“And he shall make all, both little and great, rich and poor, freemen and bondmen, to have a character in their right hand, or on their foreheads.”

Under the entry about our obligation to attend Holy Mass, someone posted this comment (I removed it to here):

I’ve always had a fantasy where I make wallet sized Catholic obligation cards.  These would have check boxes or punch boxes for all holydays of obligation for the calendar year and one for the communion and confession.

Why not just put a qr code on people’s hands or foreheads and scan them on the way in and out of church?  Easy, right?

Cf. Rev. 13:16.

Back in the day, something like what you suggested was actually done in some parishes in the USA.  It would be over 20 years ago now, but I remember some old folks putting $1 in every envelope and turning them all in so that they would have them recorded.  They remembered the days when, if people didn’t have all their envelopes in, there could be problems when it came to little things like a proper burial.  In short, they were afraid.

I have used old confessionals which had a small slot under the grate.  The old pastor once explained that, back in the day, people would people would slide through to the priest a card on which he would affirm that they fulfilled their Easter Duty.

Finding the balance between urging people to take responsibility for themselves and imposing stricter obligations is very tricky.

Paul VI blew it when he changed the obligations for doing penance and abstaining on Fridays.    Sorry, that was a bad move.  Does anyone do penance now? FAIL. Our bishops blew it big time by intermittently repressing Holy Days of Obligation.   Now people don’t go to Mass when the obligation is not repressed.  They got the message: going to Mass isn’t very important after all.  FAIL.  Shortening the Eucharistic Fast to an hour before Communion? Another brilliant outcome, do you think?  Do people now pay attention to fasting at all?  Do they have a sense of participation in the Eucharist as involving sacrifice?  We creatures of body and soul need preparation that is both physical and spiritual, fasting and being in the state of grace. Is there any concept of mortification as salutary among the people of God?  Do lots of people really give deep consideration to what they do when receiving Communion?

Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27. FAIL.

You can understand the thought behind urging people to responsible for themselves.  It is better to choose to do what we do from love rather than merely obligation.  Consider, for example, in the traditional Act of Contrition the distinction between attrition and contrition. Attrition means you are sorry for your sins because you fear punishment.  That’s enough!  more perfect, however, is being sorry for your sins because of true contrition, for love of God.   People should want to do penance and take on mortifications because they love God.  That is a more perfect motive.

But our human nature is wounded.  When the obligations are removed, we go all wobbly.  The fact is that, when the obligations are removed, the great majority of people find it hard to maintain their discipline.  Without that discipline, some rebel by throwing off all practices, others, lose their good habits and, by so losing them, lose also their identity as Catholics.

Again, we can understand that perhaps we once may have stressed too much the points of obligation, and may have underscored too often or too harshly the Four Last Thing, or may have dwelt on the reality of sin without also the concomitant dimension of mercy.

On the other hand, given our human nature, perhaps it would be better to err on the one side than the other.

Our Catholic identity has, far and wide, been devastated.  Our Marshall Plan to revitalize our Catholic lives across the broad span of the Church must include remedies, and remedies are rarely pleasant.

The great Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine, speaking about Christ as Doctor, described His sometimes not so gentle corrections in the stark terms of the medicine of the early 5th century: the doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because the patient is screaming for him to stop.

The fact is, dear reader, one day you and I are going to die and go to our judgment, and that -as they say – will be that.  We get to work now on where we would like to wind up, because after we die, we can no longer change our minds.  Now is the time to prepare for our judgment.  Heaven is not automatic.

In times of trial, and I think our Church and we as Catholics, will be facing a time of trial soon, people usually rise to the occasion.  Most people try to “do their bit”.  Let’s start doing that bit sooner, rather than too late.

Since the Year of Faith is coming up, perhaps you readers would do your bit by taking on a year of some mortifications, extending the Eucharistic Fast a little longer, committing to to Holy Day Masses even when the obligation has been lifted, using regularly the Sacrament of Penance, affirming to Father those sermons which deal with the Four Last Things and the need for penance, making your Catholic identity known to people, always in the proper spirit.

Cf. 1 Peter 3:15:

In your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

Please, dear readers, say your prayers, say the Rosary every day, and go to confession, think about your death and judgment, consider your Catholic habits, and do not just drift.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. APX says:

    Let’s say someone is already doing all the aforementioned. What else can they do?

  2. acardnal says:

    Great post, Fr. Z. You said what I say all the time.

