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People become bored by religion because they do not understand it

And talk of Hell is not the best way to bring them back

By on Wednesday, 18 July 2012


I have been asked a question via email from a former parishioner. The substance of it is this. His daughter, who is a married woman, wants to know if she will go to hell if she does not go to Mass every Sunday. And she further wants to know about her husband who is not a practising Christian, but a good person – what will happen to him?

Oh where to begin?

First of all, it is the teaching of the Church that all who die in mortal sin will go to hell. But it is important to realise that mortal sin is, as my RE teacher told me years ago, quite difficult to commit. The matter must be grave, done with full knowledge and the consent to the action must be deliberate and freely given. Mortal sin effectively destroys one’s relationship with God, and deprives one of divine grace. The way back from mortal sin is sincere repentance and sacramental confession.

That is all very clear, but there are two caveats. The first is theological. It is hard for us to judge the state of our relationship with God; this is because it is hard for us ever fully to know ourselves. It is hard to know whether an action was deliberate and free. Most actions are never completely free, the force of circumstances being what they are. Nevertheless, judgements must be made, and some of these judgements will be on firmer grounds than others. There may be cases that are dubious; and there may be cases that are really very clear, and where appeal to circumstance will strike one as a weak excuse.

The second caveat is this. People nowadays are very ignorant of the Catholic faith. Many sin without thinking, or without knowing what it is that they do. Yes, their consciences should tell them, but their consciences may well be smothered by bad education or drowned out by worldly voices. Some young people may well get into objectively wrong behaviour without having a clue that such things are wrong.

Now to the specific case. I was brought up to believe that going to Mass on Sunday was an essential part of the Catholic life. I was told this by my Anglican mother, by priests from the pulpit and by teachers. And I believed it, and I still do. I believe it in conscience. I try my best to give this same message, just as I received it. Objectively speaking not to go to Mass on Sunday and days of obligation is a grave dereliction of duty. Yes, it is grave matter.

The trouble is, many, and perhaps my former parishioner’s daughter is among them, have not heard this message loud and clear. While it is true her absence from Mass is in no way a good thing, indeed it is objectively a bad state of affairs, she herself may not be to blame for it. She may not understand the seriousness of the Sunday obligation. She may have been taught it – if she hasn’t then it is the fault ultimately of the clergy – or if she has been taught it, it may not have taken root in her. The concept of Sunday, of Mass, of prayer, of the meaning of the Divine Sacrifice of Calvary – all the may be hazy to her. In not going every Sunday she may not be rejecting God, she may in fact be dilatory in not going simply because she does not understand the significance of going to Mass.

I have said this before, I seem to remember: people walk away from the practice of the faith not because the reject it as such, but because they do not really understand what it is they are doing when they practice the faith.

I myself am bored to death by tennis – because I have never had the rules explained to me, or the point of the game. Tennis is a language I simply do not understand. That’s how it is for many at Mass. They are not rejecting God or the Liturgy – they are just bored by it because they do not understand it.

In conclusion those who stay away from Mass or do not go very often are almost certainly not committing mortal sin. Rather they fall into the category of those who are in danger of being lost through not being man enough to be damned. Dante summed such people up in his Inferno, which you can read about here. But, it strikes me that talk of hell is not the best way forward in trying to evangelise those who do not go to Mass very often. In this we should follow St Francis de Sales, who said that you catch more flies with a drop of honey than you do with a whole barrelful of vinegar.

As for the next question, that is a big one! I will deal with that in another positing.

  • teigitur

    I have always thought that, if one did not want to be present at Christ s sacrifice at least once a week, on a Sunday, then one did not really understand at all.
    Its also been my experience that if one have no devotion to Our Lady, one s following of her Son will be less than optimal, and may even fade away. I have witnessed this in many friends and indeed family members.

  • paulpriest

    Yeah – every pulpit in the land  spews forth tirades of hell-fire and damnation; every Catholic tome , journal or commentary is over-laden with doom-filled warnings of perdition’s flames in the relentlessly tortuous fiery pit….

