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 the 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, 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.