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The Protestantization of the Church

A few weeks ago, at the end of Mass, our pastor made some announcements, among which was that on November 1, there would be a children’s mass at 8:15, and also a 5:00 Mass at a neighboring church, St. Catherine’s. No mention was made that this was the feast of All Saints, or that it was a Holy Day of Obligation.

On the feast, at 5:00, a group of about thirty of us, mostly oldsters, gathered outside St. Catherine’s for Mass. We waited until 5:15. Nothing. Some made calls on their cell phone. The upshot was that for some reason the priest was not going to show up. So we began to drift away. A deacon who was present joked that we’re all going to go to hell, because of the priest’s negligence.

But we’re talking here about a parish (St. Sebastian’s) with 4,136 families as of 2010, only thirty of whom came for the Holy Day.

Does anyone attend Mass anymore on Holy Days? From what I hear, my diocese (Milwaukee) is more liberal than others. Our pastor mentioned in one of his homilies before the last presidential election that he was a member of Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action – which gave us a clue about his political and theological leanings. But there were no parishioners from St. Catherine’s among us on Tuesday. I haven’t investigated other parishes, but my impression is that attendance at Holy Days has trickled to almost nothing.

I was taught, like most Catholics in the 1940s and 1950s, that holy days of obligation were a serious matter. Some would say that was simply the product of a strict Irish pastor and pre-Vatican II nuns in the elementary school. But Pope John Paul II in his 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies domini reiterated what I and others had been taught:  “The present Code of Canon Law [states that] ‘on Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to attend Mass.’ This legislation has normally been understood as entailing a grave obligation.”

The pope referred to section 2180 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, which some might find worded a bit ambiguously. It states, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass.” But then, it continues in the following section, “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.”

        All Saints Day by Wasilly Kandinsky, 1911

The possible ambiguity stems from the fact that section 2181 seems to be talking primarily about the Sunday Eucharist, which is categorized as a “day of obligation” like the Holy Days. “For this reason. . .” seems to refer to the importance of the Sunday Eucharist, not Holy Days. Some rewording might be in order.

But who would presume that the lackluster attendance at Holy Day celebrations is due to people noticing this possible ambiguity in the Catechism? Something deeper is taking place here.

My thoughts go back to the 1950s. Catholics presented a stark contrast to Protestants then. Catholics attended church on Sundays and Holy Days, and believed they committed mortal sin if they missed Mass for no grave reason on those days. They abstained from meat on Fridays, fasted from midnight before Communion, and these were considered serious laws – breach of them was matter for Confession (now, the “Sacrament of Reconciliation”). Nuns and priests were also identifiable on the street.

Then, in the 1960s, changes began to take place. No Friday abstinence (although some voluntary substitutions were recommended). Only one hour fasting before Communion. Nuns and priests in secular garb. Hardly any mention of sins from the pulpit, except sins of racism, sexism, homophobia, and non-inclusiveness. Certainly (in my experience), no mention of contraception or abortion as sins. Not many long lines for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And everybody comes up for Communion, row by row.

All this is well known. But gradually, it has become clear that something like a “Protestant reformation” has taken place within the Church, and our ecumenical attempts to get Protestants back into the unity of the Church seem in a way to be rather superfluous. We have rid ourselves of many of the things that had differentiated Catholics from Protestants. Catholic and Lutheran theologians after extensive dialogue have come to an official agreement and a Joint Declaration regarding “justification by faith,” the doctrine which for Luther was the cause of deep division between Catholics and Protestants.

Catholics certainly measure up to what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” like many Protestants. But what else would be required for bona fide union? Ah, yes:  Apostolic succession. The papacy. The Real Presence. 

Some efforts have been made in recent years to restore elements of Catholic identity. Some groups of nuns – the ones with the “different kind of ‘vocation crisis’” (too many applicants) – have enthusiastically embraced the wearing of the traditional habits of their order. In a growing number of dioceses the Latin Mass has become readily available. Most recently the new English translation of the liturgy beginning this Advent is an attempt to recapture linguistically the reverential atmosphere of the pre-Novus-Ordo Mass.

But to a great extent “the genie [of Catholic identity] is out of the bottle.” And the negligence regarding Holy Days of Obligation is a significant symptom of the problem. If the bishops of the United States do not want non-observance of Holy Days to be a “grave sin,” they have the power of dispensation and should utilize it.

Otherwise, our thousands of parishioners going to Communion next Sunday should get some additional catechizing – in addition to the regular instructions on “social justice.”


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.