    I particularly agree with your paragraph regarding the failure to do penance on Fridays, and the lack of Mass attendance, and the repression of Holy Days of Obligation. Sad. Very sad. The bishops need to get some backbone in this country and change these disciplines as their brother bishops did in Britain regarding Fridays and abstinence. God knows we need to make reparation, do penance and make sacrifices!

    If I remember correctly and I watched it on TV, it was Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln, NE who got up and made an intervention in Dallas regarding the sex abuse Charter they were drafting and requested that the bishops make a day of reparation themselves – not the laity – for their failures. It was rejected.

  3. LisaP. says:

    Golly, but it’s hard, isn’t it?
    The Friday food thing has been hard for me. We already have one very serious, one rather important, and several it’s a good thing to do it restrictions in our family regarding food. Then we have, like so many others, a lot going on every week, and not necessarily frivolous stuff. We have money issues, and time. We need to just get into a beans and rice habit, but we need to soak those beans and cook them all day, that takes planning and etc. — sounds trivial, but at some point I just said, “Hey, we’re forgetting it’s Friday tomorrow, and getting all distressed and worked up about the meat thing, it’s messing up our whole day, maybe we’re being legalistic about this? Maybe we’ve got enough food sacrifice going on? Maybe we should pick something else on Friday?”
    So we did, under the “God wouldn’t mind” premise.
    And, of course, we then forget to do that.
    Even more than we forgot to go meatless.

    On the other, or the same, hand, I had an awkward conversation once with an ex-Catholic anti-Catholic who said one turning point for him was when he learned in history about some dispensation the Pope gave during colonial times that seemed very hinky to him, and he was upset because as a young boy he was told eating meat on Friday and dying on Saturday unconfessed would mean he went directly to Hell. He became convinced all the rules were a way to keep him feeling enslaved to the priest, who was the only one who could save him from such a fate. I tried to gently suggest he maybe didn’t get the best teaching as a child, or his memory might be a little off, that maybe there are less extreme ways of looking at it, but he was having none of it. I suppose you can use anything you want to justify a break from the Church if you want a break from the Church, but this person definitely used Friday fasts as his justification, with emotion. If done the wrong way, these obligations *can* make the Church look legalistic. But if they are undermined, they weaken the habits of piety that are so essential to orienting your life entirely on God, and they make the obligations and even the Church seem even smaller than an over-emphasis on them does.

    As for all that about dying and hell and all, thanks for keeping it in front of our eyes. Just played a clip for the kids from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, haven’t read any of it since I was young, funny how it seemed fine then but it strikes me so much more as an old lady with friends who have died and my mortality so much more evident.

  4. Imrahil says:

    However, dear @Fr Z, is that there definitely is set out punishment for those as break such commandments as the Sunday Mass, the Easter Communion, and the Friday Fast. I don’t think it realistically imminent (on reasons there is not the place to explain here) that this punishment is Hell, but purgatory is not a light matter either.

    Thus, theoretically, “community pressure” and such like things do not contribute to doing things for obligation rather than love. Practically it does so still, but only because it functions as a reminder for things that otherwise would be forgotten.

    And however often a pastor mentions the Four Last Things does not change the fact that the Four Last Things are there.

    On the other hand, there definitely is sense in doing things for love and not obedience. This, I think, is the reason that even in Catholic boarding schools the weekday Mass is not compulsory.

    Only I rather think its proper place is the obligations (including even perhaps, for this sake, a removing of such obligations as can be removed), not in being silent about existing obligations.

    Where however the Sunday Mass was concerned, I’m all for the old sense of prudence and proportion of the Christian ages which, as far as I know, did not make them a controlled obligation. They did, as you report, make the Easter Confession a controlled obligation, and at least in this Confession, the respective sins would have been confessed.

  5. Imrahil says:

    My talking about “realistically imminent” means that I do not hereby deny that these actions can often enough be mortal sins.

  6. dominic1955 says:

    What I think is unfortunate is the way people will use anything to justify their falling away from the Church. You would think that something as important as religion would merit some serious study before throwing it all away on emotion or some 3rd hand urban legend about what some nameless medieval pope did.

    Knowledge of these things makes you all the more impervious to the Jack Chick level assaults on Catholic custom and teaching. Of course not only Jack Chick level garbage but all the way up to things like the “Jesus was married” papyrus. If only people would bother to take the time to learn their religion! Unfortunately, we have let many people down in our corner of the world by having built an imposing edifice of institution and having its raison d’etre all come crashing down in relatively short time. The buildings are still there, people still go to them and staff them but no longer with the hordes of habited nuns and brothers and cassocked priests. The institution might still be there, riding on the coat tails of the earlier and more solid generation but without their actual merit.

