The Sunday Obligation: “Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

Van Gent, Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1474)

Justus van Gent, Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1474)

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

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompeo Batoni.

First, it’s important to realize that the Church does not have the authority to dictate what is and isn’t sin, beyond what God Himself holds. 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”?

Jesus and the Eucharist

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

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: Adoration of the Lamb

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: The Adoration of the Lamb (c. 1432).

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

Marc Chagall, "The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb" (1931)

Marc Chagall, Les Israélites mangent l’Agneau de la Pâque (“The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb”), 1931 (WikiArt).

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.

20 thoughts on “The Sunday Obligation: “Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

  1. Well, missing Mass on a holy day of obligation (which includes Sunday) IS a mortal sin. If you choose not to go to Mass out of spite or anger, or even out of apathy, it is a sin. And you need to confess that sin before you receive Communion again. Of course, as you mentioned, there a more ways that missing Mass is not a mortal sin– if you are sick or caring for the sick; or caring for a new baby; or traveling; or working on both Saturday night and all day Sunday. It happens. But wanting to sleep in because you are tired may not be an acceptable reason to miss. Nor is your favorite football game or a holiday party scheduled at your preferred Mass time. Nor is being out of town. And it’s good that you know WHY we have that obligation, as you’ve mentioned here, to help us determine if the reason we are missing is an acceptable one.

    I think it’s good to keep in mind that missing Mass can be a mortal sin so that we can help discern if the reason we are skipping is legit or not.

    • Yes, you’re right, and I agree with everything you’ve said. But anti-Catholics try to make it a legalistic requirement set for social control, “just to keep the sheep fenced in” — and while it’s true that the Sunday obligation does ensure that the faithful sheep will never stray too far (I don’t know how many times it’s been when I slipped into something and didn’t feel like going to Mass and to Confession, but the requirement urged me to go to my repentance and healing anyway — thank God), my point is that it’s not just a bare, legalistic restriction, but something with a reason and heart. We “have to go to Mass” in the same way that we “have” to go to an important family dinner, and refusing the invitation is even more serious.

      • I think the most important part is to know WHY we HAVE to go to Mass. Which means we need to know our faith and WHY we have it. Then there go all the legalistic rants out the window. 😉

        Some people change the phrase from “holy day of obligation” to “holy day of opportunity” and that annoys me. It IS an obligation. It’s an obligation we have to the Lord- not a building or even the people in it. But it is in an obligation. And how blessed we are when it is a joy to fulfill it.

  2. I find a lot of this suspect… I don’t think you make a coherent argument. I feel like the little pieces don’t add up to the sum you present.

    First, I do appreciate that you make a clear distinction between circumstances preventing one from attending Sunday Mass and simply choosing not to attend Mass. I tend to think that there are a lot of legitimate reasons not to attend Mass on Sunday morning, and was surprised that you also include reasons such as work or other family obligations.

    However, I have issues with most of your supporting arguments.

    When Jesus is talking about the great feast and the wedding banquet, and especially when such a thing is talked about in Revelation, it is eschatological, looking forward to what is come (Matthew takes the Q story and makes this explicitly about the kingdom of heaven). The Eucharist is a foretaste and a part of that feast, but is not the whole of the feast.

    Not taking the Eucharist on Sunday is not a rejection of Christ’s eschatological invitation, because they are not one and the same.

    If the mortal sin is not participating in the Eucharist, as your feast analogy suggests, then what of those who come to Mass, but when it come time to actually take the Eucharist, decide that, in their conscience, they cannot worthily receive that week? Did they commit a mortal sin?

    And if the mortal sin is not taking the Eucharist, then what about the other days? My local Roman Catholic church offers Mass during the week as well. If missing those Masses is not a mortal sin, then it must not be missing the Eucharist alone that causes one to fall into mortal sin. Is it only missing Mass on Sunday that is a mortal sin?

    Not taking the Eucharist on other days is not a rejection of Christ, so why is it only on Sunday?

