Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In Defense of a Bad Mass

There's another combox war over at First Thing's On the Square, thanks to the dear Elizabeth Scalia who, by being gentle, moderate, and non-judgmental manages to draw the ire of everyone from the atheist to the cafeteria Catholic to the SSPX member.  In a rational mood I enjoy combox wars, rather (I suspect) as a fast driver enjoys auto accidents: There but for the grace ...  In a foolish mood, however, I will hop down combox rabbit holes with reckless abandon, and this I did in this case.

I couldn't stay out.  The question raised (not by Ms. Scalia, but by some of the commenters) was a irresistibly fuzzy one: Is it lawful—or even laudable—to skip Sunday Mass because of the irreverence of the rest of the congregation?

Such a simple question, it seemed.  The Baltimore Catechism as I remembered it was pretty clear on the issue.

Q. Is it a mortal sin not to hear Mass on a Sunday or a holy day of obligation? A. It is a mortal sin not to hear Mass on a Sunday or a holy day of obligation, unless we are excused for a serious reason. They also commit a mortal sin, who, having others under their charge, hinder them from hearing Mass, without a sufficient reason.

What constitutes a serious reason?  There are obvious cases: weather (e.g., a heavy snow storm that makes travel impossible), a long journey (assume you brought a chaplain, but he's died), contagious illness, care of others (you're a hospital nurse, fireman, policeman, etc.).  No one disputes examples like these.  But what about the following scenario ...

You go to Mass every day of the week, including Sunday, and you are a daily (or almost daily) communicant.  Weekday Masses are fine—quiet, peaceful, meditative affairs that allow you to get in, get God, and get feeling good.  Sunday Mass is another story.  In between the Horrible Hymnody, the Ordinary Ministers (a disproportionate number of whom look, speak, and act like former, or even current, card-carrying members of NOW), the altar girls (you can't help noticing that Heather, who's the cross bearer this week, has electric blue nails), and Fr. Milquetoast's mediocre homily, you must deal with ... the Rest of the Congregation.  The Rest of the Congregation are loud.  They chatter.  They chatter during the space before Mass, they chatter during the hymns, they chatter during the homily.  They go wild at the handshake of "peace".  They leave their phones on—you can't recall a recent Sunday when the canon wasn't interrupted by La cucaracha.  Some bells, that ... hell's bells ...  So you leave Sunday Mass in kicking kittens mood.  Actually, "kicking kittens mood" would be understating it: the only questions in your mind at the moment are, whether "assault and battery" is one thing or two, and whether changing the shape of Jon Gaddaby's nose would rank above a misdemeanor.

Two further questions thus arise.  First, under those circumstances, is attending Sunday Mass a near occasion of sin for you?  Second, if it is, are you justified in not attending—are you in fact practically required not to attend—Sunday Mass?

Oddly enough, the answer to the first question is not "yes," or at least not automatically.  There are circumstances under which anger is not only permissible but laudable, and perhaps even necessary, as when Christ threw the money-lenders out of the temple.  In the face of such irreverence, anger of a certain kind is the appropriate reaction.

But what if your anger is inappropriately strong?  After all, the kittens didn't do anything to hurt you; and permanent damage to Jon Gaddaby's proboscis is probably a penalty out of proportion with his fault, which must (we'll give him the benefit of good intentions and bad catechesis) have been an unintentional one.  What if irreverence disgruntles you to the point of sin?  Are you justified in not attending—are you perhaps even obligated not to attend—Sunday Mass?

There's a certain part of me that, hearing this argument, makes a face and says, "Grow up."  (Actually, that is what I said in my first comment.  Not the best debating move in the world, but it was heartfelt.)  But let us pass the level of mere retort.  Let us analyze the issue, not through the lens of authority (but just go read the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2181 while you're about it), but through the prism of analogy.

The Mass Missers' case in brief:

"Those other people at Mass make me angry—they're so irreverent.  I've tried and tried to make things better, but they won't stop.  They make me so angry about going to Sunday Mass, I think I'd better stop going to Sunday Mass."

Substitute some terms here and there ...

"Those other people at work make me angry—they're such slackers.  I've tried and tried to make things better, but they won't stop.  They make me so angry about going to work, I think I'd better stop going to work."

Hm.  What about ...

"Those teachers at school make me angry—they're so biased and unfair.  I've tried and tried to make things better, but they won't stop.  They make me so angry about learning, I think I'd better stop going to school."

Raising the stakes a bit ...

"Those kids of mine make me angry—they're such whiners.  I've tried and tried to make things better, but they won't stop.  They make me so angry about picking them up from school, I think I'd better not pick them up this afternoon."

And finally ...

"That woman at home makes me so angry.  I've tried and tried to make things better, but she's so demanding.  She makes me so angry about coming home, I think I'd better not come home tonight."

My friends, Sunday Mass is a duty.  If you're that angry, maybe the problem is not ONLY the congregation.  Maybe it's also you.


Besides, every time I find myself at one of those Masses, I can't help remembering Jesus alone in the Garden of Olives.  There is the cross—there is the host—he looks out over a sea of uncomprehending, indifferent faces and catches your eye.  Can you not watch one hour with me?

Rather an uplifting spiritual experience, that, in its own way.

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