Holy Days: The Other “Elephant in the Room”

The Catholic Church – perhaps as a result of ancient legalistic Roman enculturation – is often stereotyped as a church of rules. This, it’s thought, in contrast to the relative freedom of Protestant congregations, which believe that, as long as they follow their interpretations of the Bible, they have left mere rules behind.

The “rules” connected with Catholicism are varied. Some, such as the prohibition of contraception, are simply reiterations of the natural law. Others, such as the prohibition of abortion (“thou shalt not kill”) and requirement for Sunday Mass attendance (“remember to keep holy the Sabbath”), are specifications related to the Decalogue. Still others, including many of the six “Precepts” of the Church, are of a disciplinary nature, enjoined to foster holiness and solidarity among Church members. But they are also – and here’s the rub – binding sub grave, i.e. under pain of mortal sin. Included among these precepts are the Holy Days of Obligation, and days requiring fast and abstinence.

These days, attention to these latter precepts is muted, to say the least. I remember a homily from our former pastor, citing the great breakthroughs of Vatican II, and citing St. Paul’s reminders to early Christians that they were “free from the law.” (e.g., Rom. 8:2) Those of us in the congregation who were familiar with the specifics of Church laws could take this as referring to the Precepts, and possibly some of the other laws that have been challenged under the rubric of the “spirit of Vatican II,” especially rules concerning contraception.

But not only liberals have trouble with such rules. The editorial staff, writers, and distinguished commenters here on The Catholic Thing website include, judging from my experience over the last few years here, many converts who either overcame their hesitation about “rule-laden” Catholicism, or were not completely informed about things like the “Six Precepts” during their formation.

Our TCT crowd may also include some readers who were catechized since the 1960s by reformers who thought it important to downplay such things. And of course, for liberals or conservatives, the question, and the test of faith, consists in, “can the successor of Peter, with the power of binding and loosing, actually enjoin, under pain of hellfire, such things as Friday abstinence and attendance at Holy Day Masses?”

In Catholic magazines and websites, one occasionally hears references to the widespread use of contraception by Catholic married couples – as “the elephant in the room” that is being ignored while Catholic naïfs concentrate on moving deck chairs around on the Titanic (to mix metaphors). But on the basis of my own admittedly limited experiences in various dioceses in the United States, I would suggest that the non-observance of Holy Days of Obligation is another “elephant in the room.” And it’s worth reflecting on that breakdown as we approach the holiest season of the liturgical year.

A while ago I offered an example of this in these pages with regard to the non-observance of All Saints Day in my diocese. The most recent Holy Day of Obligation was the feast of Mary the Mother of God, and my experience with that feast indicates some current confusion, if not explicit dissent, with regard to Holy Days.

I was in Tucson, Arizona, for a family get-together on Christmas. The local parish where I was staying has a Sunday schedule of three Masses. After Christmas, I attended the 10:30 Sunday Mass, at the conclusion of which the pastor mentioned that there would be one special Mass commemorating the feast of Mary Mother of God, on New Year’s Day at 9:00. He made no mention of the fact that this would be a Holy Day of Obligation, and there was no notice of that fact in the church bulletin published for that Sunday. The next day, I called the parish rectory, and told the secretary that I was from another diocese and wondered if the feast was a Holy Day of Obligation in the diocese of Tucson. She answered that yes, it was; and I mentioned that the pastor had not mentioned this fact on Sunday.

I called the chancery office for Tucson, curious about diocesan policy, and I was told by the spokeswoman there that no, the feast of Mary the Mother of God was not considered a Holy Day of obligation in the diocese.

But then I checked the website of other parishes in the vicinity, and found that some of them, publishing the PDFs of their church bulletins, explicitly specified that the feast was indeed a Holy Day of Obligation.

Finally, attending the 9:00 Mass on New Year’s Day at that same local parish, I found the church about half-full. Sitting in a rear pew, I noticed one lady holding a baby, but no children, and no teenagers. The majority of attendees seemed to be “senior citizens” – very likely retirees.

This jibed with my experience of other Holy Days in other dioceses. I hope the situation is different, which is to say better, in other parts of the United States.

Is this an unimportant issue? Even if the short-shrift given to Holy Days is another “elephant in the room,” couldn’t we say that it’s a small matter – for example, in comparison to contraception? If I may be allowed to bring Jesus into the discussion: “He that is faithful in little things will be faithful in greater things.” (Luke 16:10)  I have a hard time imagining Catholics who are faithful regarding “small” rules, being unfaithful in “more important” matters. And I would add that the rules now about fasting and abstinence during Lent are minimal in comparison to what they were in the forties and fifties.