    Thus, you have the strange phenomenon of being confronted with dissidents spewing their lies, ignorance or reasons they left the Church and justifying it with “Well, I went to 12 years of Catholic school…” or “I went to St. So-and-so University”. Now, if you know anything about Catholic education, if they were their between, say, 1965 and now, all that time was probably worthless as far as an education in Catholicism is concerned. I do it almost reflexively, disregarding such “Catholic” education as having taught them next to nothing about Catholicism, but in reality, that should never have been the case.

    It is the height of empty worship or idolatry (in an analogical sense) of the institutional Catholicism built in this country to keep pumping in money and kids into our supposedly Catholic educational institutions with no real return on those children’s catholicity. The same when people show up Sunday after Sunday to a building marked as being a Catholic church and they come away no different or having any sense that they are different than anyone else out there in the world. Those who wanted to break down the walls and open up the Church to the World did a bang-up job-you would rarely be able to tell the difference from a Catholic and a worldling these days!

  7. Sissy says:

    dominic1955 said: “What I think is unfortunate is the way people will use anything to justify their falling away from the Church. You would think that something as important as religion would merit some serious study before throwing it all away on emotion or some 3rd hand urban legend about what some nameless medieval pope did.”

    You hit it on the head with your first sentence, dominic1955. No one throws out their religion over urban legend. They simply use any excuse that is handy to justify their desire to “set up on their own”, as C. S. Lewis put it. This is the oldest story in the history of humankind.

  8. LisaP. says:

    It’s all true.
    But the reason I put this example here is that at some point this person either got the impression or was given it that if he was seven years old and ate meat on Fridays then died God would send him to Hell for all eternity as a punishment. I don’t think he made that part up, he just used it inappropriately. I don’t know if he left out stuff or the priest who taught him, pre-60s, did.

    I do believe it gets exaggerated to justify, etc. But I still think it’s the case that we need to be careful in both directions — not making our projection of the Church a narrow minded nanny that worships rules for their own sake, and not making it the “fun uncle” that buddies you into a life of misery.

  9. Shonkin says:

    @dominic1955: You hit the nail on the head with the remark about our “supposedly Catholic educational institutions.” It’s especially appropriate when we speak of Catholic colleges and universities.
    I attended the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit college, during the mid-Sixties. There was a lot of leftie political philosophy, the beginnings of the gay-is-good movement, and very little Catholicism. The theology courses, after the first three semesters, were worthless. One of the latter was taught by a gal who thought LSD was a real religious experience. She eventually married, and later divorced, one of the Jesuit priests.
    Okay, it was in San Francisco after all, and the school was run by Jesuits, after all, but I have seen places just as bad elsewhere in the country and run by other orders. More recently I taught chemistry at a Catholic college with an Undergraduate Dean who is a diocesan priest with a boyfriend everybody knows about. A Lesbian professor there had a freshman girl who was in one of her classes move in with her. Ethics violation, anyone? Father Gay covered things up for her, of course. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

  10. MarkJ says:

    Remember that today is Ember Wednesday, a day of fasting and partial abstinence. Would that all of us would take up again this holy practice… and remember that this Friday and Saturday are also Ember Days.

    We can all do our part to revive the Lost Traditions that help us maintain our Catholic Identity, and that work to keep us and others on the straight and narrow path that leads to Life Eternal.

  11. JacobWall says:

    My impression is this: Catholicism is an (almost) impossibly high standard. Our hierarchy should uphold that standard, as should the laity. Of course, we are bound to fail on some point. We are just humans. That’s why the Church shows Christ’s mercy and gives us the means to get back on track and try again. Attendance cards and fear as motivation to follow the rules isn’t that means, as you state Fr. Z. It’s the sacrament of confession. It’s penance. It’s a humility that acknowledges our own weakness, but at the same time makes us strive towards something greater.

    Not eating meat on Fridays is a fairly simple task. But even on that point, it’s easy to forget sometimes, especially when almost no one else does it any more. Basically, we can look at this failure in one of 3 ways:

    1) Meatless Fridays is for pious people. I guess I’m just not pious enough. (Conversely, those who do follow it may think, “Wow, I’m such a pious person for not eating meat on Friday!”)
    2) I can’t follow that rule, and I know most other people don’t. Let’s just get rid of it.
    3) It’s good habit, but it’s hard for me. I’m going to keep trying and ask my priest and other Catholics to help me. I’ll probably fail sometimes, but I won’t give up. When I do make a real, regular habit of it, I know it’s not my own doing, but I’ll thank God for making it possible.

