Friday, December 10, 2010

Go to Mass or Go to Hell

This week we had a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church: the feast of the Immaculate Conception. A holy day requires those of us who are Catholic to attend Mass/Liturgy if possible. The penalty for not attending is, well, hell.

Sort of. I mean we are given the sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession to prevent such an undesirable arrangement, but missing for no good reason is considered a grave/mortal sin. I'm not a big fan of grave sin, or at least not the definition of it. It makes our spirituality too much an exercise in accounting. Now I understand and appreciate its intention. I understand how the Church tries to instruct and nurture us as she is, our mother. I understand that the Church is pointing to the Liturgy as an encounter with Christ - the encounter with Christ. I understand that the Church is saying that it is a great good, and that your missing (for no good reason) reveals some disorder in your heart. And I agree. But most Catholics come away from the doctrine with the idea - feel this way even if they don't intellectually view it as such - that if you commit a grave sin, and then get hit by a train, you go to hell.

This is shocking, for some. Legalistic for others. For myself, I'd rather be treated as an adult than a child. Obligating my presence on pains of hell helps no one. Labeling something such as this as grave sin (with eternal consequences) obliterates our ability to understand the Fatherhood of God. It strips away faithfulness and friendship and abiding in Christ, and he in us, and exchanges it for a legal system, juridical. Sometimes it is better to understand sin as a bent rather than an individual act. It can be better seen, often, as a revelation of the heart or a way of being, and not simply a slip or fall. When I sin gravely, and I do, it is a sign of my weakness and of my need. I have never not desired reconciliation with God (thanks be to God!) - and this is his grace working in me. But he is faithful even when we are faithless, because, as the Scriptures say, he cannot deny himself.

I'm not saying that one should get a pass on murder if it's a one-time kind of thing. But skipping one Mass is not an objective evil (other than, possibly, because of one's disobedience to the Church). How could it be since Mass was not always required? It is, however, an intrinsic good and we should be exhorted to make ourselves present to God, to receive him in Word and in Mystery/Sacrament. Missing Mass regularly is your exclusion of yourself from God. (Of course, I'm speaking to Catholics here.) This is death, or mortal/grave sin.

We need to better understand our sin and how it affects us. I don't think defining missing Mass as a grave sin, as the Church does - with its consequences - to be particularly helpful. Stripping away the "on pains of hell" can be helpful, as it helps me better understand sin in the midst of our disordered culture. The instruction is important; the call to conversion is important.

God is love. Does his being love strip away from me the need for the sacrament of Reconciliation? Hardly. God is life. I can and do separate myself from him, but the fact that I present myself before him for Reconciliation shows his grace working in me. His presence is constant, immediate - there is never a time that I need to get his attention. He calls and we must answer, because there is no where else to go. No better place. God is not angry with us. But sometimes we become angry with him. Sometimes we are faithless. This does not change God, but it does change us. And this is why Reconciliation/Confession is so important. Because it heals our infirmities.

Push back if you would. I understand my disagreement is problematic, but I think the Church can do better. What do you think? What am I misunderstanding?


Chad Toney said...

I'm too cynical and lazy. I need the strict(?) discipline of Mother Church or I'd probably rarely go to Mass at all. My wife won't go to Church with me (prot), my 5-year-old doesn't want to go or pray ("after we say our nighttime prayers, I will sing to you..", I bargain), I'd rather stay home and watch Netflix. I thank God for founding a Church that makes me go through the motions. I dont' have much but the motions 75% of the time. I'm like a recovering addict. I can't be left to my own whims and my "relationship with God" (not even sure what that means most days. pretty one-sided it seems, except for the mystics).


Hope said...

I love the Sacrament of Reconciliation - it's been the biggest influence in me grasping (in fleeting moments) of how deep God's mercy and grace are.

I like your reflection on this whole thing about grave sin. I have to be really careful about not getting anal about church stuff because it's so easy for me to be seduced by a check list mentality instead of a relationship.

