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Mass: An Obligation Until It Isn’t (But Then It Is Again)

Over at Catholic Culture, Phil Lawler has a pretty devastating take on the rather convenient wielding of the threat of mortal sin by Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, who has just reinstated the Sunday obligation in his diocese:

Starting this coming Sunday, it will be a serious sin for a Catholic in the Milwaukee archdiocese to miss Sunday Mass without a serious reason. Last week it was OK. It’s still OK in most other American dioceses and archdioceses.

Can we expect ordinary Catholics to understand this situation? Can we expect them to come back to Sunday Mass, after a six-month hiatus? Having used their authority to stop lay Catholics from attending Mass, can bishops now invoke their authority to bring them back? Will this genie go back in the bottle?

The Archbishop reminded the faithful of his diocese in a statement that “Those who deliberately fail to attend Sunday Mass commit a grave sin.” This is a bishop, it should be remembered, who said he didn’t like the idea of denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians. (I guess that’s only a mortal sin if you want it to be.)

Lawler continues:

“Fear of getting sick, in and of itself, does not excuse someone from the obligation,” the archbishop continued. But wait: wasn’t a fear of illness the reason why Archbishop Listecki, and so many other prelates, issued a dispensation from that obligation? The archbishop obviously anticipates that question, and his statement continues:

“However, if the fear is generated because of at-risk factors, such as pre-existing conditions, age or compromised immune systems, then the fear would be sufficient to excuse from the obligation.”So each lay Catholic must decide for himself whether he has real reason to fear that going to Mass could endanger his health, and if it would not, the regular Sunday obligation applies. Fair enough.

But the Sunday obligation only applies in Milwaukee (and in the few other dioceses whose bishops have ended the dispensation). So what happens if a lay Catholic who resides in Milwaukee finds himself in, say, nearby Chicago on a Sunday morning? Is he bound by the Sunday obligation because he is under Archbishop Listecki’s authority? Or dispensed because he is in another ecclesiastical jurisdiction where the blanket dispensation is still in place? It is difficult to understand why something that is gravely sinful in one place is not sinful at all just a few miles away.

For that matter, if it will be gravely sinful to skip Mass next Sunday, why was it acceptable to skip Mass last Sunday? At first glance Archbishop Listecki’s decision—and consequently, his warning about the possibility of grave sin—appears to be based on nothing more than his own personal authority; there is no reference to the Decalogue, to the solemn commandment to keep holy the Lord’s Day, to the notion that worship is an obligation in justice.

Lawler reminds readers that there are conditions for when it is acceptable to miss Mass on a Sunday, among these being a “serious reason” :

What sort of illness constitutes a “serious reason” for failure to attend Sunday Mass? The individual must answer that question for himself. His answer will depend on his particular circumstances: his age, his overall health, the possible risks of exposure to new disease. The pastor cannot come take his temperature and his medical history. The individual must must his own judgment.

Back in March, however, the Catholic bishops of the US—all of them—did make that judgment. They decided that all Catholics had a “serious reason” for not attending Sunday Mass.


[O]ur bishops and pastors were methodically deciding when, and under what conditions, they thought the churches would be safe. But since bishops have no special expertise on questions of public safety—and since their decisions on this matter were unquestionably based on calculations of public safety—many Catholics are likely to question their judgments. Archbishop Listecki acknowledges that a rational fear of exposure to Covid, based on pre-existing conditions, “would be sufficient to excuse from the obligation.” Just a few weeks ago the archbishop effectively ruled that everyone had a rational basis for fears. Now he says that, at least for most people, that rational basis is gone. But it isn’t that simple. Many Catholics in Milwaukee no doubt are afraid—having been told for months that they should be afraid—and the archbishop can’t flip a switch to turn off their fears.

So while I applaud Archbishop Listecki for ending the dispensation, and for reminding the faithful about their Sunday obligation, I doubt that the faithful of the Milwaukee archdiocese will flock back to their parish churches this coming Sunday. Bishops can issue authoritative orders, but they can’t flip emotional switches. And when a prelate seems to be saying that it’s gravely sinful to skip Sunday Mass because the archbishop says so—when just last week it wasn’t sinful at all because the archbishop said so—he is stretching his authority to the breaking point.

I’d love to know how much revenue has decreased for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee since the pandemic started. Of course, they don’t keep that kind of information front and center on their website. But I’d be lying if I said my first thought as to why the obligation is being reinstated this Sunday wasn’t precisely that they’re running out of money, so they need people back in the pews.

Good luck with that.

This returns us to a point I’ve been making repeatedly lately – many Catholics won’t be coming back to church any time soon, if at all. And more of those who do come back will be going to TLM parishes than ever before.

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