On the other hand, the precepts to confess at least once a year and receive the Eucharist during the Easter season are still in full force – and a good place to start in these last weeks of Lent for those untaught about or unfamiliar with Holy Day obligations.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

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.

  • Bruno

    Professor Kainz, I am Catholic, reasonably orthodox, and have a great deal of problems in harmonizing, in my head, Canon Law and “small minded rules” (to quote the Pope) and the centrality of freedom from the law in Paul and also in the Gospels themselves. I mean, I know Jesus didn’t abolish the Law (does Law refer to the Mosaic Law or to any other species of Law coming to replace it, including Canon Law?), that right will be right and wrong will be wrong, but at the same time he “violated” the Sabbath. Well one can say that it would be impossible for him to violate the Sabbath for he was God and God doesn’t sin, but still, he made it without effect due to higher demands of love, not abolishing but perfecting the Law.

    Well, I ask without malice, can you point me to a book or perhaps someday write an article clarifying in what does Canon Law and “declared” Natural Law differ from Mosaic Law, considering that both come from legitimate authorities in their own times, and how exactly one finds the balance between Pharisaism and antinomy? When is one being faithful in the few, and when is one seeking justification in the Law?

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I once remarked to some of my French friends that I thought it a pity that Corpus Christi (which the French call simply the « Fête-Dieu » or “Feast of God”) is nowadays transferred to the nearest Sunday.
    They explained to me that the government would only allow the Church one public holiday that always fell on a Thursday, as people would, inevitably, make it an excuse for a long weekend – « faire le pont » or “make a bridge,” as they say and so the bishops settled for Ascension Day.
    The notion that there could be a Holiday of Obligation that was not also a public holiday was quite beyond their comprehension.

  • Manfred

    Thank you for an accurate and timely article, Howard. I admire your courage in citing the entire spectrum of where the faults lie. I will briefly mention another elephant. Abp Wilton Gregory, in the news lately for his $2.2 million retirement home, referred, while he was president of the USCCB, to “the ongoing struggle to prevent the Catholic priesthood from becoming a homosexual profession”. So we have a corrupted priesthood serving a nonchalant laity. The True Faith has only existed with the “Remnant”, the Traditional Church, as the “Big Church” has been in heterodoxy and heresy for decades. Many “good” catholics (sic) don’t know they aren’t Catholic! They are really in some variant of protestantism (with a pope!) and they are not even aware of it. They are in the Church of Nice (Voris). It makes no demands on them. It effectively has removed Hell from their vocabulary. It is Diabolical. Saints who have been granted visions of Hell state they have heard the souls of the damned cursing those who “enabled” them to make the choices which resulted in their eternal damnation. That is why articles like Howard’s today is so important. It is our obligation to warn all who will listen.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    The author asks about Holy Days: “Is this an unimportant issue?” It’s not if the Church takes seriously her duty to teach and discipline the faithful with clarity and zeal. The Church ought to speak as One since it is a ‘mark’ of the Church as we proclaim in our Creed.

  • Richard A

    My wife and I work downtown so that we are able to attend noon Mass at the cathedral most days. Invariably, the liturgies for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are packed to overflowing, but the Holy Days of obligation draw only slightly more than the usual crowd. An odd understanding indeed of our duties as Catholics.

  • Jim

    Of course our bishops reduced the status of Holy Days when they moved them to the nearest Sunday (including the Epiphany and Ascension Thursday)–too difficult they said for laity to make it to Mass or too difficult for them to understand if they fell on Saturdays or Monday. I’m with George Weigel who wrote a column favoring MORE Holy Days and he suggested at least one: the Feast of the North American Martyrs.

  • Ted Seeber

    It is an important issue, but a highly complex one involving a Protestant, Pluralistic culture that would rather celebrate Martin Luther King Day than a Holy Day of Obligation. I’m very Orthodox, but this is the one place I am often lax, having no energy left to go to mass after working a 10 hour day, and having to be at work far earlier than any service available in my area.

    Some of us have other obligations, that sad to say, prevent us from going to daily mass. One day I hope to be in that luxurious retired class who can.

  • Bangwell Putt

    A recommendation to “Bruno” from an ordinary lay person: You will find a wealth of information on the subject that interests you in “Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI” by Tracey Rowland.

