Is it a sin to miss church?

No, dear reader, it is not.

I remember I had a teacher long ago who told me that it is a mortal sin to miss Sunday Mass.  That is, it is a sin so severe that if one died unshriven (without priestly absolution in confession), then one would automatically be consigned to hell for all eternity.

Now I am wondering if the teacher actually could have said such a thing, and if that is in fact the position of the Roman Catholic Church.

What if someone has missed Sunday Mass literally thousands of times (ahem).  Has she committed a sin?  Perhaps she should rush off to find a priest to hear her confession.

As far as I know, the Protestant Churches have no such threat of damnation for nonattendance held over the heads of their members.  So don’t become too concerned.

I looked at the Vatican’s Catechism online to determine if they consider it a mortal sin.  Here is the official word:

#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.  Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin. 1

So that tells me it is a “grave sin.”  The next excerpt lets me know that by definition, a mortal sin involves a “grave matter.”

#1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” 2

So yes, as I read it, the position of the Church is that missing Sunday Mass knowingly and deliberately is a “mortal sin.”

Why do they need people to go to Mass so badly that they threaten them so?  Technically, it is only damning to miss the Eucharistic portion of the service – so you can be late and leave early without risking hell.  In case you were wondering, the collection is taken up during the Eucharistic portion.

Couldn’t the author of the Vatican Catechism have said “serious sin” instead of “grave”?  Maybe the author is trying to evoke the image of a grave – a spiritual grave – that supposedly awaits all “sinners” who don’t comply with the Church’s directive.

The Vatican Catechism acknowledges that Jesus of Nazareth is reported saying, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27 (Vatican Catechism)) 3  (The Christian Sunday or “Lord’s Day” evolved out of the Jewish Sabbath.)  The Vatican Catechism says that nevertheless, “Jesus never fails to respect the holiness of this day.” 3  I agree that Jesus was respectful.  But respect is not the issue.  The issue is whether, like the Pharisees of old, the Church has put an unreasonable burden on the people.  Is it reasonable to threaten people with hellfire if they miss a Sunday service?

Come to me, all you that . . . are burdened” (DRA)

There are also several “holy days of obligation,” such as Christmas, when one must likewise go to church under penalty of eternal damnation.

Mortal sin means a trip to hell with no escaping as explained in the Vatican Catechism:

#1861 “If [mortal sin] is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell . . . . 2

The Vatican Catechism quotes from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Not to neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but to encourage one another.” (Hebrews 10:25 (Vatican Catechism)) 1  Well, that Bible passage has nothing to do with a Sunday or Sabbath observance.  It doesn’t single out a particular day, nor does it stipulate any particular sort of meeting.  But it does let me know that even among the early Christians of the New Testament era, not everyone participated in the meetings.

However, the Letter to the Hebrews does address this issue directly in Hebrews 4:9-11 (DRA) (did the Vatican miss it?).  “There remaineth therefore a day of rest for the people of God.”  I have to ask at this point if going to church is “restful”?  (Only if one can doze through the sermon?)  I’ll guess the Letter to the Hebrews was written to win over Hebrews who would likely be in favor of observing some sort of Sabbath rest as would be their custom and does not necessarily reflect the customs of the Christians of the time.

Interesting that there are Bible passages that make a very clear statement on observing a Sabbath.  Paul of Tarsus (founder of Pauline Christianity of which Roman Catholicism is a branch), says in Romans 14:5 (KJV), “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”  Does the Pope know about this?  Paul, their “saint” and their 13th apostle, says make up your own mind!  Notice that the old Catholic DRA translates this passage incomprehensibly as, “For one judgeth between day and day: and another judgeth every day: let every man abound in his own sense.”  So the meaning is lost in that Catholic translation.  The Vatican has an improved translation on its website in its New American Bible, 5(For) one person considers one day more important than another, while another person considers all days alike. Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind.”  So in the Pope’s infallible mind, he knows about this, yet feels no urge to change policy??  Fortunately, the NIV makes it crystal clear by using the word “sacred,” which is something of a leap but perhaps useful for understanding, and has the gender-neutral, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”  I am grateful for the scholarship of the NIV in this instance.  The Vatican’s footnote for this passage in its New American Bible says Paul means “the mind of the Christian is now able to function with appropriate discrimination.”  I’ll go further than that.  Paul means each is empowered to decide individually.

The author of Colossians, mimicking Paul, likewise opts for freedom:  “Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of a festival day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbaths, Which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17 (DRA))

I happen to believe that people should observe a time that is sacred for them if that is their preference.  Meditate, pray, dance, sing, whatever.  Do it with others if you are so inclined.  Or go to church (or temple or meeting-house, etc.), but going to a religious service is not the only way to observe a special day.

I do think the old days were better when no one had to work on Sunday except maybe a very few health and safety workers.  But in today’s world, where we finally and rightfully acknowledge that there are a variety of sacred days held by a variety of different faiths, then some businesses are open round the clock, every day.  Can we ever again shut down commercialism for a common day of rest?

