When the pandemic hit the United States earlier this year, bishops across the country made the necessary but unprecedented decision to dispense the faithful from their traditional obligation to attend Mass every Sunday. Six months later, we are slowly beginning to see some bishops lift that dispensation, making physical attendance at Mass an obligation once again. This comes while we are still in the midst of the pandemic, and as talk of lifting the dispensation has increased, so have concerns from faithful Catholics who do not feel safe attending Mass. Many Catholics are genuinely worried that when the Sunday obligation is imposed they will risk committing a mortal sin if they don’t attend. Does the Lord really ask someone to risk their health and safety to attend Mass?
Pope Francis says catechesis must begin with the proclamation of the kerygma, the fundamental truth that, “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (Evangelii Gaudium 164). This primary truth illuminates both the importance of going to Mass as well as the solution for the faithful who feel incredibly burdened by this obligation during a pandemic.
The greatest expression of God’s love for us, as Pope Francis expressed, is Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection. And it is precisely through the liturgy and sacraments that God allows us to participate in Christ’s saving action. These are the ordinary means that we are able to worship the Father with the Son and in doing so allow the Holy Spirit to transform us. The Catechism says that through sacramental grace, “the Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior” (CCC 1129). In a recent letter to bishops around the world, Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s dicastery for liturgy, said:
“We cannot live as Christians without participating in the Sacrifice of the Cross in which the Lord Jesus gives himself unreservedly to save, by his death, humanity which had died because of sin; the Redeemer associates humanity with himself and leads it back to the Father; in the embrace of the Crucified One all human suffering finds light and comfort.”
This is why the Church teaches that the sacraments are essential for our salvation and that our regular participation in Mass is essential for us to follow Christ. We truly cannot live without the Lord’s Day. Now, to be clear, the sacraments are the ordinary means for our salvation and growth in holiness, but, as I wrote back in May, God can certainly work outside the sacraments. He gave us the sacraments as physical signs of his love for us, but he is not bound by those signs (CCC 1257). And the Church teaches that if a Catholic who is separated from the Eucharist makes a spiritual communion they “receive the fruits of the sacrament.”
So where does this leave those Catholics who do not feel safe gathering in large crowds for Mass in the midst of a pandemic? It is precisely the kerygma, God’s revelation of his love for us, that shapes the Church’s understanding of sin, culpability, and conscience.
The Church teaches that participating in Mass every Sunday is an obligation and “those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (CCC 2181). However, the Catechism also teaches that that a grave (i.e. mortal) sin requires three things: grave matter, full knowledge, and complete consent (CCC 1857-1859). Deliberately missing Mass on Sunday is a violation of the third commandment and thus grave matter, but that in itself does not make it a mortal sin.
Here is an analogy I used two years ago. Let’s say that you have a basic recipe for cookies that uses flour, butter, and sugar. Without any one of those ingredients, it’s not a cookie. When someone commits an act of grave evil, they have not necessarily separated themselves from God. Grave matter is only one of the three necessary components of a mortal sin. Further, the things that can limit a person’s knowledge and freedom can be very ordinary. The Catechism teaches that “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735).
Further, it is our conscience — “man’s most secret core and his sanctuary” where “he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776) — that can help us determine our level of freedom and culpability in a given situation and show us the way forward. Pope Francis teaches that our conscience “can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel” but “can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (Amoris Laetitia 303).
The Church’s teaching about culpability isn’t a moral loophole. It’s the logical conclusion of the revelation that God is a loving Father who knows our hearts. He desires for all of his children to be saved, he is not a legalistic judge solely concerned with our external actions.
A neighboring diocese of mine, the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, will be lifting the dispensation from the Sunday Obligation in the coming weeks. Their bishop, Bishop Robert Gruss, released a statement articulating the Church’s teaching about culpability and conscience. He said:
“As we move forward in this COVID-19 environment and as circumstances change, so will the judgment around the binding of the obligation to attend Mass. For the Faithful, in understanding the reinstatement of their obligation to attend Mass, the decision to attend must be made from a place of relationship with Jesus and the responsibility which comes from this relationship and a grace-filled conscience. In other words, each person must decide for themselves how and when they will return to participating in Sunday Mass based upon their physical and/or mental health and a grace-filled conscience formed by their relationship with Jesus Christ. This would hold true whether we were in a pandemic or not.”
Bishop Gruss then uses the example of wintery roads as normal circumstances (after all, the Diocese of Saginaw is in rural Michigan) where someone would need to use prudence and discern whether or not to attend Mass. He continues:
“The Catholic Church has always taught, given the examples for missing Mass cited above, an individual has never been obliged to attend Mass. That is not because the obligation has been suspended by someone, but rather because the obligation was not binding upon them given their particular circumstances. In the same way, in our present circumstances, the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is real and applied, but for those people who feel they are at risk, etc., the obligation is not binding.”
Fear of getting sick or spreading it to others, in and of itself, could certainly mitigate culpability. And if missing Mass in this context is done out of genuine charity towards ourselves or others, then not only would it mitigate culpability entirely but may even be a moral duty. If we are excused from the Sunday obligation because we believe icy roads would make attending unsafe, then we are certainly exempt if we perceive that COVID-19 makes attending unsafe. And this is true regardless of whether or not there’s a general dispensation in your diocese.
Understand how personal these circumstances and decisions are, even among people in the same community. You and your loved ones may have different risk factors for the virus that would make attending Mass more unsafe than it would be for your neighbor. If anxiety about the virus causes you an inordinate amount of fear, that is a factor in your discernment, even if your neighbor isn’t afraid at all. A bishop or pastor can’t decide for you whether attending Mass is objectively safe, and they certainly can’t know everyone’s individual circumstances. These are truly matters of personal discernment.
We must rest our consciences on the kerygma, on who God has revealed himself to be. He knows our hearts and our circumstances. The revelation of God’s relentless love for us is what can drive out anxiety, scrupulosity, or fear we may have about returning to Mass. Regardless of whether we ultimately decide to attend Mass or if we decide that we should stay home, we should listen to the voice of our Loving Father and obey our consciences. When we do this, we can trust that God isn’t abandoning us, and neither are we abandoning Him.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.