The “Great Dechurching” over the past twenty-five years has been widely discussed. Some forty million people have stopped going to church in the past generation. As Protestant authors Jim Davis and Michael Graham point out, the majority of adults in America today do not attend church—an historic first in the eighty years since Gallup began tracking church attendance. In the post-Covid era, attendance numbers have not rebounded, but continued to decline. In short, not only most Americans, but even Christians increasingly question the practical necessity of Sunday church attendance for a fulfilling life.
Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic occasioned a new discussion of the Sunday obligation among Catholics specifically. While many Catholics discerned that it was safe to return to in person worship in Summer of 2020, most US bishops did not reinstate the Sunday obligation until Spring and Summer of 2021. At the time, some more Covid-alarmist Catholic commentators questioned whether the Church had taken the pandemic seriously enough. Some even took the pandemic as an occasion to question whether Mass attendance should be framed as an obligation, insisting that it should instead be an invitation. But such a response to the Great Unchurching is as misguided as it is confused.
Of course, all are invited to the Sacrifice of the Mass on the Lord’s Day. But invitation and obligation are not mutually exclusive. The invitation and obligation to attend Sunday Mass is, in the order of grace, a specification of a natural obligation, i.e., a practical necessity for living reasonably. The practice of the good of religion is a requirement of one aspect of our basic duty to pursue happiness. The Psalmist sings that the skies proclaim the glory of God and the heavens the work of his hands—and that it is the fool who says in his heart there is no God. Not only is knowledge of God’s existence desirable and available to unaided reason, but so is the knowledge that thanksgiving is owed to Him for one’s existence and the gifts of providence.
Hence, Thomas Aquinas teaches that the third commandment, to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, is fittingly expressed as the precept that establishes man in true religion. The first two commandments are negative precepts (prohibition of worship of false idols, and taking the Lord’s name in vain), which remove obstacles to true religion by setting the will upon its true end, God himself.
Honoring the Sabbath is therefore the first positive injunction of the Decalogue, directing the natural religious desire and duty as to how to honor the Creator. By resting on the seventh day, the Jews recalled to mind that the Creator made the universe “in six days” and “rested” on the seventh (Exodus 20:11). By this, it was not meant that after creating all things, God was tired and needed a nap. Rather, as St. Augustine explains, God is said to “rest” by metonymy in that he acts to bring us to his rest. Under the New Law, Christians are simultaneously strengthened in our journey toward our ultimate rest, and get a glimpse and taste of that rest, in the Sunday Mass, fulfilling the commandment on the day of Christ’s resurrection.
Again, the obligation is congruent with sound philosophical anthropology, with truths about human nature knowable apart from faith. We are neither ghosts nor machines. We are spiritual animals. This means that we render honor to God as befits beings composed of body and soul. We must worship God both interiorly (in our minds and hearts) and exteriorly (with sensible signs like sounds and smells, and bodily actions like standing, kneeling, praying, singing, etc.).
Spiritual animals are social animals. Our duty to God is therefore both individual and communal, which means that performance of religious duties will include rituals in synchronicity with others in our communities, with whom we live and interact throughout the week. This is entirely fitting, for as social animals we need each other to spur us to grow in faith, hope, and love through the essentially communal practices of worship, learning, admonition, and friendship. At Mass, Catholics carry out the apostle’s admonition to “to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together” and to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Heb. 10:24; Col. 3:16).
But why should Sunday Mass be an obligation on the pain of serious sin? Before converting to Catholicism from Protestantism, I wondered at this, since none of the Protestant churches I attended had any formal weekly attendance requirement on the pain of sin. Little did I know at the time that many Protestant churches historically did require the Sunday obligation on the pain of not only sin but also legal penalty. For all of their disagreements, this was something that the Anglicans and Puritans agreed upon when the latter sailed for American shores.
Indeed, the obligation of Christians to set aside the Sabbath day for church attendance was so deeply ingrained in the Christian civilization that the United States both inherited and perpetuated that Christian rest on Sundays demanded legal recognition. Sunday closing “blue laws” were on the books of the earliest American colonies and most states up until the Supreme Court considered and upheld their constitutionality in 1961 (albeit, with flawed reasoning).
I suspect part of the reason for the difference between Catholics and Protestants today on this question lies in the historical working of their ecclesiological differences, of what the principles of the “priesthood of all believers” and the right of private interpretation of Scripture entail. The continued force of the Sunday obligation precept in the Catholic Church is thus an enduring sign of its unique claim of authority to bind all baptized Christians in a way that Protestantism long ago forswore. And, at any rate, the dechurching data indicates that the “freedom” to attend or not in Protestant churches is no guarantor that the pews will be filled “willingly.”
A different objection could be raised in the Thomistic spirit. The fact that a Catholic obeys the precept to attend Sunday Mass is due to his being a good Catholic, such that the precept presupposes the goodness of the Catholic. But then it follows that the precept does not operate to make the Catholic good. And further the “bad” Catholic or skeptic won’t be persuaded by the command to go to Mass anyway. Therefore, etc.
The answer is that most Catholics are neither perfect in virtue nor confirmed in vice, and so the precept can be obeyed for other reasons, such as fear of punishment or because the specification of the natural duty to set aside time to rest and worship God is seen as reasonable.
A similar objection could be raised to the idea that law aims at making men good, since such reasoning implies that law would be ineffective for virtuous and vicious men. In the context of human law, taken to its logical extent, this objection would lead to the elimination of any legally sanctioned positive obligations in a political community, an absurd conclusion that would dissolve everything from duty to rescue laws to the civic duties to pay taxes and testify when subpoenaed.
Imagine a polity in which citizens were invited, but not required, to pay taxes and testify as witnesses in legal proceedings. Imagine further that the government was a decent one and did a fair job advertising the decent services that its justice system provided its citizens, in order to persuade them of the desirability and reasonability of participating in it. Would such a polity be long for this world? That seems doubtful in a world like ours, where self-interest and freeriding flow from fallen human nature. If then we willingly accept legally enforced positive obligations for membership in political community, which secures a subordinate common good, then how much more should the Christian willingly embrace obligations imposed by the Church, for an immeasurably higher good?
Of course it is only an analogy to compare worldly polity to the Church, whose membership is radically distinct through its animation by grace. But to set the moral law at odds with grace is to revive the old antinomian error, which erroneously set Christian liberty at odds with Christian duty.
Christ himself indicates that invitation comes packaged with obligation. In the Parable of the Marriage Feast (both an eschatological image of Church Triumphant in heaven and of the Church Militant participating in the Eucharist) the king’s servants are rejected by invitees who care more for worldly pursuits. These were found unworthy and their cities were burned (interpreted by the Patristic fathers to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple under emperors Vespasian and Titus). So the king’s servants went into the streets and invited “all whom they found” (the Gentiles). The king then entered and discovered a man with no wedding garment, and cast him out into outer darkness.
The garment symbolizes the charity that quickens a lively faith, and the characteristic deeds of charity. The undressed man is therefore the slothful man who, lacking charity, rests and rejoices not in the divine good on Sundays (as the Third Commandment requires), but rather is pained by attendance at the Banquet of the Mass, in which the king offers himself as the holy and sanctifying Feast.
Aquinas teaches that the antidote to sloth is strengthening of charity, which comes about by growth in the spiritual life, including withdrawing the mind from worldly things to contemplate divine things. The more we grow in contemplation of God, the more pleasing it becomes. Let Catholics therefore rejoice in and proclaim the wisdom of the Sunday obligation, for it helps the faithful avoid becoming a slothful people and prescribes the most powerful medicine that can heal our slothful age.