    While Christians may interpret the Sunday as the “new” Sabbath, we don’t actually fulfill any of the Sabbath requirements. The connection between the two is very tenuous. When the Jewish people interpreted the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, they figured out everything that should be done that day to keep it holy. Christians don’t do any of it, except one–worship in community. The celebration of the resurrection on Sunday is not the same day as the Sabbath, and is not under the same regulations.

    Because Sunday is not the Sabbath and under the same regulations, and because keeping the Sabbath holy involves much more than attending worship, not attending Mass is not violating the Sabbath regulations (or, at least, not any more than the other regulations we violate).

    The Passover is a Jewish festival that Christians do not celebrate. It is a festival that occurs once a year, unlike the Christian celebration of the resurrection, which happens at least 52 times a year (I don’t know the number of actual obligated non-Sunday holy days). While Christ is the Passover lamb and celebrated that meal with his disciples; and if Mass is understood as the next step in the fulfillment of that liberating feast (which will not be fully realized until the eschaton), that still does not mean they are the same festival.

    It is a weak argument to take rules and regulations that applied to Jewish festivals and celebrations, and apply them to the Mass, which is not the same celebration and serves an entirely different purpose. Sunday =/= Jewish Sabbath. Sunday =/= Passover.

    “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.”

    This is the definition of apostasy. But, as I have argued, not attending Mass on Sunday is not apostasy. The argument that rejecting Jesus and everything he is and taught is skipping Mass on Sunday (but not other days) because it is the full eschatological feast (it isn’t) fulfilling the Sabbath requirements (it doesn’t) and is the Passover (it isn’t) just… doesn’t hold up. The pieces are shaky, and if you are going to accuse people of apostasy, the pieces need to stand up on their own to support the accusation that someone has fallen away from the faith and willfully rejected Jesus Christ.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ken. As always, I appreciate your input.

      I find a lot of this suspect… I don’t think you make a coherent argument. I feel like the little pieces don’t add up to the sum you present.

      The perceived coherence of the argument depends a lot on what argument you think I was trying to make. I don’t think I made any claim so grand as what you seem to be arguing against. The general thrust of the post is to reject that the claims of those who would argue that it’s arbitrary and legalistic for the Church to claim that it’s a sin to forsake the Mass. The Church has good, solid, and scriptural reasons for holding that.

      Not taking the Eucharist on Sunday is not a rejection of Christ’s eschatological invitation, because they are not one and the same.

      I don’t think I equated the two. Jesus used the feast as a metaphor, and so did I. Apart from its eschatological connotations, the Eucharist is certainly an invitation, an invitation to communion, and rejecting that invitation is a serious matter.

      If the mortal sin is not participating in the Eucharist, as your feast analogy suggests, then what of those who come to Mass, but when it come time to actually take the Eucharist, decide that, in their conscience, they cannot worthily receive that week? Did they commit a mortal sin?

      No. The sin, if there be one, is choosing not to even show up, when one has the ability and opportunity to do so. Concerning receiving the Eucharist, the only requirement (as canon law declares, see Canon 920) is that one receive the Eucharist at least once a year.

      …it must not be missing the Eucharist alone that causes one to fall into mortal sin.

      No, it’s not.

      Not taking the Eucharist on other days is not a rejection of Christ, so why is it only on Sunday?

      Because since apostolic times, Sunday (the Lord’s Day) has been an obligatory celebration. Rejecting Sunday Mass is not just rejecting the communion of Christ; it’s rejecting the community of the Church.

      Christians don’t do any of [that], except … worship in community.

      At its most basic, apart from the regulations of the Law, the Sabbath was to be a day of rest; and that requirement has been transferred in the Church to Sunday (CCC 2184–2188).

      It is a weak argument to take rules and regulations that applied to Jewish festivals and celebrations, and apply them to the Mass, which is not the same celebration and serves an entirely different purpose. Sunday =/= Jewish Sabbath. Sunday =/= Passover.

      I only meant to illustrate that the teaching that deliberately forsaking the Mass is a sin has a direct parallel in Scripture.

      This is the definition of apostasy. … The argument that rejecting Jesus and everything he is and taught is skipping Mass on Sunday … just… doesn’t hold up.