  • Augustine Thomas

    At Novus Ordo, everything goes.
    Why would you be surprised when people think they’re free to show up or not when it’s all about them and their feelings and what they want to be true?
    In California, it’s extremely difficult to find two Catholics together, lay or clerical, who care much at all about what the faith actually teaches.
    Their desires are number one. If church happens to be a desire that day, they’ll indulge. Otherwise, they’ll let the Church know how to “evolve” and “embrace modernity” (so that the Church can please them, because, again, that’s what’s most important–they’re sure of their eternal salvation, so they don’t have to worry about small questions like that)..

  • MIKE

    The Doctrine of the Faith which all Catholics must comply with is in the “CATECHISM of the CATHOLIC CHURCH, Second Edition”.
    The problem is the ignorance of the Faith including by some employees of Dioceses.
    This is compounded by those Bishops and Priests who do not actively, publically, prominently, and frequently promote the study of the CCC by all literate Catholics within their Diocese.
    There is no excuse for ignorance among the literate. See the website “What Catholics REALLY Believe”

  • Howard Kainz

    @Bruno: St. Paul’s declarations about freedom from the law were always oriented to the hundreds of Mosaic laws which had accumulated — laws about what can be done on the Sabbath, laws regarding circumcision, the prohibition of certain foods, and traditions of uncleanliness in associating with gentiles, etc. Jesus emphasized that the primary law is charity. For example, if I’m on my way to Mass, and encounter an accident in which I can help, I don’t need a special dispensation to forego Mass.

  • dan

    Epistle of Paul to the Colossians 2:16-23
    16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, [t]taking his stand on visions he has seen, [u]inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and [v]ligaments, grows with a growth [w]which is from God.20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Not long ago I was a t Catholic soical event at which a seminarian, when queried as part of a kind of quiz game, could not name one Holy Day of Obligation. When I conveyed my astonishment and dismay to a fellow layman he he merely augered that t it might be his first year in the seminary! Didn’t we use to learn such basics at home? Yes, I know that according to the New Wisdom we don’t need to know or practice anything as long as we hew to multiculturalism, marriage equality, and and join in the denunciation of obedience and piety as legalism. Damn the New Wisdom! Full speed back to the Barque of Peter! The enemies of the Bride of Christ know that no culutre, even Cathoolic culture, can last without structure. Those enemies cannot prevail.

  • debby

    I vote for MORE Holy Days, not less.
    Oh, that’s right, I am a Catholic, so there is no popular vote.
    Oh, that’s right, I am a daughter of the Father, beloved by the Savior, filled with the Holy Spirit.
    I don’t need an obligation to go to Mass. I am in Love.
    I can’t help myself. I was a Catholic for 20 years before I found out that Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday are not “obligations”. Funny. Every NJ church I have been a member of (4) in the last 32.25 years the churches are packed on those days.
    As for poor Manfred’s comment that I am not even a Catholic, I disagree. It is impossible that there is no Pope. You may not like him, but that is none of your business. Jesus didn’t tell all the disciples they had to like Peter. I guess you would call me a Samaritan. Not a high-bred Latin speaking Catholic (which I can be jealous of – I love the Latin Mass). Nope. I am a Bastard Catholic. Born to 400 years+ Scotch Protestants, but Conceived in my heart a love and Adoration of the Holy Family by 4 years old, raised to consider Catholics heretics, but Found by a Savior Who Came For Me. And I am MOST GRATEFUL.
    So, in the end, if I love Him with all I can,
    if I worship Him in Spirit and in Truth,
    if I confess, “My Lord, My GOD, i am NOT Worthy that YOU should enter in, enter under my roof, come into me, but oh Lord, if only, when, yes, ONLY SAY THE WORD – my name IN YOUR NAME – i am YOURS- only say the Word and i SHALL be HEALED.”
    if I love Him and believe crying “help my unbelief”
    then all those around me will be transformed.
    His grace will pour out.
    His mercy will Shine on the just and the unjust.
    His power to Save will prevail.
    Souls will be saved.
    i pray all fall in love with Him.
    i have never known love to end in obligation(resignation), but in the offering of oneself, Emmanuel comes, bringing great JOY.

  • Lynn

    How pathetic is that. I never once thought to take my oldest to Mass because Mass times typically fall during the school day.

    I shall do better.

  • debby

    lynn –
    YOU made my day! and i bet our LORD is MOST pleased with your humility and open heart.
    You are already “doing better”.
    xo from one mommy to another.

  • arturo

    it’s simple. in going up we need discipline. when we reach enlightenment like Dante in paradiso, we become the lord of ourselves. going down we’re free.