from THE TABLET Editor, 20 May 2022
When the word “obligation” – referring to the duty on Catholics under Canon Law to attend Mass on Sundays – occurs six times in a statement of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, there appears to be a hidden message. At the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020, the bishops ordered churches to close, though parishes were allowed to stream a solitary priest celebrating Mass. They issued a statement suspending the obligation to attend Sunday Mass until they said otherwise. Which they have now done, applicable from the feast of Pentecost on 5 June. The term comes from Canon 1247: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” The traditional version of this rule used to add “… on pain of mortal sin”, and that seems to be implied by the bishops, though it is not stated.
Two things are odd about this. The first is its contrast to the rest of the language of the bishops’ statement, which refers to an “invitation” to resume Sunday Mass-going and speaks of “a profound desire to participate in the Holy Mass”. “We glory in being a Eucharistic people for whom attendance at Mass is essential,” they write. This is not the dead language of legal obligation but the living language of joyous faith. These two ways of describing participation in the Mass do not complement or reinforce each other. Faith sometimes requires the support of a sense of duty, but the obligations that flow from love are not felt more keenly when they are enforced by law. The Catholic faithful have been returning to Mass, and many Easter congregations were reportedly packed, even with some Covid restrictions still in place. Did they still need to be herded back to Mass? The image the bishops’ statement gives of a typical lay person – a docile robot obeying instructions rather than an autonomous individual guided by an informed conscience – does not reflect most priests’ understanding of the faith of their parishioners.
The second oddity is its lack of attention to the rest of Canon 1247, under the same rubric of “obligation”: “Moreover,” it goes on, “they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.” Under pain of mortal sin? This is not an aspect of the Church’s teaching the bishops appear to have properly considered, despite many of them being canon lawyers. Post-Covid, British society is heading rapidly towards the notion of a seven-day working week, even if larger retail outlets continue to have restricted opening hours. The special character of Sunday urgently needs defending, though perhaps quoting Canon Law is not the best way to go about it. For many workers, especially those pressed into doing two jobs to pay the mounting bills, this is a matter of social justice. A living wage should cover a day of rest. And that really is an obligation.