      Such is only “the definition of apostasy” if you take that single sentence out of the context of the whole rest of the post and interpret it hyper-literally. You usually aren’t so much of a Protestant, Ken. 😉

      His peace be with you, my friend.

  3. I’m a catholic, but I don’t agree with it. I know we have to pray, but we don’t have to go to church for it. We can pray and commune everywhere, as God is in heaven and sees the entire world from there. Even Jesus said that the place you pray doesn’t matter, only if you’re praying in spirit and truth (John 4:21-23). The Cathecism may say that missing Mass is a sin, but the Church can’t be above the Sacred Scriptures. The Holy Mass is good for flesh and soul, and is very valuable, but I agree with Pr. Ken. There are much worse things than missing mass.

    • Hi, thanks for the comment.

      So, you take John 4:21-23 to mean that “it doesn’t matter where you worship”? Yes, Jesus declared that the true worship of God would not be centered solely in Jerusalem or anywhere else. And yes, God is present in all places through the Holy Spirit, and our prayers can reach Him anywhere. But certainly Jesus did not declare that the manner of worship was irrelevant. What does it mean to “worship God in spirit and truth”? You seem to reduce it merely to “praying and communing” — but we as Catholics believe that the highest worship, and the most intimate communion, both with God and with the Body of Christ, is found only in the Eucharist. How can you “commune” with God if you deny communion with His Body, offered for us?

      Should the Church have no such requirement, then, to attend Mass? Would a responsible shepherd give her children permission to wander freely and alone? The obligation to attend Mass is first and foremost for our protection, not for the mere sake of a legalistic requirement.

  4. IMO the church’s use of venial and mortal sin as “qualifiers” is itself a childish and useless demarcation. Sin is sin indeed, as you noted, and requires the sinner to repent of it in order to regain a right relationship with God.

    You do better when you say “the RCC teaches that missing mass is a sin,” not so much when you say that is “actual sin,” or worse, “mortal sin.” These designations are not biblical, nor are they particularly helpful in terms of helping your fellow Catholics in the proper formation of one’s conscience, and may very well have adverse spiritual and psychological effects.

    All of the arguments used to support this “teaching” simply prey on people’s fears and IMHO should be discarded in light of modern theological thought (including RC thought) regarding the meaning of Almighty God’s word and ways. The fact remains that there are countless ways to uphold the gospel mandates and “keep holy the sabbath,” and attending RC mass would not necessarily be at the top of the list.

    • Welcome, Scott, and thanks for the comment. Are you Catholic?

      In fact, yes, Scripture does make a distinction between “mortal” sin and sin that is not (1 John 5:16-17): “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (literally a sin “not unto death”). And in fact, the distinction makes a profound, practical, and helpful difference in how we understand the sin and how we deal with it. There is a deeply profoundly spiritual and psychological danger — I can attest after more than thirty years as a Protestant — in not acknowledging that some sin can lead to spiritual death. The Protestant approach to sin, in general, glosses over this danger, making all sin equal and equally “covered” — and in my case, though I realize in retrospect that I was misled, leading me to believe that it was equally dismissable.

      I don’t know what “modern theological thought” you are referring to, but I am aware of schools that would just as soon dismiss the concept of sin altogether. This is contrary to both Scripture and Christian tradition. And no — if you even read my post, or any of the comment thread that, I don’t believe there can be anything higher on the “list” than partaking of the most intimate Communion with the Lord.

      His peace be with you!

  5. Did anyone he (Jesus) invited to the Eucharist ever attend mass before? Did he (Jesus) ask them to confess before doing so? Even his disciple, in the last supper was in a state of sin (you will deny me three times, no, no, no I won’t, and another with betrayal in his heart already ready to give him over) and partook. So what, exactly, is the Catholic Church’s reasoning behind “having to confess if you missed a Sunday” to partake in the Eucharist. Seems sort of un-Christ like, if examined a little closer.

