Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Monday, June 02, 2008

Autism and the Sunday Mass obligation

Knowing nothing about the dispute between a Minnesota parish and the mother of an autistic boy beyond what I've seen on the net, I offer no opinion on the merits of the case. Some quotes attributed to the boy's mother, however, show some misunderstandings of Church law that, if clarified, might make resolution of this case easier.

1. Mother rejected an offer to let her son watch a video feed in the church basement, saying that watching televised Mass "does not have the same status as attending Mass." She's right. Watching Mass on TV is fine, but it is a purely devotional exercise which does not qualify as liturgically "assisting" at Mass; thus, watching TV does not satisfy the Sunday and holy day obligation set out in
1983 CIC 1247-1248.*

2. Mother continued: "Otherwise we could all just sit home and watch it on TV and not bother to come in." Well, okay, if the premise were true, the conclusion would be true, too. But the premise here is admittedly false, so the conclusion is obviously false as well. Mother can't show, however, the parish stance to be wrong by showing that a mis-application of the rules would also be wrong.

3. Mother concluded: "It's considered a sin in the Catholic church not to attend Mass on Sundays and every holy day of obligation." Not quite.

The general obligation to attend Mass is a grave one, but like most grave obligations, it can be mitigated in particular circumstances. If one's child became ill on Sunday morning, no one would accuse the child or his mother of committing grave sin by not showing up for Mass that day. There are, obviously, all sorts of conditions that, whether for a short time or a long one, prevent one from attending Mass without incurring guilt. Canon 1248.2, placed in the 1983 Code by John Paul II himself (Peters, Incrementa, 1082) expressly addresses this. I imagine that a plausible, if not at times a strong, case could be made that this boy is excused from the Mass obligation, as would be those directly responsible for his care.

As I said above, one needs more access to the facts of this case to make a prudential judgment about how to resolve this conflict, but caricatures of another's position never make for quick resolution of disputes. Allegations that the Church is imposing an obligation on this boy and his mother and then preventing from them from fulfilling that obligation are logically and pastorally absurd. +++

* I'm responding to what the mother said here and in her next sentence. I have no doubt but that folks in a Church basement watching a closed video feed of the Mass being celebrated upstairs, which they can't enter because of overcrowding, are liturgically assisting at that Mass. Still, the mother's comments are about televised Masses, which are far more common and about which people need clarification.

Updates: June 4. Autism campaigners contact pope