In the January 13th edition of The Compass, Fr. Ron Rolheiser states (“Moral sin: Who are we to judge?”, p. 11), “Does the Catholic Church really teach that missing Mass is a mortal sin and that if you die in that state you will go to hell? No, that's not Catholic orthodoxy….” This statement is not correct. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly teaches:

“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 at this obligation commit a grave sin.” (CCC 2181, emphasis added)

“To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (CCC 1033; see also 1037)

Notice the Church's teaching is more nuanced than the common phrase, “missing Mass is a mortal sin.” Nonetheless she does in fact teach that deliberately failing at the obligation to participate in Sunday Eucharist is a grave (mortal) sin, and that persisting in mortal sin until death leads to hell. However, there's more to the story.

Catholic theology distinguishes between the objective nature of moral evil and the subjective nature of moral culpability. Let me give you an illustration. A woman goes to a clinic for an abortion. Objectively, ending an innocent human life is always gravely sinful. Subjectively, the woman is probably experiencing an intense amount of fear and pressure that reduces her freedom to choose. She may not fully realize that the fetus is her own tiny child. The act is still gravely evil but these circumstances reduce her guilt, as a mortal sin requires full knowledge and full consent.

Intentionally absenting oneself from the Eucharist is a mortal sin. But we don't know for sure to what extent a person who misses Mass on Sunday is actually guilty of mortal sin. This is probably the point that Fr. Rolheiser was trying to make. But he, and the parish priest he responds to, are both presenting one-sided views. It is incumbent upon preachers, and column authors, to present the whole truth. And every Catholic should own a copy of the Catechism.

“Who am I to judge?” is not the only thing Pope Francis has ever taught. People repeat it because it fits a prevailing attitude that morality has no basis in objective truth, “sin is subjective,” and “don't tell me what to do with my life.”

Pope Francis, it turns out, has no problem judging western society for its material excesses, neglect of the poor, abuse of the environment, and culture of isolation and exclusion. We all judge, and we must. But we know there is One who will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Every one of us will stand before the final judgement of Jesus. We have a duty in love to warn others of the impending judgement. Sadly the young man in Fr. Rolheiser's example, by absenting himself from the Eucharist, fornicating, and drinking to excess, is placing his eternal salvation in jeopardy. But the happy truth is that Jesus has the final answer, not us. That is why we pray for the dead and offer Masses for them.

The attitude of the Church is always to entrust her children to the mercy of God. No Catholic should presume she is going to heaven because she attends Mass on Sunday. Neither should we presume that another is going to hell because he doesn't attend Mass on Sunday.

Abby Johnson was a clinic director for Planned Parenthood. She ran into many pro-lifers who protested her organization, yelled at her, and called her “baby killer.” She was even refused membership in a Baptist church because of her employer. Her clinic became the site of the first 40 Days for Life prayer vigil. These pro-lifers were kind, polite, and respectful to her. Some even said 'good morning' to her on her way into work.

One day she held the sonogram probe during an abortion. She witnessed a baby being torn apart by a suction machine. At that moment the objective truth of abortion hit her like a ton of bricks. She knew she had to leave. And the compassion of those pro-lifers had given her a place to go. Hopefully when lapsed Catholics chat with family members, attend the funeral of a young friend, or sit in on Sunday Masses, or read The Compass, they find in us a spoonful of honey instead of vinegar.

- Published in The Compass January 3, 2017