    • Hi, maouse, thanks for the comment. Yes, absolutely, if any of Jesus’s disciples had gravely sinned against him, they would have confessed it to him, especially before joining with him in so intimate a supper; and he would have forgiven them. I dare say he would have forgiven even Judas for his betrayal. You seem to forget that the idea of Communion with the Lord is about a relationship with him — which the disciples certainly had far more intimately than we can even imagine — and not about some legalistic ritual. We do see the consequences, as you yourself point out, of coming to Jesus with sin in one’s heart: Jesus already knew, and called Judas out.

      (Actually, it’s not at all clear at what point Judas left the Last Supper, of if he received the Lord’s Body and Blood. None of the four Gospels mentions the moment at which Judas departed. Only one of them places the hand-dipping episode [“He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me”] after the institution of the Eucharist. That’s Luke, and he seems to mention it only in passing. Each of the four Evangelists has been noted to rearrange the chronology of events as it suits his narrative; Mark, the oldest source, places it before.)

      I already described the Church’s reasoning in the “Sunday obligation” above. You apparently either didn’t read it or didn’t like it. In the former case, I offer that to you; in the latter, I don’t think I have much more to say. Very briefly: Paul instructs us to “examine ourselves” in receiving Communion, lest we “profane the Body and Blood of the Lord” by eating or drinking unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). This means — as I was always taught even as a Protestant — that if we have some grave matter of sin on our hearts, we’d better seek the Lord’s forgiveness before joining in Communion with Him. So, is it a sin to miss Sunday Mass? That’s what I describe above. If you have a good reason for not being there, possibly not; it’s when you do so intentionally — when you tell the Lord, “There are things I would rather be doing than having Communion with You” — that there is a problem.

      His peace be with you!

  6. Thank you for this discussion. My wife and I (Anglicans) went through the RCIA program at our local Catholic Church, and hung up on this doctrine. Can anyone provide an answer to this question: How does the Catholic Church reconcile it’s doctrine (if that’s the right word) regarding missing mass as a mortal sin with Colossians 2:13-17 “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore DO NOT LET ANYONE JUDGE YOU by what you eat or drink, or WITH REGARD TO a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or A SABBATH DAY (compressing it – “do not let anyone judge you with regard to a Sabbath day”). These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” It seems that St. Paul is saying “do not let anyone judge you with regard to observing a Sabbath day.” By declaring that failing to observe the Sabbath day by attending mass is a mortal sin, how is the Catholic Church not judging me with respect to a Sabbath day (since the Lord’s Day (Sunday) is expressly linked, and takes the place of the Jewish Sabbath day per the Catechism)?

    • Thanks, Brad, for the comment. In answering your question, I would first ask you to consider the context of what Paul is addressing in Colossians 2. He is writing against his perpetual adversaries, the Judaizers, who really were passing judgment and condemnation on Gentile Christians because they did not observe the Jewish festivals and calendar of the Old Covenant. These things, he writes, are but a shadow of things to come, a precursor of the grace we find in Christ. Now, what does he mean by “pass judgment”? The Judaizers were declaring that anyone who did not observe these elements of the Law was not a true Christian. I would argue that the kind of judgment of which Paul writes is not at all the kind of “judgment” you are here ascribing to the Catholic Church.

      Only God can judge us for our sins. As I’ve written here, all the Church does is point out what is sinful behavior, according to the revelation God has given us, and as best as she is able, hold us accountable for it. What is the sin of missing a Sunday Mass? Is it the mere act of not attending a festival? Not at all. In fact, holding us accountable for absence at Mass has nothing to do with “judging with regard to a sabbath” at all — that is, not to do with the day or festival — and everything to do with our obedience and faithfulness. God commands us to “remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy”; Jesus teaches us to “abide in [Him]”, and that “unless [we] eat [His] flesh and drink [His] blood, [we] have no life in [us].” As I’ve pointed out here, the sin is not missing Mass per se, but intentionally rejecting Christ’s invitation, flouting His commandments, declaring that we have better things to do than partake of His Supper.