    Unfortunately, I think #2 is all to common these days. I think we need much more of #3. As Christians we can’t expect the rules to suit our weaknesses. The Catholic Church gives us the means to repent, to deal with failure and to try again. Being Catholic (from what I understand) isn’t a state of perfection, but rather a process of attempting, failing and repenting, which, when done sincerely, will lead to improvement. We have a very high standard which we strive towards.

    Now, if we lower that standard, the whole process is highjacked. “Why should I go to confession, feel contrite, beg for God’s mercy or thank Him profusely if being a good Christian is so easy that I can do it well on my own?” It’s also highjacked if we work on attrition rather than contrition: “Lucky me; the priest didn’t notice that I sneaked into Mass 5 minutes before it was over; he stamped my card at the end!” (I’ve seen this happen.) We have to be very careful to avoid both extremes if we don’t want to hijack people’s growth in the Faith.

  12. JacobWall says:

    @MarkJ – You said these 3 days are “days of fasting and partial abstinence.” I looked at Fr. Z’s post about Ember Days and couldn’t find anything about this. What fast and abstinence is practiced on these days? I would like to participate in this fasting and partial abstinence, but I would like to know exactly what that means.

  13. gracie says:

    I link the rejection of the Sacrament of Penance to the removal of the Confiteor at Mass. The words “I confess to Almighty God . . . that I have sinned . . . through my fault . . .” forced people to think about their own personal sins of the previous week and it became part of the list you took with you when you next went to Confession. It was a quick examination of conscience that kept individuals oriented to a proper awareness of their personal sins and the requirement to ask God for forgiveness for them.

    Post Vatican II threw all that out by replacing the personal with the collective. Now there are vague incantations such as, “That we may grow in the love of God” or “That we may be better stewards of the environment” followed by the collective “Lord, have mercy” (on us). The Church’s removal of the Confiteor from Mass (as in virtually no one says it anymore) has telegraphed clearly to three generations of Catholics that the confessing of personal sin is an unnecessary option and – hey – if it’s no big deal to the priest why should it be a big deal to the rest of us?

  14. Minnesotan from Florida says:

    The formerly suppressed Epiphany and Corpus Christi have now become of obligation in the United States, albeit transferred to Sunday. Saint Joseph and Saints Peter and Paul have not, I suspect in my lifetime, and certainly in the time since I was 10 or 15, been of obligation in the United States. So what are we talking about when we speak of suspension of Holy Days of Obligation? Are prople simply referring to Saturday and Monday suspensions? (On that matter, I agree that suspension is a bad thing.) I would note that people turn out rather well on Ash Wedenesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday (neither now, nor in my time ever, of obligation).

  15. lilye says:

    LisaP: I also have a serious food restriction, and a couple of not quite as serious ones (absolutely no gluten (wheat), need to avoid corn and restrict dairy). I understand the time and planning issue for a meatless Friday dinner. When I don’t have time to plan a meatless meal, I turn to cereal. Yes, cereal for dinner. It is inexpensive, quick and easy, and I consider it an additional penance since it is boring. Kids actually enjoy having breakfast for dinner. Scrambled eggs and toast is another quick and easy way to go.

    I also had a similar conversation with an ex/anti/Catholic who is still very angry about being told he would go to hell for eating meat on Friday. I also gently tried to explain to him about tradition with a small “t” and the fact that the Church still requires penance on Friday even though that fact is not well known. He did not respond well. Sigh.

  16. JacobWall says:

    @APX – re Your very first comment on this post, “Let’s say someone is already doing all the aforementioned. What else can they do?”

    This reminds me of Matt. 19:16-21. I know you’re not talking about salvation, but rather restoring Catholic identity; if someone really kept up “all of the aforementioned” it would be truly impressive. In that case, I would assume the person is also working to care for the elderly, the sick and the poor. If not, I would suggest that as a next move. Restoring Catholic identity isn’t just meatless Fridays, Holy Days of Obligation, etc. We also have to show “social justice catholics” that caring for the weak and the poor isn’t the realm of left-wing politics and nuns on a bus. It’s a task that belongs to the Church, meaning that it has to go hand in hand with Tradition, orthodoxy and Catholic identity.

    Now if someone is already doing all of that (living a fully sacramental Catholic life, complete with full Catholic identity AND caring for the poor) then God has truly blessed the world through that person’s life.

  17. MarkJ says:

    @JacobWall: According to my FSSP Calendar, Ember Wednesday, Ember Thursday and Ember Saturday are all days of FAST (one full meal, two other small meals which together do not equal a full meal). In addition, Wednesday and Saturday are days of partial abstinence (the two smaller meals are meatless), while Friday is completely meatless (complete abstinence) like usual for all Fridays.