Perhaps the nuns who taught me had not heard that Jesus did not observe a Sabbath.  Certainly, he did not attend church.  He taught us how to pray – something that can be done anytime, anywhere.  I can slip in a word of praise for my “daily bread” without having to listen to some man give a sermon.  And yes, in the Pope’s church only men get to preach.  Are you getting an idea here about why I might not want to listen?

 “And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.” (Matthew 6:5 (DRA))  Do church-goers “love to stand and pray so they may be seen by others”?

Now I am getting nostalgic about Easter hats in my childhood.  Wasn’t that grand to get decked out in our flowery Easter hats, new spring coats, fancy but demure dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, spotless white gloves, sparkly costume jewelry, and other finery and go parading into church?

I’ve heard that lately some young women dress like they see on TV and go to church looking like hookers.  Even going up to the altar to receive the Holy Bread dressed like that!  Well, nothing can be done about that.  Even threatening them with hellfire wouldn’t work.  Young women rule.

I’ll bet some women wear so much smelly perfume it is more than one’s nostrils can endure – I doubt that’s changed.  Sit next to a window and lean towards it gasping for air.

I’m not sure the spiritual journey is something that can be shared with several hundred strangers.  I suspect many think they are Christian because they give gifts on December 25.  They go to church for social reasons.  I’d rather share my journey with people who try to understand Christianity.

Jesus taught at the Jerusalem Temple and at synagogues.  No record he ever prayed there.  He often went off to pray alone.  You don’t have to be in a church to find divinity.  In defiance of the Sabbath laws of his time, Jesus continued his work of healing even on the Sabbath (search for “sabbath” in the New International Version New Testament on Biblegateway.com).  Jesus didn’t observe a Sabbath or Sunday.  So you don’t have to either.

Personally I have no belief in an imaginary supernatural demon-power who damns people to a hell for failing to perform certain rituals the priests have devised and prescribed.  Such a demon is contrary to the idea of Jesus’ benign “Abba” (the Elder), who is in no danger of being forgotten by thinking Christians who know that all are invited to the Table.  “Invited” is the key word there.

The first Christians of the New Testament gathered at “love feasts” with free food.  I doubt very much these feasts were mandatory (Jude 1:12, Acts 2:42-46, 4:32-35, 6:1-4 (TNIV)).  But later the free food policy was no more (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14 (TNIV)), and eventually the carrot became the stick.

By the twentieth century, little children were cruelly being told that they would be in sin if they missed a Roman Catholic Sunday service.  I’ll bet Jesus didn’t traumatize the little kids by threatening them so.

I Go To Confession, a little book for children published in 1932 with the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur of the Church, says, “By the Third Commandment:  I must go to Mass every Sunday and Holyday of obligation. . . . . Did I do any sin against this Commandment?”  Make those kids tremble with fear!  Of course the third commandment is in the Hebrew Bible, was written more than a thousand years before Christianity, and it does not say to attend a Roman Catholic service or any kind of service; rather, it says to rest on the Sabbath day.

The third commandment (third using the Catholic way of counting) says in full, “Remember that thou keep holy the sabbath day.  Six days shalt thou labour, and shalt do all thy works.  But on the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: thou shalt do no work on it, thou nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy beast, nor the stranger that is within thy gates.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them, and rested on the seventh day: therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it.”  (Exodus 20:8-11  DRA)

One might ask if the Pope, the cardinals appointed by him, and the cardinals who elected him are “resting” when they preach their Sunday sermons, or if they are “working” in violation of the third commandment.

When thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray . . . .  in secret.” – an instruction attributed to Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 6:6 (DRA)).

Pray in secret in your own room.  Hard to follow that instruction in a church.

I really wonder how the Vatican can feel comfortable proclaiming on its website that it is a “grave sin” to miss church on a Sunday or a holy day, when anyone reading the Bible can find out that it could not possibly be a sin at all.  Yes, I do realize that something Paul taught, or the whole New Testament for that matter, can be supplemented by wiser teachings and reasonable guidance developed later.  The Bible is not always the last word on everything.  And I would welcome such wisdom and reasonableness in this case.

Real leadership does not consist of dictating to people and threatening people; but rather, facilitating their becoming.  I think it is generally true that good leadership cannot be provided by dictators, monarchs, or any self-perpetuating clique, only by representatives of the people.  At the very least, the pastors appointed by the bishops should be approved by the church members who pay the pastor’s salary.  The appointment of bishops should be approved by the pastors.  Is that too much to ask?

I think it is possible to motivate people to go to church for the right reasons.  Fear is not an acceptable motivator.  Who wants a spiritual life based on fear?  Also, from a practical point of view, you can only motivate some fraction of the people by instilling fear and only for so long.  Then people wise up.  Then people get fed up.  (Elementary, but worth mentioning.)

The Vatican’s Canon Law #12474 says, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.”  We can only hope that someday the word “obliged” will be replaced by something more enlightened.