      Placing it in a human context: If you are invited to your Mother’s for dinner, and you simply don’t show up, you might have a good and excusable reason for doing so, but you at least owe Mom a phone call in apology. That is all the Church asks. The times I have had to miss Sunday Mass or a Day of Obligation — because I was sick, because I had to work, once because I simply and honestly forgot — I received no condemnation at all from any confessor, only grace for my humility in admitting my shortcoming. If you really do mean to argue that by your own authority, you should be able to skip Mass whenever you well please, and no One has the right to be offended or to judge otherwise — then yes, that’s exactly why this is considered a mortal sin.

      The peace of the Lord be with you.

      • And also with you.

        Thank you for your comprehensive reply. If you are willing, I’d like to explore this a bit further – just so I make sure I understand the matter. In doing so, please understand that I am not being argumentative – I am really trying to understand this issue, because it’s currently keeping my wife and I from entering the Catholic Church.

        First – a clarification: I am not bothered or concerned about the fact that the Church teaches that a Christian should attend church. I’ve always done so, quite faithfully. My issue is the Church’s teaching that failing to do so is a mortal sin – that is, failing to do so places the offender outside of God’s grace, until reconciled to the Church through confession, absolution, and penance.

        Second, whenever I refer to the Church’s position that failing to attend Mass on Sunday is a mortal sin, I understand that there are various reasons that may excuse one from attending Mass on Sunday (or Saturday night, where offered), in which cases failing to attend Mass on Sunday is not a mortal sin.

        So, my first question is: Is the Church’s position that failing to attend Mass on Sunday (a/k/a the Lord’s Day) based on the position that failing to attend Mass on Sunday constitutes a violation of the Third Commandment “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”?

        • The clarification I would make — though it’s possible that some Catholics might disagree with me — that it’s not the act of missing Mass at all that makes it a mortal sin — that is, not one’s presence or absence per se, as if God or one’s pastor has a clipboard taking roll — but the intention to do so deliberately. No sin is considered a mortal sin unless it is committed with full knowledge of its wrongness and full, deliberate intent to do it.

          And in answer to your question: yes. The Sunday obligation, and the sin associated with flouting it, is described in the Catechism under the heading of the Third Commandment (by Catholic reckoning), “Remember the sabbath day.” The whole section in context is worth reading; it explains the reasoning of the Church more fully than I have here. But the important passage (emphasis mine):

          2181. The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor (cf. CIC [Code of Canon Law], can. 1245). Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

  7. Again – thank you.

    That seems to be the inescapable conclusion – that, as you said in your first post (and as it seems to be confirmed in the Catechism) – “. . . we are to ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’ (Exodus 20:18) – and [that] 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 other words, according to Church teaching, Sunday is now the Sabbath day, as that term is used in the Third Commandment.

    But having now established that Sunday is the Sabbath day for purposes of the Third Commandment – I fail to see how St. Paul’s admonition “Let no one judge you with respect to a Sabbath day” does not apply to what we’ve determined is the Sabbath day; and, by extension of that principle, how the Church’s law that the Christian has an obligation to observe the Sabbath day in a particular way – by attending Mass – and that failing to do so constitutes a mortal sin, is consistent with St. Paul’s admonition. If the Church declares that I have committed a mortal sin by not observing the Sabbath day in a certain way – by attending Mass – the Church has judged me with respect to a Sabbath day; it has passed judgment on me that I have committed a mortal sin by not observing the Sabbath day in the manner the Church prescribes. I fail to see how that’s not judging me with respect to a Sabbath day.

    If the argument is that Paul’s admonition applies to the Jewish Sabbath day but not to the Christian Sabbath day, one would have to conclude that the Christian Sabbath day is not, in fact, the Sabbath day of the Third Commandment; that it’s something different. But we’ve already determined that not to be the case. If the Christian Sabbath day is not, in fact, the Sabbath day of the Third Commandment, then (1) the Church itself is not observing the Third Commandment, because the Third Commandment clearly defines the Sabbath day as the seventh day – ie Saturday – not Sunday,and (2) not observing the Christian Sabbath day cannot be a violation of the Third Commandment, because the Christian Sabbath day is not the Sabbath day of the Commandment.