    …and of course our Cardinal is the worst culprit – never a single sentence uttered without reference to all we sinners being consigned to satan’s subterranean sauna.

    People are BORED RIGID with religion because people who should know better contantly whitter on about subjects which are utterly irrelevant to the present crisis….

  • maryclare

    And when you stand before the Almighty as we all will, just how irrelevant will Christ be then??? Hell exists…so does the devil, I have seen him. This is not something to jest about. And eternity is a loooooooonnnnng time to spend in hell. 

  • paulpriest

     Perhaps you didn’t get my point? That the last thing the present Church establishment is doing is screaming about Hell – so why suggest it’s a pertinent prevailing issue?

    Forgetting hell exists – that there is such a thing as sin – IS a problem!

  • charles

    Over the past decades, the Church has played down the realities of Hell and emphasis more on the love of God which is very important. The fallout from this is that so many people in the Church now believe that they are Heaven bound regardless of the lifestyle they are living.
    The idea that Catholic Church bore people with stories of Hell is not correct. Actually, the opposite has been the case. I go to mas quite often and in different parishes, in the last 13 years, i cannot remember hearing homily about Hell. As a matter of fact, other Christian denominations  think that Catholic Church dosen’t believe in Hell. I have had to tell few people that it is not the case that the Church do believe in Hell.
     Yes, God’s love and mercy is unimaginable and should be preached by the Church, but the realities of eternal damnation for those that chose to exclude themselves from His love should also be made known.

  • AnnieB

    Am I missing the point? I go to mass whenever I can out of love
    and desire not duty. You don’t have to be told to spend time with people you like and love. How much effort is the church exerting to help people develop a personal relationship with Jesus?

    Duty? Obligation? Forget it.

    And yes, the devil is real and doesn’t he love being ignored.

    If you want to hear a sermon on hell, on morals, go to a foreign priest either American or African.

  • Alan

    We hear far more mention of Purgatory than of Hell, which seems only right.  As the article points out, it’s actually quite difficult to commit a pure mortal sin, just as it’s difficult to perform a purely good act with no selfish motive.  We all have mixed motives.  But if the clergy started screaming about Hell, as some would like, I can think of no better way of turning people off. 
    Also, I see a basic difference between a sin (murder, adultery, etc.) and a Church rule (weekly Mass attendance).  The former applies to everybody, the latter just to Catholics.  If we belong to an organisation, we should at least try to obey the rules.

  • theroadmaster

    For many, their only real encounter with religious tenets and principles was during religious education and sacramental preparation in schools.  These experiences were often less than profound in their significance for people due to the poor cathechesis and slapdash teaching that they received.  So we cannot be entirely surprised, if their level of religious understanding failed to mature, as they grew into adulthood.  Children need to have both parish and parents involved in the seeds of Catholic Christian discipleship within them.  Cathechesis based on Orthodox Catholic teachings and doctrine coupled with a bible-based study program, can help to leave an indelible mark on young students and thus help to reverse the trend of such important Sacramental stages as First Communion and Confirmation from becoming preludes to their rite-of-passage flight from religion.

  • AgentCormac

    No wonder people don’t understand religion, it is a futile exercise in trying to make the square peg of theology fit with the round hole of reality. And guess what, it will never fit.

    BTW, bet you censor this comment!

  • Reader

    When I returned to the Rosary, I returned to the faith. It’s very true that abandoning the Mother is but one step from abandoning the Son.

  • Reader

    Father, isn’t there an onus on people who call themselves Catholic to find out about the faith which they might casually say they belong to? I believe that not doing so is category of the sin of sloth. Even if you don’t know about that part of the sin of sloth (and might claim you’re not committing a sin because you don’t know), it is still counter-intuitive not to do something about a lack of knowledge and therefore willful. You’re right about attracting more people with honey, etc, but there comes a point when someone’s own ignorance is due to their own willful inactivity or can’t-be-bothered-ness and they can’t blame it on anything or anybody else.

