shall keep it.” …
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If any man of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is afar off on a journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. … But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, yet refrains from keeping the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people, because he did not offer the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin. (Numbers 9:1–3, 9–10, 13)
Not only is Sunday the fulfillment of the commandment to “remember the Sabbath,” but the Mass is the fulfillment of the Passover, “for Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). To the degree that the Israelites kept the Passover, which marked their liberation from human bondage — that much, and more, should Christians venerate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, which sets us free from darkness unto life!
Similar to the Church’s teaching, it is only the man who, despite being perfectly well and able, deliberately refrains from keeping the Passover who is to be cut off. But if failing to keep the Passover was such a grave matter for the Israelites, is it not understandable that refusing to honor the Passover of the Lord, refusing to offer the Lord’s offering — ourselves — at the appointed time, is a grave matter for the Church? And yet the Lord, and the Church, is merciful: for this and every other sin, there is forgiveness and healing and a welcoming back to the banquet.