    The argument that what’s really at issue is not whether you go to Mass but rather whether one is deliberately failing to commune with the Lord is not very persuasive, because it’s clear that the question is not WHETHER one communes with the Lord (by going to Mass and participating in the Eucharist), or even how often, but only WHEN one does so. According to the Church’s teaching, I can go to Mass Monday through Friday, but even after having done so, if I deliberately absent myself from Mass on Sunday, I’ve committed a mortal sin. On the other hand, if I attend Mass on Sunday but deliberately don’t attend Mass any other day of the week, I’ve not committed mortal sin. Hence, the one who has accepted the Lord’s invitation to commune with Him five times as often as the other is in mortal sin, while the one who has accepted the Lord’s invitation only once is not. Therefore, the problem at issue cannot be simply whether one accepts the Lord’s invitation to commune.

    Here’s what I’ve got so far: (1) Sunday is the Sabbath day; (2) one must observe the Sabbath day in a certain way, namely by attending Mass; (3) failing to observe the Sabbath day in that certain way, namely by attending Mass, is a mortal sin because it constitutes a violation of the Third Commandment, but (4) the Church’s judgment that one has committed mortal sin by not observing the Sabbath day in the prescribed way – by attending Mass – does not constitute a judgment with respect to a Sabbath day and, therefore, does not contradict St. Paul’s admonition – “Let no one judge you with respect to a Sabbath day.”

    Where am I wrong?

    • Brad, thanks again. It’s clear you already have your own conclusion about this. It was obviously a serious enough concern for you to keep you from the Church. I have explained my reasoning, and you don’t seem to accept it.

      I will say briefly that I think the mistake you’re making is in viewing this all in a legalistic, syllogistic framework. No, I would not agree that just because the sabbath obligation of the Third Commandment is now applied in the Church to the Lord’s Day, the Lord’s Day is the Sabbath; nor can we argue that because Paul rejected “judging with regard to a sabbath,” this statement can now be equally applied to Sunday. This is not a valid logical syllogism. I have explained the context in which Paul was arguing. He was rejecting the Judaizers’ continued claims of the Torah on a Christian’s life: the specific, ritual, ceremonial requirements. This is not a blanket statement: he does not say that “there shall be no judgment at all about anything connected to a sabbath day whatsoever,” as you seem to be arguing. What he was rejecting was not the Third Commandment, or the idea that the Sabbath must be observed. What he describes — festivals, new moons, and sabbaths — are the three classes of calendar observances required by the Torah. He does not abrogate the weekly obligation to keep a sabbath day: Paul elsewhere enjoins the whole Ten Commandments on Christians, as does Christ Himself. Paul’s context in Colossians does not apply at all to the present situation. But if you have already rejected my argument, then I see no reason to continue making it.

      It is the Lord — not Paul, not the Church — that commands us to keep the sabbath holy. Christians, since the earliest times, have celebrated the principal observance of the Lord’s mysteries on Sunday, not on weekdays. The Church’s requirement to attend Mass on Sunday is a normative requirement, a minimum expectation. Communing with the Lord any other day is wonderful — but the Lord made no commandments about any other day but Sunday. He did not rise from the dead, nor send His Holy Spirit, on any other day but Sunday.

      Your other continued mistake is a continuation of the first: because you are viewing this in a legalistic framework, you presume that because the Church declares missing Sunday miss to be a grave sin, it is a grave sin, ex opere operatum. No, I have explained several times, it is your intention that makes it a mortal sin, not the mere fact of missing Sunday Mass. Is it your intention to flout the Third Commandment and the Church’s requirement? Then yes, that’s a sin. If that’s not your intention — if you really do have a good reason for not coming to Mass on Sunday, and have a sincere intention to commune with the Lord again as soon as possible — then no, that’s probably not a mortal sin, whether you ever go to Confession or not. More than one priest has told me — when I go to confess missing Mass for a decidedly good reason — that I needn’t have bothered. Neither God nor the Church is so harsh a judge standing over Christians wielding a rod of judgment, waiting to put the smackdown the moment we slip. The confessional is not a court of law. Try to view this in terms of mercy, not judgment: The Lord wants to give us good gifts. Deliberately rejecting His grace, whether it’s by not attending his Supper, or by turning away from any other commandment, is bound, by our intention, to be detrimental to our souls.