  18. JacobWall says:

    @MarkJ – Let’s see if I got this right:

    Wednesday – One full meal (possibly with meat), two small snacks with no meat
    Thursday – One full meal, two small snacks (all possibly with meat)
    Friday – usual meatless Friday
    Saturday – same as Wednesday

    If this is right, I can still pull it off today!

  19. dominic1955 says:


    You are correct, we need to be careful how things are explained. However, it seems like you’ve had this experience, that no matter how balanced the explanation, some folks just simply will not listen or try to engage the distinctions. Like the 7 year old eating meat on Friday back in the day and going to hell, actually that is true-if you understand mortal sin and the conditions for such. What the example really wants to do is overturn the teaching based on emotionalism. How could a child go to hell? Well, if they have full use of reason, they certainly can just like adults (which is primarily a legal term as far as that goes). The eating meat isn’t really the issue, its more the malice. IF a child with full use of reason intentionally with full knowledge transgresses a precept of the Church that binds us under pain of mortal sin and they know it then hell is a real possibility. However, we know also that there are a thousand and one mitigating circumstances, not least of which would include what their parents would do. Without making the proper distinctions, the issue makes it look like merely eating a piece of lunchmeat on a certain magical day throws you into the undying fires of hell-and that is not the case.

    I’ve found that many people these days either cannot or do not like to make these distinctions, which are extremely important and rational. In all reality, thinking takes a bit of work and many people have substituted thinking for feeling and then call it thinking. Obviously, the two are not the same!

  20. lilye says:

    dominic1955 & LisaP:

    I found the response I made in regard to eating meat on Fridays and going to hell. Here is an excerpt:

    It is a common misconception that the Church just swept away the obligation not to eat meat on Fridays. Please read the following information which hopefully will give you better insight into the changes that were made. (The person in question is an intellectual. I included the canon law section on Fridays and penance.) This teaching of the Church is a discipline, not a doctrine. Doctrines are teachings on faith and morals. Doctrines cannot be changed, though our understanding of them may develop and grow deeper over time as we live them. Disciplines are customs or practices that help us live the gospel in a given time and place. Disciplines can be customized to be compatible with local cultures and laws, or changed to meet the current needs of the Catholic faithful. Furthermore, one does not go to hell for the simple act of eating a cheeseburger. The more serious matter concerns a willful disobedience with no repentance. I won’t go into the teachings of the Church on obedience, sin and God’s mercy but I will share this from the Catechism: God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.

  21. MarkJ says:

    @JacobWall: Sorry, I meant to say Ember Wednesday, Friday and Saturday – Thursday is not an Ember day.
    Ember Wednesday – 2 snacks (meatless) + one regular meal (meat allowed)
    Ember Friday – 2 snacks + one regular meal (all meatless)
    Ember Saturday – Same as Wednesday

  22. Imrahil says:

    Dear @MarkJ, I guess the FSSP says “Fast and abstinence recommended” (which is the habit to say in traditional circles, and a quite different thing). The Ember Days are not days of fasting or abstinence because these thays the CIC does not say they are, and the FSSP have no authority to impose them on their own. (Same for the SSPX, including the acceptance of this status quo as far as I see.)

    Dear @Jacob Wall, two things: 1. Even following this (nowadays unbinding) tradition, there is no such thing as Ember Thursday, and never has been. There would be quite some fasting on the Thursday between the Lenten Ember Days, because that’s in Lent; but there is no Ember-Day-Fast on “Ember Thursday”. Not saying that you can’t fast piously still, of course.

    2. The 2nd thing is more principal, so please if you disagree with me, you need not disagree with No. 1 where I only wanted to provide information…

    Still, it seems to me to be highly problematic (which is no personal accusation) to say that the Catholic standard is either impossibly high, or almost impossibly high. And the whole point of the danger lies in the phrase heard much too often, viz., “we are just humans”. I do know you meant to say “we suffer from the remainders of the Fall”, but the archetypal human being is and remains Adam (or Eve) before the Fall. However, there is this tendency about to equalize nature with fallen nature – and I’ve heard that in American Protestantism we even had use of the word “natural man” with the meaning of “sinner”. Now I’m deeply sorry but for the equalization of nature with sin there are some nasty terms around; what is more, they are wrong, and they do lead to practical problems, such as the assumption that the Catholic standard is impossibly high.