Sometimes I feel this makes me a 'bad' Catholic, a poor example of the Faith because of my lack of what could seem like adherence in my quest not to get sucked in by rigidity. If that makes sense. I have a really hard time figuring out my motives for why I do things.

And here's the funny thing about all that. Before I was Catholic I didn't question my motives as to why I did this or that 'church' rule, expectation, etc. I equated living up to expectations to being a good Christian.

Since being received into the Church I've seen there is so much more to living out my faith than that. I could laugh out loud about the paradox. I feel like the Church (the place I dismissed before as being so hung up on rule and form, empty prayers, all those vain repititions) is always whispering to me that there is so much more depth and wouldn't I like to experience it?

Fred said...

Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel?

Fred said...

There are childish and mature ways of understanding the precepts, just as Naaman could respond to Elisha's requirement of bathing in the Jordan in a more or less childish way.

Even if the precepts of the Church were not binding, they would still describe in a "very necessary minimum" (CCC 2041ff) the way that leads to life. Making them binding is a testament to the truth. In other words, if you personally decide which days to skip Mass or refrain from fasting, then you're on the infernal road whether or not the Church has a positive law in that regard. And the precepts themselves have been lightened over the past few years. Fewer Holy Days and rules for eliminating them when they fall on inconvenient days.

The Friday fasting precept has been reduced in the US from 52 weeks to 5. Actually, the ordinary Friday fast remains as something of an optional precept. Heh, by my own words it occurs to me that if I don't fast every week, then I'm on the road to perdition also...

Scott Lyons said...

Chad, I feel this way quite often myself. To me, Mass is a necessity and I try to teach my children that it is such - though I don't always feel like going. And certainly they don't. Fr. Stephen Freeman says, "Ninety percent of Orthodoxy is just showing up." The same can be said of Catholicism, of course. And I do try to view it as such - as Fred says rather eloquently below - but sometimes it is easy to miss this great beauty (life itself) and trade it in for something more legal, which I think is what I have done here in how I've framed it. But God honors the going.

Hope, I've had similar conversations with my wife where we've seen Catholicism as a great liberation that is wider and deeper than I can imagine. As C.S. Lewis says in The Last Battle, "Further up and further in!"

Fred, thank you. You've said it just right. I find it difficult at times to keep this view. I don't know if this is due to my being a convert or if I'm just whacked. Regardless, I wander.

"Are not the rivers of Damascus ... better than all the waters of Israel?" - nice.

Fred said...

Scott, I must thank you because it never really hit me before today that John baptized in the Jordan precisely because that was were Elisha told Naaman to bathe.

Anonymous said...

I would also argue, at least in part, that the fact that the Church sets it as a precept carries weight in itself. That is, as you suggested, it is defying the authority of the Church that is the grave sin.

By saying to the Church, "You don't have the authority to tell me what to do"--particularly when what the Church requires us to do in this day and age is remarkably minimal compared to, say, a century ago--we are betraying a fundamentally individualistic and privatized version of the faith, one where we become our own church. And that is a problem.

Now, granted, if the Church started telling me I needed to wear bow ties on Thursdays, I'd be scratching my head about it. There's clearly some limits here, but I have sufficient trust in the Church that such authority will not be abused. Maybe I'm just naive there.

Anonymous said...

I think the Church should drop this obligation (it could be argued they have de facto done so since an unenforced law can be said to have expired in fact if not at the written level)..and replace it with the obligation to:
1. Eat Sunday family dinner all together with electronic gadgets locked in a safe.
2. At this dinner and right after dessert, have each family member pray aloud for 5 intentions of their own making... with the other members saying amen.
3. Make this binding under a greater venial sin...greater than quick cursing etc.
4. No social excuses accepted unless the person sends one hundred dollars to a Catholic charity per incident....amount can vary with wealth level.