      • Joseph:

        This will be my last post. But in signing off, let me say that the reason I’ve been unable to resolve this issue is not – as you allege – because I’ve made up my mind, but because I’ve yet to receive a coherent explanation of my concern.

        What I get, instead, is an explanation, the underlying premises of which continue to shift, depending upon what’s being contended. First it’s contend that the Lord’s Day (Sunday) IS the Sabbath day, for purposes of the Third Commandment, under which we’re still bound and which provides the Church with the authority to announce that failure to attend Mass on Sunday is a violation of the Third Commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”; but then it is contended that it is NOT the Sabbath day for purposes of St. Paul’s admonition not to judge anyone with respect to a Sabbath day.

        I assert that to be coherent, we’re either bound by the Third Commandment or we’re not.

        If we are, then we’re not free to change it. The Third Commandment very specifically defines the Sabbath day as the seventh day (not the first day or the eighth day – or any other day). The very fact that the Church feels free not to observe the Sabbath day of the Third Commandment demonstrates that the Church does not really believe Christians are actually bound by the Third Commandment. Indeed, the Catechism specifically says that “Sunday is expressly distinguished from the Sabbath which it follows chronologically every week” and “for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath” [2175]. So the Church itself admits that Sunday is not the Sabbath day of the Third Commandment.

        But it then purports to transfer the obligations of the Third Commandment to a day (Sunday) it admits is not the Sabbath day (see Catechism section 2175 again, where it states that “[Sunday] observance replaces that of the Sabbath”). If we are not bound by the Third Commandment – and it appears the Church says we are not (or at least the Church cannot coherently say we are, since the Church itself does not observe the Sabbath day of the Third Commandment and expressly states that “Sunday is expressly distinguished from the Sabbath”) – then the Third Commandment cannot serve as the basis of the Church’s teaching with respect to the Sunday obligation, since the Church itself does not observe the Sabbath day.

        That’s not to say the Church cannot – if it so desires – promulgate a Church law that an adherent must attend Sunday Mass. But it cannot then coherently claim that failure to comply with that law is a violation of the Third Commandment. It would be a violation of Church law, but not a violation of the Lord’s Third Commandment.

        So, in essence, what you want me to accept is that Sunday is the Sabbath – but also that Sunday is not the Sabbath; that we are bound by the Third Commandment – but also that we’re not bound by the Third Commandment; that it is a mortal sin for one not to observe the Third Commandment – while the Church itself does not observe it and teaches that I need not observe it either. I’m sorry, but I would have to abandon reason to do that. I’ve spoken about this to many Catholics, and I have yet to receive a coherent, reasonable explanation that is consistent with Scripture – especially with respect to St. Paul’s admonition “Let no one judge you with respect to a Sabbath day.” I’m still waiting.

        In signing off, I’d point out that, contrary to what I’m always hearing – namely, that the Church has always held that failing to attend Sunday Mass is a mortal sin – it would appear that historically that has not been the case. The first time failure to attend Mass was addressed appears to be at the Council of Elvira, in the year 300 A.D., a merely local Council that held, in Canon 29, that “If anyone living in the city does not go to church for three Sundays, he shall be kept out for a short time in order that his punishment be made public.” Notice that no punishment was imposed for not attending Mass until the adherent failed to attend for three Sundays, and there is no mention of the failure constituting a mortal sin or a requirement that the offender having to go through the Rite of Reconciliation. The next mention of the practice was at the Council of Agde, another merely local council, in 506 A.D. But it was not until 1917 – only 99 years ago – that the obligation was codified in the Code of Canon Law as a universal law of the Church.

        Thank you. And may God bless you.

        • Brad: Let me try one more time to explain, now that you have explained your concerns more fully.