    Also, while it is dogma that we are certain to fail in some point, we are not bound to do so in any sense that goes beyond mere (accidental) certainty. Distinguamus! For it is impossible to say that we have no way out some situations save to sin. In each action, seen in itself, we are not bound (nor even certain) to sin.

    Alas, through my own fault I’m a sinner. But at least, though I also by my deeds have disgraced the name of Man, and though through no merit of mine, I can say that by God’s grace I’m a human being.

    Now what is a sin? Basically it is the failure to achieve some moral act or omission we could have achieved. It is true that vices themselves are (rather mysteriously) also a kind of an illness which normally are overcome (if they are) step by step; it is thus true that, so to say, there is a training in not-sinning; but principally it remains true: each sin is when we could also have acted virtuously instead.

    I admit that the psalmist says: “Be merciful upon us, for there is none who liveth and doth not sin.” But that is because the psalmist knows already that God has not created mankind for mere decay – in itself, it is not the perpetual weaknesses of man why the Church shows Christ’s mercy and gives us the means to get back on track and try again; it is the positive decision of God the Lord to be always merciful once more even to those who have sinned as Christians, and hence at least in some sense against their redemption. Thanks and praise to Him! But that is due to the Most Precious Blood; it is not due to the regrettable fact of our weakness.

    Now in which sense is Catholicism an impossible high standard? In the sense that we never sin at all. But that is no practical sense, and no common-sense. Only, the modernity has unlearned how to draw its limits.

    What is the sense of a standard that is really important? Of course, the sense that a standard is a thing that is acted upon, sometimes broken, but not generally dismissed as the standard of how to do things. (There is even such a thing as a standard that is hypocrizied upon.) In this sense, Catholicism has nothing of the impossible height. (“Valid ethics have at least to be ‘theoretically practicable'”, as Erik Kuehnelt-Leddihn put it.)

    As you say yourself – and please forgive you all thing I being a sinner say such things as follow now – not eating meat on a Friday is not so difficult in itself. (Although it applies now as a precept only to England and Wales, or so. – Forgetting for once, if it really is such, would normally qualify as venial.) Not sleeping with one’s beloved before marriage, or if the only way one’d dare to do so is by contraception, is not so difficult in itself. Getting once a week to Holy Mass if only to deliver a tribute to one’s Redeemer and Creator is not so difficult in itself. Not lying is, given that there are a thousand popular ways of truthful circumlocution, not so difficult in itself.

    The real problem of the sin is that even though it would be so easy not to sin we still do. Thus, your question: Why should I go to confession, feel contrite, beg for God’s mercy or thank Him profusely if being a good Christian is so easy that I can do it well on my own? I ‘d answer the following way:
    “First, just that you do not to run unwillingly into an error, don’t say you did it on your own: it was by God’s grace; second: just open a normal collection of confession questions and conscientously answer the questions. If you didn’t offend on all of those points, nor on other points that came to your mind while doing so – lucky you! That can happen, though even then some very slight venial sins will probably have escaped your attention. If you want to receive an indulgence, just confess some sin of your past; that is valid. If, however, you have found some new sin after all (and I can assure you that is what happens to me), then your problem seems to have vanished, or doesn’t it?”

    Catholic morality sometimes seems hard because rules that do exist just won’t go away. However, putting up an artificially high morality won’t serve the purpose; it will only lead to despair. The Catholic peoples of history do not seem to have led an impossible life. Of course they sinned, but they lacked most (not all) deviations from the Catholic standard in the common-sense sense of standard.

  23. JacobWall says:

    @MarkJ – Thank you for the clarification!

  24. marthawrites says:

    Really? My husband and I keep the Ember Days as days of fast and abstinence, no differentiation between Wed., Sat. and the normal Friday routine: easy to remember that way, but I didn’t know it could be otherwise.

  25. Shonkin says:

    Hey, everybody! Remember that all fast days are also days of partial abstinence unless something else makes them days of total abstinence (such as Ash Wednesday or a Friday in Lent).
    When I was a kid I wondered what the Ember Days were about. Later I decided that the Church just figured we didn’t have enough fast days out there, so it imposed 12 more in the course of the year. There’s something seemingly random about throwing in fast days every three months. I still don’t get the symbolic meaning, but the Ember Day fast was dropped over 40 years ago anyway.
    The Friday abstinence has never been a big deal for me anyway, because I like fish. On Fridays in Lent a homemade cheese, onion, and mushroom pizza works fine for supper, and so does cod with linguini and tomato sauce or lentils and rice with chickpeas. But it’s really not a sacrifice.

