The most common question I receive from my readers is: “Do I have to attend a Novus Ordo Mass on a Sunday when there is no Traditional Latin Mass nearby?”  I was going to title this article that very question, but then I realized that question is only sixty years old. Then I thought to title this article: “Is it a mortal sin to skip an irreverent Mass on Sunday if I can’t get to a reverent Mass?” but that was too long. I then realized the entire topic of the Third Commandment was at stake. What does Church history tell us before 1960?

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski emailed me the pdf to his article normally behind a paywall on his Substack that delves into much older and broader questions of when the Sunday Mass obligation is not binding on lay people, as well as questions of sanctifying the Lord’s Day.  Needless to say, Dr. K’s jaunt through old moralists gives much better reasons for missing Sunday Mass than, say, a flu with a 99.92% survival-rate allegedly-threatening the world a few years ago.  Obviously, the opinions in this blog are mine, not that of Dr. K., but I thank him for showing me nearly-unknown historical documents we will consider below.

First of all, we must delineate between a Negative Commandment (which allows for no exceptions, as in “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”) and a Positive Commandment which is “binding when and as they can be rightly followed.”  The Third Commandment from God to man is to keep holy the Lord’s Day.  The Lord’s Day is Sunday, since the establishment of the New Testament.  Yet many good Catholics today have a different understanding that what most good Catholics for the past 2,000 years believed about the Third Commandment.

Dr. K writes, “When I began to look into this question more deeply, I was surprised at the broad-minded attitude that older (preconciliar) moralists took on the question of circumstances that make the obligation to attend Mass not binding on an individual or a family. I suspect that in the atomic wasteland of postconciliar Catholicism, conservatives simplified and hardened the black-and-white rules in order to hold on to whatever bits and pieces they could salvage and thus prevent further disintegration. That’s understandable.”

We will consider some of these old-school moralists on the Third Commandment. The Capuchin Fr. Heribert Jone OFM Cap wrote a book titled Moral Theology in 1929 and this is included in his section “Excuses from assisting at Mass:”

“Any moderately grave reason suffices to excuse one from assistance at Holy Mass, such as considerable hardship or corporal or spiritual harm either to oneself or to another. Therefore, the following are excused: the sick, convalescents, persons who cannot endure the air in church (e.g., certain neurotic persons and sometimes pregnant women in the first or last months of pregnancy); those that have a long way to Church; people hindered by the duties of their state (e.g., shepherds, watchmen, policemen on duty, cooks, and those working in mills that may not shut down over Sunday); women or children who would incur the grave displeasure of their husbands or parents by attending Mass; servants whose masters do not permit them to attend Mass (should this happen consistently the servants should seek other employment); those that care for the sick, rescue workers in time of fire or flood; and those who have reason to think that by staying home they can hinder sin... One may miss Mass for the sake of a pleasure-trip [vacation or holiday] if he has no other opportunity during the year, or if it’s the last opportunity he will ever have for a certain excursion.”—La Théologie Morale, p. 125, emphasis mine.

You might be surprised at how lax that reads to a good Catholic today. But he wrote that in 1929.  Two good Dominicans in that same time period wrote something similar:  “Impossibility or serious inconvenience excuses from hearing Mass—eg. those who have to walk an hour’s journey to Church or ride a two hour journey.”

Does this mean Sundays were a free-for-all when one didn’t live near a Church? Of course, any Catholic family in any period in history is always bound by the Commandment to sanctify Sunday to the best of his ability. For example, a family should refrain from all unnecessary work and spend a good portion of day reading the Mass of the day, praying extra Rosaries, extra family time, recreation, reading, etc.  This is true, whether the family has access to a good Mass or not.

What do I mean by “a good Mass”? Fr. Heribert above excused laity from Sunday Mass if it “would bring spiritual harm either to oneself or to another.”  As I read that, I immediately think of how many people have brought their children to Novus Ordo Masses (NOMs) where they are scandalized.  Are such families ever dispensed from the Third Commandment? Of course not, but we also must admit the obvious on the other side of the coin: God would never bind men or women or children to a valid but defective Mass inherently harming the faith of children via poor liturgy.

How common is “a valid but defective Mass”?  Without getting into the differences between the TLM and NOM, let me just write this:  I have noticed that 99% of the post-Vatican II liturgies (NOM) refrain from following the minimum of all the post-Vatican II rules outlined in documents like the Vatican’s instruction called Redemptionis Sacramentum released in 2004. Notice I didn’t say the year 1604, but even a document from the year 2004 isn’t being followed in the average NOM Mass in the Western Hemisphere.  Yes, literally 99% of NOMs in the Americas break some rule or another, and yes I’m fully aware I will answer to God for everything I write on this site.  (I’ve attended or offered NOMs from the Amazon River Basin in Brazil to Boston in New England, and it’s all nearly the same.)  Please, read through all the rules in the above-linked Redemptionis Sacramentum and email me the name of one NOM parish in the entire country that follows all those rules set down by Cardinal Arinze and signed by Pope John Paul II.  I’m sure I will have no “takers” among those who read the entire document.