  • Morys Ireland

    It seems to me that to ask whether someone will go to hell or not if they don’t go to Mass seems to me to be missing the point on many levels. Instead we should be asking: if I don’t go to church, what am I really getting out of my faith? Can one really be a Christian and not partake in the communal aspects essential to our Christian faith? We talk about ‘receiving communion’. That is not some passing reference to a fluffy ideal, that is actually partaking in the one Body of Christ and thus uniting ourselves with other Christians and, ultimately, God himself.

    Thus to ask whether or not absence from church services leads to eternal damnation is missing a key – if not the key – aspect of Christianity – communion with God and with other Christians. It is not for nothing that Jesus promised us that ‘when two or three gather in my name, I am among them’. It’s hard to imagine how someone might go to hell for not going to church; but, equally, it’s hard to imagine how someone can be a Christian and not partake in the essential communal aspects of our faith.

  • Lewispbuckingham

    Is the question ‘Is there salvation outside the CC?’

  • daclamat

    Not bored. Just turned off by what the CH  offers as relevant.  Maybe Gerhard Mueller will help out, with the help of Gustavo

  • Sweetjae

    True! Theotokos!

  • Sweetjae

    I got you mate though I think the emphasis of the Church for salvation should be on how to grow deeper in love with Christ and neighbor than the fear of hell.

  • Alban

    If faith is put across in a complicated way it can be a turn-off. The faith of most people is really quite simple.

  • Lazarus

    I remember a Catholic mother in a mixed marriage telling me her son had taken to saying: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a Protestant because it means I get a lie in on Sunday.’ (Her nominally Protestant husband making use of Sunday mornings for that very purpose.)

    Part of the problem with Mass going is that, out of ecumenical sensibility/Spirit of Vatican II-ism, the differences between Catholic understandings of the Church and Mass and Protestant understandings of religious services have been downplayed. If you think the chief way of meeting God is reading your Bible , then it’s as easily done in bed as in an inconveniently distant church. If you think that God is uniquely present in the sacrifice of the Mass, well, despite caterwauling choirs, irritating homilies and having to push screaming kids into the car, you’ve just got to grit your teeth and get there.

  • Fr Tim

    What do you mean? The CH is the best it has ever been! It’s been through some tedious times of dreary irrelevance (I’m old enough to remember) but those days are over. We should be very proud of our best paper. It’s full of interest and good writing, IMHO.
    (Get me, with the textspeak :-))

  • amator Dei

    Maybe people stop coming to church not because they do not understand what it is about, but because they understand it all too well and reject it – or at least reject what the Church offers them. if they are given a God who would condemn them to everlasting hellfire because they miss mass on Sunday, they might well think the punishment is so ludicrously disproportionate that such a God is a savage monster and not worth believing in – and not, in any case, the God of Jesus Christ. Instead of arrogantly blaming others for their supposed failure of understanding, the Church should look to itself and make sure that it really does preach in word and deed a God of Jesus Christ, i.e. a God of infinite love and compassion who will continue to love people regardless of their failures. The RCC is a long long way from being such a church – that is why people walk away from it.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thank you, Fr Tim, for your kind comment!

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Clearly our censors are not working as hard as they might be.

  • daclamat

    Just check the contents of this week’s CH.

  • JByrne24

    Actually maryclare, if you believe you have seen the devil you may like to consider that you have been hallucinating.
    Whatever else the devil is, it is surely not a thing capable of being seen (or indeed a thing not capable of being seen, or not seen).
    However I’m not really an expert on this.

  • JByrne24

    I am at odds with several (many in fact) aspects of the Church’s teaching and have always said that I’m a Catholic-brought up a Catholic;Catholic wife;married;no sex outside marriage; try (usually) not to be mean; never used “artificial” contraceptives etc……really really boring.
    If Fr Kung, or his like, were Pope I believe that I would be a better Catholic and would be much happier, as I’m obviously nearing the end of life. But in NO SENSE do I say CASUALLY that I am a Catholic. I think about life and death, heaven and hell almost every hour of the day. I’m glad I never dream of any of this!  Although I DO dream, quite often, of bossy Catholics I have met – real nightmares!
    The teaching of Jesus, so far as I know it, I like. But the Church and its moralists drive me up the proverbial wall – it is surely a pale ghost of the Church that Jesus founded. And I’m very willing to be bothered about anything that makes sense.

