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.