  26. Shonkin says:

    (Continued) I think maybe one reason the Church dropped the year-’round Friday abstinence was the way people observed it. Catholics would go out to a restaurant on Friday night and eat crab or swordfish or some other permitted luxury food. Or they would get fried shrimp takeout. Other Catholics (like me) just don’t consider abstaining from red meat to be a sacrifice anyway. An inconvenience that complicates meal planning, yes, but not a form of penance.

  27. JacobWall says:

    @ Shonkin: ” Later I decided that the Church just figured we didn’t have enough fast days out there, so it imposed 12 more in the course of the year.”

    It seems to me that it actually happened the other way around; early on there was probably a good deal more fast days than there are now, and they were dropped as people figured it was too hard. Also, just because “the Ember Day fast was dropped over 40 years ago anyway” doesn’t mean its irrelevant. The removal of an obligation doesn’t mean that we are prohibited from following it.

  28. LisaP. says:

    JacobWall, I like your number 3.

    lilya and dominic, that’s the way I understood it, that if a child who had reached the age of reason and fully understood the directive to not eat meat, believed he was meant by God not to and taught so through the Church, and ate meat under no coercion and purposing to remove himself from the love of God through disobedience, then he might go to hell. Far different from “that hamburger just looked so good and now I’m eternally damned”. I don’t know whether the distinction was made for the person I was talking to when he was a child, I think sometimes we simplify things for kids and then what they learned then sticks with them. It’s funny how someone will argue with me that Y is a horrible thing for the Church to teach and proves the Church is wrong, and when I say that the Church doesn’t teach Y, maybe Father X who taught you that was in error himself personally, she’ll get distressed and angry with me for implying a priest might have gotten something wrong!

    lilye, thanks very much for the suggestions, cereal won’t work for us, although I sure wish it would. We need meals with protein and not a ton of fast carbs (some is all right, but not a lot and not without protein) for juvenile diabetes, then we have some other stuff that means most food has to be from scratch (you know all about that, I’m sure! so grateful we’re not dealing with Celiac, that’s a tough one).We are living in a time and place of abundance, I am grateful. But sometimes I just think we’ve already got enough going on the food front, maybe giving up the computer on those days would work instead? But, then, I don’t!

  29. Shonkin says:

    @ JacobWall: You could be right. I said that because the sisters in the Catholic school I attended never explained what the Ember Days were about or even why they were called that. Were they a fire hazard? (All sorts of things occur to a kid.)
    I read somewhere that during Medieval times the Lenten fast was pretty draconian, as in a bread and water diet. (And Lent was 70 days instead of 40; hence Septuagesima Sunday in the old Church calendar.) That would have made sense because of Lent being in the spring, when most of the winter food stores were used up and the crops hadn’t been planted yet. If people were going hungry anyway, they might as well offer it up as penance.

  30. acardnal says:

    With regard to sin and doing penance on Fridays, it would be good to remember what the Pope (JPII I think) has said and paraphrasing as quoted in the Arlington Diocesan newspaper:

    “the obligation to do penance is a serious one; the obligation to observe, as a whole or ‘substantially’ the penitential days specified by the Church is also serious. No one should be scrupulous in this regard; failure to observe individual days of penance is not considered serious, rather it is the failure to observe any penitential days at all or a substantial number of days which must be considered serious. People should seek to do more rather than less; fast and abstinence on the day prescribed; works of religion and charity on the Fridays outside of Lent should be considered a minimal response to the Lord’s call to penance and conversion of life”

  31. JacobWall says:

    @Imrahil – I don’t think we disagree as much as your very well thought out reply suggests. My basic points were that we are bound to fail (as you also said) and that when we avoid sin and do good, we must give thanks to God for that, and not attribute it to ourselves. This is true even if the standard is not “almost impossibly high.” My choice of wording was obviously inadequate; I’ll have to find a better (and more accurate) way of expressing this idea. Your reply, which was well thought-out and shows a good deal more knowledge than I have, will help with this! Thank you.

  32. JacobWall says:

    @Shonkin – “That would have made sense because of Lent being in the spring, when most of the winter food stores were used up and the crops hadn’t been planted yet. If people were going hungry anyway, they might as well offer it up as penance.”

    I don’t think this is an adequate description for the reason or origins of Lenten fasting. It waters down our Catholic identity to practical obstacles which have disappeared with the modern world. It could also imply that Lenten Fasting is now obsolete.