          I don’t think there has been any inconsistency in either the Church’s claims or in my explanations of them. I’ll say again, I think your problem stems from a very rigid and interpretation of the biblical texts, one with different premises than those which the Catholic understanding proceeds and with hasty, foregone conclusions. You’ve suggested my premises have shifted: I think, instead, that you’ve made some incorrect assumptions about what my premises are. I suggested, in your words, that you have already made up your mind. About a number of these premises and conclusions, including what Paul means by “judging with respect to a sabbath,” you certainly have already made up your mind, and insisted on it. I have argued that Paul’s context does not fit the way you are interpreting his statement. About this we apparently disagree. I will not restate my argument a third time.

          The Church’s argument is a nuanced one: No, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is not the Jewish Sabbath. Yes, the obligation to keep a day of rest in honor of the Lord, according to the Third Commandment, is now fulfilled by keeping the Lord’s Day. Yes, Christians are still obligated to keep the Third Commandment. No, Paul’s statement in Colossians does not abrogate the Third Commandment, or have anything to do with that obligation.

          These premises are not in conflict, unless one proceeds from your foregone conclusions, namely that the commandment to keep a sabbath day refers rigidly to the seventh day of the week, the Jewish Sabbath, and that the Church is not free to change that obligation. You have not made this argument until now. I should have realized this was the position you were proceeding from: your argument against the Sunday obligation rings very much of conversations I have had in the past with Seventh Day Adventists. It is quite true that an argument for the sabbath obligation being transferred to the Lord’s Day cannot be made from Scripture alone. I have often said that Seventh Day Adventists are the only true practitioners of sola scriptura. But it is quite clear, though, nascently in Scripture (e.g. Acts 20:7, Revelation 1:10) and definitively in the earliest of the Church Fathers (e.g. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Magnesians IX) that the Apostles, their earliest followers, and the Church from the earliest times, did celebrate Christian worship on the Lord’s Day, not the Sabbath, and that they understood the keeping of the Lord’s Day to supersede and replace the Sabbath in the keeping of the Third Commandment. You may make an argument that by the letter of the law, “they can’t do that”; that the only proper keeping of the Third Commandment is by the actual Jewish Sabbath. But that is exactly what they did. This is not a matter of law — as you observe, no such law was promulgated until a later date — but of apostolic authority and tradition. If you maintain that not even the Apostles have the authority to do such a thing, then it is true that you have already made up your mind, against even the testimony of tradition.

          We are indeed bound by the Third Commandment, and all the Commandments, as the Lord Himself enjoins (e.g. Matthew 519, 19:17; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20). Is it a sin to disobey the Commandments of God? I am certain you would agree that it is. But does “keeping the sabbath holy” necessarily translate to “attending Sunday Mass”; and does this go without saying? Certainly not. As I have been saying repeatedly with regard to sin and intention, something can only be termed a grave or mortal sin of the sinner knows fully and understands that the thing is a sin and does so deliberately and intentionally. I have told you several times that the sin of missing Sunday Mass has more to do with obedience than with the day itself. That is true. It is the Church that has taught that celebrating the Christian mysteries on the Lord’s Day is an essential part of keeping that day holy. This is an ancient teaching, as councils throughout history have indicated (I can provide references if you wish). The teaching does proceed from the Church’s tradition and understanding of the Third Commandment. It is intentional disobedience of the Church’s teachings — not its codification in law — that makes the action sinful. Whether deliberately skipping Sunday Mass is itself a violation of the Third Commandment is a point of semantics: it is intentional disobedience of the Church’s teachings — in her authority as pastor of our souls — that is the sin; and her teachings do proceed from the Third Commandment, as the Catechism presents. Unless you accept that the Church has the authority to give such guidance, and that to intentionally flout such guidance is sinful, you will not understand the Catholic position.

          I get the feeling that, by your own testimony, you’ve made a habit of going around the Internet challenging Catholics on this point. If you really are looking for answers, I hope you will consider mine. I hope you will also consider that some of your own premises and foregone conclusions may be leading you astray. If you are indeed seeking the Catholic Church, I pray you can resolve the issues you are having and find satisfactory answers for your questions. As I can testify from my own journey, finding answers very often meant accepting that the things I held before as true might not necessarily be. May the peace and the grace of the Lord be with you.

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