The Obligation of Desire (Part 1)

Semantics color our perception of obligation.

“You want to go to Mass in this?!? It is LITERALLY the snowpocalypse.”

If you are a practicing Catholic Christian in today’s society, then you may have (like me) been faced with a criticism that goes something like this: “Why do you have to go to Mass every week?! You can pray on your own if you want!” or “It seems like going to church on Sunday is just an item to mark off of your check-list.” This can be a difficult criticism to address, especially when the critic is also Christian, because it gets to some fundamental questions about what we believe and where we lay our priorities. There is an obligation for weekly Mass attendance amongst practicing Catholics, and we have intermittent holy days of obligation. How do we explain this obligation without coming across as a rigid people with skewed priorities?

Part of the problem is that the word “obligation” has attained some negative connotations in our social conscious: one is “obliged to pay child support” or “obliged to show up for jury duty.” When we are obliged to do something, we commonly think of this as something we don’t want to do, but have to do. On the contrary, the actual definition of obligation only encompasses the mandate; we have added the negativity on our own as the word has become pejorative. We shall see that in the context of Catholic Christianity, the obligation of Mass is very different both from societal obligations and from our typical perception of obligations.

In my experience, the usual critics of the practice of weekly Mass attendance are non-Catholic Christians, many of whom express an authentic Christian faith partly through weekly church attendance in their own communities. To respond we have to:

  1. …clarify the actual meaning of our “obligation,” moving the word out its negative modern connotation, and…
  2. …do our best to explain our different perspective on Sunday worship and our encounter with God in the Mass.

The first part is relatively easy. Analogies are a great friend to us in this instance. Consider someone who has made a commitment to themselves that they will become more physically healthy by losing weight and improving their cardiovascular system. That person will want to exercise on a regular basis, and a wise way of doing that is to set aside a regular routine for exercise: perhaps running or swimming at the same time and day every week. We would say that this person has made a routine, has formed a habit, or has self-imposed an obligation to exercise regularly. That obligation has a certain priority in that person’s schedule, and their ability and desire to fulfill their obligation reflects their particular prioritization.

Now consider an addict of an addictive drug who has realized that life will be better if they address their addiction, and decides to enter a twelve-step program. Regular support meetings will take a high priority in that person’s life, and we wouldn’t criticize that person for doing their best to arrange their schedule to include consistent meetings.

Of course, Mass isn’t physical exercise, nor is it a twelve-step program. In Mass we experience God’s grace in a way that enables us to more fully develop a personal relationship with Him and to lead a more Christian life, and it should be uncontroversial that we would place a high priority on our self-imposed obligation to experience this grace. This self-imposition is a result of our personal decision to be believers and a cooperation of that personal decision with the guidance of the Church.

In this way, the obligation of Catholics to attend weekly Mass should be understood as an obligation of desire. The obligation exists only insofar as the desire exists, and the desire is nothing but that in which we seek a more intimate relationship with God through and in His Son Christ. In this way, a simplistic view that a failure to live up to the obligation of weekly Mass constitutes a great sin may be naive, as the obligation (in the sense that we have described it) can not exist if the desire does not exist. That said, if we have no desire to physically encounter Christ, then there is something much more serious going on in our souls.

Obligation is in the image of our desire for relationship with Him.

Again, this should be relatively uncontroversial, and it should be straightforward to express that the weekly Mass is not an item on a checklist for a mature practitioner of Faith, but a unique encounter with Christ that we have prioritized. In practice it is more difficult, because many Catholics live a life where they treat the weekly Mass obligation as something they don’t want to do but do anyways, and fanatically self-centered church-people have co-opted the idea of a personal obligation as a way to hold themselves above Christian brethren who don’t attend church regularly. In both instances, a stereotype of weekly Mass as a negative responsibility expected of Catholics is enabled, which is easily taken advantage of to fuel resentment of Catholicism.

It goes without saying that the obligation of Mass attendance is a priority that exists in a spectrum of priorities. Sometimes there are very good reasons for missing Mass; for instance, we certainly must follow the example of the proverbial good Samaritan and prioritize immediate aid to fellow humans over our religious obligations. The point is simply that obligation implies prioritization, which is a function of individual conscience.

Now, with all of that said, it is likely that a critic of weekly Mass attendance who is a non-Catholic Christian attends a weekly service in their own right, and grows in relationship with Christ in their own way. As is often the case, our practice and perception may not be too different from other Christians, we just tend to use more comprehensive vocabulary. The usual crux of the criticism from Protestant Christians is a fundamental difference in perception between the purpose and nature of the Sunday service, and we must understand this difference of perception in any inter-faith discussion of the Sunday obligation. This will be the focus of the second part of this article, where we will put some form to what it is that makes the Catholic Mass unique without alienating non-Catholics.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever had someone describe the practice of your faith as a check-list? How does that make you feel? What are the reasons behind your critics’ perceptions? Are haters simply, as it is commonly said, gonna hate?
  2. Do your actions or habits contribute to external negative perceptions of your Christian denomination?
  3. What churches, communities, or religions (external to your own), do you perceive to be built on negative obligations? Is your perception built on real knowledge, or on bias? Reflect on the differences and similarities between these communities and your own.
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