  • JByrne24

    Censor your comment? Not a hope.(Well not these days, at least).

  • JabbaPapa

    However I’m not really an expert on this.

    Indeed — you are not.

    Most people haven’t the foggiest clue about the Devil, and should therefore completely refrain from speaking in ignorance about him.

    Do you think that those who witnessed the Resurrection were “hallucinating” ? That Saint Bernadette Soubirous was “hallucinating” at Lourdes ?

    As usual, JB24 preaches against the Truth of the Catholic Faith.

  • JabbaPapa

    Küng as Pope …. shudder !!!!

    You are of course entitled to your personal opinions, but you are NOT entitled to spread these personal opinions as if they were doctrines — because to do so constitutes at the very least a rebellion against the Church.

    Of course, it’s never quite so gentle as you are trying to suggest, is it ?

    No, with you it’s typically formal heresies, anathemata, and apostasies presented as if they were “catholic”.

  • Parasum

     That may hold for people brought up Catholic – but for Evangelical converts, maybe not: because Evangelical piety is centred on Christ, with very little attention to Our Lady. 

  • teigitur

    The center is always Christ, for everyone. I do not know any evangelical converts, but I do know converts from other Churches. I think the same rule applies.

  • teigitur

    There really is no point in replying to him. I have come to the conclusion that he is just an antagonist for the sake of it. Clearly with too much time on his hands. The Devil, as we know ,always has work for the idle.

  • Lewispbuckingham

     When asked about the same things our local cardinal, at a public debate on the subject of ‘Dangerous Ideas’ suggested that the questioner just keep searching.
    I am quite sure ,JB that you are not in the hands of the Devil and sincerely want to test  people and their ideas out.I think, by this you grace this board.
    I am sure, from what you say, that your life has been chaste, but like us older people its not good enough to obey rules as a path to sanctity, particularly if those rules do not make much sense.
     The only place where any rule may make sense is when it liberates the rule user.
    Following Christ is an ultimate liberation.
     But then, if things must be measured to be understood then the dictates of an organisation like the CC are essentially not understandable.
     It is only by meeting someone who is educated as you are and also a practicing Catholic that any of this may be understandable.
     As far as preternatural beings go, bearing in mind that Christ believed in them, a good place to start is to ask your guardian angel for help today and to watch over you.

  • Ave Verum

    Religion (one assumes here Christian religion) without the gift of faith, hope and charity is dust without life – and dust makes a boring meal.  The Church will appear absurd unless it lives its faith with charity and shows the light of hope which Christ wills it to shine especially in the darkest and most unlikely of the world’s corners, places which even the Church may initially view with repugnance.

  • aearon43

    Interesting theory… as a life-long Catholic, I can’t recall ever hearing, during a sermon or otherwise, that God would condemn someone to hell merely for missing Mass. Is that something you believe the Church teaches, or do you perhaps have other motives for making such statements?

  • Parasum

    The difference is that Evangelicalism concentrates on what is at the heart of Christianity – Christ Himself. Catholic piety is often taken up with secondary things: not Christ Himself, but His effects, & their effects. Novenas have a NT foundation, but they are not central – He is. There can be salvation without a large number of means – Scripture, sacraments, other sacramentals, devotions – but not without Christ or the grace He alone can give. He is the Friend of Sinners: no-one less can fill that part. These other things are good purely because of Him, never the other way round.

  • Lake42

    irrespective of religion, caste or creed sins are sins. “as you sow so shall you reap”, if a human does not believe in this words then he/she deprives oneself of understanding the rule of the universe/nature.if a being lives for other’s sake and sacrifices his/her life for others than it is obvious that person will close the door of suffeing/unhappiness for oneself and others.

  • Francis

    “,,,the Church is a pale ghost of the Church that Jesus founded”.   How true JByrne24!