Why wasn’t the prohibition against nonattendance nullified as a result of the Vatican II council of bishops, as was a similar prohibition against eating meat on Fridays?  If I read #2181 in the catechism broadly enough, any pastor can “dispense” his congregation from the obligation to attend church.  But there should be no such obligation in the first place.

Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on Canon Law or the catechism, having looked at them a few times.  (I hope I’m wrong about my reading of them.)

Think what harm has been caused to people over the centuries by the Vatican telling them they are headed for hell if they miss church, telling them they are sinful, making them fearful, anxious, and guilt-ridden, when in fact, there is no such sin.  Think of how people who were independent-minded were likely ostracized by church-goers and maybe suffered financially as a result.  So much harm.  Isn’t harming others a sin?

The gentle and freedom-loving Jesus criticized the Sabbath law of his time, which required resting, with, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”  (Is resting burdensome?  Anyway, he objected to it.)  Wouldn’t Jesus be amazed that his so-called followers would set up a LAW requiring people to attend church under penalty of losing heaven!  Let’s go back to resting.  It would be an improvement.

I am relieved that the Vatican finally came to believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  But I’m not waiting around for them to adopt Paul’s opinion that everyone should decide for themselves about a Sunday.  Or waiting for them to recognize that Roy Bourgeois, Maryknoller, has the right attitude about womenpriests.  Centuries might pass.

While I was drafting this post, a notice came in the mail announcing a school reunion.  The alumnae will dine in style and attend Mass – an extra one on a Saturday – never enough!  Apparently, none of these women (it was a girl’s school) feel like they are victims of coercion, brainwashing, or gender discrimination.  They have no problem doing just as they are told.  If I had gone, I would have asked them – “why?”

Oh, yeah, I do like to remember the stained-glass windows; the organ music; the nuns so formidable in their ankle-length skirts, long veils, over-sized rosary beads, weird headgear, and apron bibs attached to their bodices with straight pins; the sweetness of little girls dressed in white lacy dresses walking in procession in the wooded park singing hymns to the Great Lady; certainty and security; the pageantry and sense of history.  But old memories cannot supplant the reality of who I am.  I am a real person as is any woman and no man is going to tell me otherwise.

Maybe the alumnae ladies go to church to worship their fond memories of their childhoods.

But I find I am wary of an organization that insults my intelligence with unfounded threats of damnation.  Where is the charity of the Pope and his court who are willing to damn all nonattendees (which would include all non-Catholics also) to fiery torment for all eternity if they knowingly and deliberately miss church?  How many millions or billions of souls is that?

Does the Pope have authority to order people into hell?  No, of course not.  But I think generally popes have a certain amount of teaching authority just because they head a venerable institution with a large following.  Whether any individual pronouncement by any particular pope has authority depends on its content and whether most informed people can accept it.  (To read about the Bible passage on “Peter’s keys,” see my post Delving into the Our Father.)

I have to wonder about the viability of an organization that cannot acknowledge it has made a mistake (because of the Pope’s supposed infallibility) and therefore has some difficulty making mid-course corrections.

I have to admit that as a child I was not frightened by threats of damnation.  I thought that damnation was only something that happened to other people, those other people who deserved it.  I am reminded here of a scene in a video where the announcer asks a crowd, “How many of you think you will go to heaven, raise your hand.”  Most did.  Or all did (I can’t recall).  Then they glanced around.  Heaven’s going to be crowded!  Now I have come to realize that the Almighty is not going to just give up on any one of us.  None will be lost because God’s not a loser.  Yes, heaven will indeed be crowded.

I also had a teacher who said, “It is a sin to waste even a minute.”  (How did she ever get such a notion?)  So right after that, I sat my little-girl self down in front of a clock and watched the seconds’ hand to see if I could be still and “waste” a whole minute.  I succeeded and have been burdened with guilt ever since (somewhat).  Gosh, I hope it wasn’t a “mortal sin.”  Now from the perspective of several decades I find that minute wasn’t wasted but was perhaps pivotal or even essential to greater growth in awareness.  Are all the moments of our lives special in this way?

Put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5 DRA)

Wherever I am, no matter the day, it is Sunday and every minute holy – if I am living in a sacred realm.


  1. care4earth says:

    Church can be an enlightened experience, full of holy moments. I have heard that some people can make every moment of their lives holy.
    You are right to find threats of damnation rather frightening. I hope the church leadership works its way past such unkindness.
    I am distressed that church leadership can tell Maryknoll to throw out Roy Bourgeois when he has thought carefully about women priests, and I can find no reasonable objection to such activity.

  2. Going to church is one way of guiding my mind to reflect on fundamentals of being. What’s my prime purpose? It’s a practice that can remind us of who and what we are and what we can become. It can be refreshing and strengthening, somewha like starting clean after a brisk shower. But it requires using the mind; the mass may not do that if it’s just forced ritual. And there are infinite other ways of achieving that same reflection; each individual can best find each one’s best ways.

    There are those who think they know best and should insist on others doing likewise. But the reality is vastly more complex and profound. Realizing our ignorance and the imposibility of certitude helps greatly.

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