There continues to be controversy about the dueling issues of public safety surrounding Covid-19 and the closure or limitation of church services, particularly the Sunday Eucharist. About a month ago I commented on the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where the archbishop stated the date at which Catholics needed to return to Sunday Mass in person without incurring mortal sin. The Catholic internet is full of questions about how following Mass on streaming devices can be spiritually uplifting last Sunday, but this Sunday could be a mortal sin. Can a bishop arbitrarily make such a statement? In truth, Archbishop’s Listecki’s directive was, for the most part, a restatement of universal current Church discipline; he notes the variety of considerations that excuse one from live attendance at Sunday Mass. It may come as a surprise that a Catholic home provider for a sick family member or spouse is excused from the obligation even if the caregiver is not ill. Archbishop Listecki’s directive that “Fear of getting sick, in and of itself, does not excuse someone from the obligation” is mitigated somewhat. “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.”
The very idea of bishops mandating Mass attendance at all rattled some sensitivities. I got a letter from a gentleman of my generation who inquired something along these lines: “I thought that the Old Testament was the age of laws, but that Christianity is the age of love.” He added that he believed Christian morality was built upon doing the loving thing in all circumstances. I, too, remember being taught that in some way, shape, or form in later seminary years, too. For this post I was able to put a name and a face to that theory of morality, specifically the school of Situation Ethics inspired by the then Episcopal priest James Fletcher [1905-1991]. Fletcher was both hailed and reviled for his 1966 Situation Ethics: The New Morality. Fletcher dared to go where few had gone, specifically in squaring the circle between Biblical codes of morality and the individual Christian’s freedom to make moral choices based on the most loving outcome.
The contrasts between the age of the Law and the age of Love in the Bible are not as clear as some of us would believe. The Hebrew Scripture depicts God as doing many gracious things that He was not bound to do, the primary act being Creation itself. It is easy to forget that there is no natural or scientific reason for us to exist, let alone to exercise some form of dominion over all the creatures God had made. The term “Chosen People” is a clear indication that God loved this small nomadic culture and as early as Genesis 12 revealed this love in tangible, substantial ways, in His encounter with Abram [later Abraham]. A one-sided love, however, is pathology to both parties. The giver is constantly taken advantage of, and the receiver fails to recognize how good he or she has it. From this vantage point, the encounter of God and Moses on Mount Sinai is a betrothal where the terms of the relationship are clarified. How do we show love? Do not let the legalese or the strictness of some of the terms overshadow the heart of the matter including, for our purposes in this post, the example of worshipping as a community on the Sabbath. How many of us travel significant distances to be with our families at Thanksgiving? The tradition of giving thanks to God and breaking bread as a family community on Thanksgiving carries with it more than traces of God’s desire to share the memory of first love for His family.
Regarding the Christian Testament, I believe that the contrast between the Mosaic Law and the Christian ethic is too sharply drawn. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew. [I often wonder if antisemitic “Christians” realize this.] Those who read the Gospels carefully note how often Jesus speaks with religious respect and even zeal for the Mosaic Law. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states that he has not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets but to bring them to fulfillment. He lived what we would call the “Judeo-Christian way” and a close look at the Gospels reveals that Jesus was willing and capable of articulating principles and judgments with the best of the Hebrew social prophets, such as Amos.
Consider Matthew 25: 31-46. As clearly as possible, Jesus draws out the deepest wishes of his Father as expressed in the Hebrew Scripture, with the precision of the Pythagorean Theorem. The hungry are to be fed; the homeless sheltered. The sick are to be cared for. Those who fail to do such things will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Biblically speaking, we continue to observe [hopefully] a continuous strain of love that permeates both Testaments, a love that rises above feelings into the world of behavioral change and outcomes.
One issue, too, is the meaning of “love.” Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics is built on the premise that Christians are called to do “the loving thing” in making choices about behavior. One can understand why no Christian Church embraced this philosophy as part and parcel of its moral and sacramental practice [though some priests and laity were enamored of the system in its day.] The determination of “the loving thing” in Fletcher’s system is a purely subjective judgment. The Catholic moral tradition has always respected a “well formed conscience” in the confessional, the operative adjective being “well-formed.” Such would assume that the individual has made a studious effort to understand how his or her religious tradition has adopted its various assessments of the good or evil of acts under consideration. Admittedly circumstances do arise where values conflict and the moral dilemma has no desirable options. Traditionally, Catholics have always enjoyed access to a confessor to assist in the determination process.
Which brings us all the way around to the question of the “Sunday Mass Obligation.” In the best of all worlds the Eucharist is the center of our Christian life. The Christian tradition of Sunday Eucharist can be dated through St. Paul’s Epistles as the occasion when the family of believers came together to repeat the command of Jesus to “do this in memory of me.” Sunday Eucharist exhorts God’s greatest gift, the promise of a glorious renewal with Christ at the end of time and an eternity in the reward he has prepared for us.
Admittedly, Sunday Mass does not look or feel this way. I would be the first to admit that attendance every weekend is hard. It takes every ounce of strength to recapture the traditional reason I am there. And yes, there was a point this past May during the lockdown where I seriously wondered if live-streamed Mass from a different location, celebrated in this spirit, would be the better route for me to take. But over the past few months I had to remind myself that love is about behaviors, in my case the behavior of planting myself in the church pew of my regular parish. The “feeling of love” or devotion will follow. And it has, a bit.
I remember hearing in class years ago a quote from a famous theologian: “When a man gets down on his knees, the action adds nothing to God but everything to the man who kneels"