  33. lilye says:

    LisaP: Yes, most of the food I eat is from scratch. Actually, there’s only one cereal that I eat safely and that is Rice Chex. Again, boring. :) Finding quick and easy meals to prepare is a challenge when you don’t have the option of ordering out or pulling a box out of the freezer or making a sandwich. Vegetarian meals with protein are challenging in themselves. Those of us with food issues know the extra time and effort that are required to bring safe and healthy meals to our tables. At least we are not being exposed to so many of the additives in our food.

  34. JacobWall says:

    @Imrahil – MarkJ had also clarified the “Ember Thursday” error! Thank you anyway. I appreciate any such information and correction. As a Catholic Christian, I’m only beginning to learn, (as I’m sure is very clear.)

  35. Springkeeper says:

    Love this post (and need it as well)! Thank you ever so much, Father.

  36. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The reason the Church fasts on Friday is that she’s sorry for all the pain and suffering that we humans caused Jesus on the Cross, by our sins in the past and present and future. The Church does penance for the sins of those both inside and outside the Church.

    Beyond that, of course there are various ways it’s good for us. But the point is that we humans are sorry for all our human sin since Eden, or at least trying to be, and are taking the opportunity to apologize personally to the Holy Trinity.

  37. dominic1955 says:


    That was my other point as well that when someone comes to a point in which a simple teaching of, “Don’t do x, if x, then hellfire y” comes up against a more mature level of thinking, one would think that they might seek a clarification from someone with authority or knowledge of the Church. Even a cursory look at Church history shows us the multitude of extremely intelligent people who have been counted in its ranks. You would think that such a simple minded take on sin and damnation might, just might, have something more to it and that you need to look into it more.

    I’ve also encountered that kind of response-the Church is wrong, but Fr. O’Malley from Sacred Heart in 1958 couldn’t have possibly been wrong! There are a lot of psychological issues in this kind of thinking, not least of which was the profound damage that was done to people when we went from a kind of overly institutionalized assembly line semper idem church of pre-Vatican II American memories to the anything goes, hippy dippy nonsense that happened in the 60’s and 70’s and continues to some degree. I don’t think we will ever know the extreme toll this revolution had taken on the Faithful this side of heaven.

  38. LisaP. says:

    dominic, I think you’re right about the damage done. I’ve got to wonder about those folks that were just coming into adulthood when that all hit the fan. You grow up believing in trust in what the priest teaches, hard things that you do because you think it makes life noble and good; then a few years later priests start marrying nuns and running off together. Must have been head-spinning. I’ve got to wonder if it didn’t have the same effect it might have to see your happy Ozzy and Harriet parents suddenly splitting up and each getting new live ins. Gotta mess with your head.

    I remember my own trip into what you describe in your first point, so many Church doctrines when I returned to the Church seemed, frankly, goofy. I learned that the goofier it seemed, the more reliable it probably was, because if something was really solid teaching the world I’d been living in had a stronger interest in totally discrediting it. It moved me to the policy of the crazier it looked, the more imperative it was to assent to it and then learn about it.

  39. AnnAsher says:

    “Do people now pay attention to fasting at all? Do they have a sense of participation in the Eucharist as involving sacrifice? ” Yes, I do, my family does, but it is relatively new and I have been Catholic since 1998. Fasting is, I think, a sort of mystery and it is hard to do on ones own! Also any time I choose to avail myself of substituting a different pennance on Fridays, I end up feeling like what I do doesn’t measure up to abstaining from meat all day. It’s frankly simpler, if more challenging, to abstain. So I say keep it simple !

  40. AnnAsher says:

    Oh I forgot I also wanted to say Holy Days are confusing for people in the US who aren’t tracking the calendar themselves. Many I hear rely on the priest to tell them or make an assumption when a holy day isn’t a holy day one year that it also isn’t the next. A wallet card would be handy just as a wallet card, no punch holes please.

  41. aragonjohn7 says:

    Discipline and prudence should be reinstated

  42. It should be a little tough to be Catholic. I think it’s better for our souls that way.

  43. bookworm says:

    “That would have made sense because of Lent being in the spring, when most of the winter food stores were used up and the crops hadn’t been planted yet. If people were going hungry anyway, they might as well offer it up as penance.”

    I have read references to “six weeks’ want” in books concerning life in the pre-electricity era and immediately thought that it coincided pretty closely with Lent. However, that isn’t an argument against observing it today, just an explanation for how it fit into the lives of our ancestors.

    An alternate Friday penance that I recommend, if and when possible, is giving blood. I am called into our local blood center regularly and I usually schedule my appointments for noon on Friday, not only because it’s my lunch hour, but in conscious remembrance of the hour when Christ shed His Blood for our sake. If you do this, then I see no harm in consuming a little meat to get those red blood cells built back up.

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