Dr. K wisely adds: “Instead of saying, ‘The obligation has been dispensed/has ceased,” one should rather say, ‘The circumstances are such that the obligation does not bind me in this case.”

Dr. K then cites other esteemed pre-Conciliar moral theologians. He summarizes them thus: “Moral theologians agree that when there is an impossibility, physical or moral, of assisting at Mass, one’s obligation is removed. A physical impossibility is caused by something like being sick, the car not starting in the winter, or the lack of availability of a Mass at all, say in a time of war or plague. A moral impossibility refers to a situation where a given action is physically possible but should be treated as impossible for the purposes of decision-making. For example, since a Mass that violates the liturgical norms with impiety and irreverence or a Mass in which heresy was preached is objectively offensive to God and sinfully unjust to the faithful, whose rights are thereby violated, it would be morally impossible to attend it, that is, not something that one is able rightly to choose… The laity, therefore, can never be at fault for not attending a liturgy that offends God and harms the people, especially children.”

None of this is to say that one can become lazy with the Third Commandment to Keep Holy the Lord’s Day.  The important thing is to understand the whole of the day must be sanctified as best as one can.  Old-school manuals used to put the limit at two hours of necessary manual labor on Sundays.  However (not to be more rigorous than pre-Conciliar moral theologians) I do believe the invention of washing machines and clothes dryers and many other household items reduces that two hours of household labor to one hour. Of course, if one can get everything most work and cleaning done on a Saturday, that is best.  Clearly, jobs like EMS are permitted on Sundays as Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”—Luke 6:9.

Dr. K also notices the odd thinking that has invaded even the minds of conservative and traditional Catholics in regards to the Third Commandment recently: “It’s not uncommon for people —even Catholics who are striving to live by tradition —to think that a grave or very grave reason is necessary to dispense from going to Mass, while simply a just reason or no reason at all suffices for doing servile work on a Sunday or Holy Day. Both views are false. In reality, only a just or moderately grave cause is necessary to dispense from Sunday Mass, while a grave cause is necessary if the prohibition on servile work is not to bind. We have gotten things upside-down: we’ll grit our teeth at a jamboree hootenanny Mass because we think we ‘have to go,’ but then we’ll mow the back yard when we get home, even though we could have done it on Saturday or some weekday evening. It would be morally right in that case both to skip Mass and to refrain from mowing the lawn.”—The Sunday Mass Obligation in a Time of Liturgical Crisis, p. 258.

Again, none of this should lead my readers to think it’s a light matter to skip Holy Mass on Sundays.  Think of the term “sacrifice” of the Mass.  Jesus died for you, and that is fully re-presented on the altar every time a valid Mass is celebrated.  If the Son of God died for you, you can start an air-conditioned homeschooler van to make small sacrifices to get to God the Son offering Himself to God the Father at the Holy Mass.  In fact, a family might feel called to make bigger sacrifices than a long drive, namely, moving to a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM.)

Dr. K included a section about his own personal journey, bouncing around the globe as a young married man, chasing TLM after TLM, but ultimately landing his family near a more reliable liturgical location:

“Many of these trips were supererogatory —that is, above and beyond what duty demanded, as per the moral theologians quoted above —yet at the same time they confirmed, deep in my heart, the beauty and rightness of assisting at the authentic Roman Rite. Eventually, I came to realize that this good had to be given maximum priority in my life. This led, in 2017/18, to a search for a new home in a place where the classical Roman Rite would be available daily and nearby. The search started with a map of the USA on which every location of the FSSP and the ICKSP had been duly noted. Passing over some road-bumps along the way, we finally found a house located less than a mile from a chapel run by the FSSP, with solemn Masses most Sundays of the year and the best Gregorian schola I have ever sung in. To say we are grateful to Divine Providence would be a colossal understatement.”

I would add to his above assertions that a family should move to either an Eastern-Catholic Divine-Liturgy or a TLM-parish that will not (or better—cannot) be shut down by a local bishop erroneously-following TC.  At least, this should be the family’s conviction if they value the ancient Rites and Biblical faith as much as our ancestors did.

The above essay by Dr. K, in addition to much related helpful content, can be found in his latest book, Bound by Truth: Obedience, Tradition, and the Common Good.