How Can You Get a Permanent Dispensation from Attending Sunday Mass?

Q:  I recently met a nice fellow, who wants to be catechist.  I inquired a bit more into his faith life and learned that he attends Mass “at least once a month” that is not every Sunday, which shocked me.  I told him that weekly Mass is the beginning of serious faith life and sent him an article about Mass attendance obligation.

He responded that a long time ago, after he married, he told his parish priest that he cannot attend Mass every Sunday, because his wife (not Christian) is not happy about it. When I ask what impedes him going to Mass, he basically said that his wife wants him to be at home or they have some different activities outside.

I know that the parish priest can give dispensation for Sunday Mass attendance, but do not understand details of this dispensation.  Can you enlighten me on this point? –Patrik

A: Patrik is a seminarian, engaged in parish work in a non-Christian country with only a tiny Catholic population.  As a future priest, he is quite understandably bewildered about this situation, since it seems to suggest that parish priests have a lot more power, and the Sunday Mass obligation has a lot less importance than he thought!  There are actually two separate issues here: the first involves dispensations in general, and the second involves the authority of a parish priest to grant one like this.

The basic concept of dispensation was discussed in detail in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” but canon 85 pretty much sums it up: a dispensation is the relaxation of a merely ecclesiastical law in a particular case.  A law is “merely ecclesiastical” if it was made by human beings, and not by God Himself (see “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for more on the distinction between ecclesiastical laws and divine laws).  To cite an example, it is possible to obtain a dispensation from the requirement to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday (a topic addressed in “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain From Meat Every Friday?), since the requirement found in canon 1251, that Catholics do this particular type of penance on this specific day, is a man-made law.

In contrast, it is not possible to get a dispensation allowing you to marry in the Church, if you are currently married validly to someone else.  In canonical parlance this constitutes an impediment of prior bond (cf. c. 1085), and canon law on this subject is based on the Church’s understanding of the indissolubility of the marriage bond, as Christ Himself described it (cf. Matt. 19:8-9).  Thus no human being has the power to declare that a Catholic may be validly married to two different spouses at the same time—because the Church holds that marriage as we understand it was established not by man, but by God.

So how does the Sunday Mass obligation fit into this equation?  Well, the requirement to attend Mass on Sundays and Holydays of Obligation (cc. 1247, 1248.1) wasn’t invented out of thin air: it is based on the Third Commandment, given to Moses by God, telling us to keep the Sabbath holy.  The Catholic Church has considered Sunday to be the Sabbath day from time immemorial; it is presumed that the Apostles established this because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday.  Similarly, the Church has always equated “keeping the Sabbath holy” with “Mass attendance,” since it holds that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life (c. 897, which is based on Lumen Gentium 11).  In short, there is no better way for a Catholic to worship God than to devoutly attend Mass.

As a general rule, therefore, Sunday Mass attendance is not optional!  Thus a Catholic shouldn’t expect to get a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, simply because it’s somehow inconvenient—and the notion of such a “permanent dispensation” from this important requirement of our faith is legally unthinkable, because it is theologically unthinkable.

Of course there are many entirely legitimate reasons why a Catholic couldn’t get to Mass on a Sunday, and this reality is addressed in canon 1248.2: it states that if it is impossible to assist at the Eucharist, either because no priest is available or for some other grave reason, a Catholic should do something else that is liturgical/prayerful instead, as a substitute.

The use of the term “grave” in the Code of Canon Law was discussed in detail in “How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?” but in general, “grave reason” is serious stuff.  Often this is simply common sense: if (let’s say) you’re seriously ill and unable to get out of bed, or a huge snowstorm has rendered the roads hazardous/impassable, of course this would constitute a grave reason to miss Mass.  No Catholic is expected to risk his life in order to fulfill his Sunday obligation.  These sorts of emergencies are normally temporary and so once they cease, the person simply resumes Sunday Mass attendance again.

There are also some acceptable longer-term reasons for not attending Mass on Sunday.  The most common scenario is perhaps that of the elderly or otherwise infirm person who is homebound.  Similarly, a Catholic who lives in a region where there is no Catholic priest for hundreds of miles, or finds himself stuck indefinitely in an active war zone surrounded by land mines, or is working for many months on the International Space Station orbiting the earth, obviously can’t get to Mass!  As we saw in “Tithing and Excommunication,” nobody can be required by law to do something that is humanly impossible.

It’s worth pointing out that in many of these sorts of cases, a Catholic doesn’t actually have to request/obtain an “official” dispensation from the law.  If you’re in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital, your physical inability to attend Mass is in itself quite sufficient to dispense you from observing the law without your actually having to seek a dispensation.  In many weather-related emergencies that happen to occur on a Sunday, a diocesan bishop will often declare publicly that the obligation of the Christian faithful of the diocese to attend Mass is hereby lifted.  Now if the electrical power is out, many Catholics won’t even hear that the bishop has said that, but in the end it doesn’t really matter: if the weather is genuinely too treacherous to attempt to travel to church for Mass on a particular Sunday, consider yourself dispensed from the obligation.

Now let’s see how all of this applies to the potential catechist in Patrik’s parish.  He says that he cannot attend Mass on Sundays, because his non-Catholic wife “is not happy about it.”  Note that his wife is not threatening to harm him physically, or to leave him altogether if he goes to Mass; she simply doesn’t like it.  It should be pretty obvious by this point that there is absolutely no way that this constitutes a “grave reason” as per canon 1248.2.  In fact, it doesn’t really seem to constitute any sort of reason, grave or not!  On the contrary, since this man is married to someone who does not share his Catholic faith, it’s easy to argue that his need to attend Sunday Mass regularly is even greater—because it’s far more difficult for him to stay true to his faith when he is the only one in his home who is a Catholic.

It should be noted that from the sound of things, it appears that this man is not to blame for his failure to attend Mass every Sunday.  After all, it was the parish priest who told him that he didn’t need to go to Mass if it made his wife unhappy.  So the next question we have to ask is, can a parish priest permanently dispense a parishioner from this obligation?

Canon 1245 tells us that a parish priest can give a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass—but look at the restrictions the canon imposes on this power: he can do so (a) in individual cases, (b) for a just reason, and (c) in accord with the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop, if any exist.  The canon also adds that the priest may—although he doesn’t have to—commute the obligation into some other pious works.

The pastor of this man’s parish could, therefore, act to dispense him from attending Mass if there was a just reason for him to do so; but as we’ve already seen, “my wife doesn’t like it” is hardly a reason for failing to participate in the Eucharistic celebration, which as the catechism says, is “the culmination… of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit,” and “in brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith” (CCC 1325, 1327).

Additionally, if the diocesan bishop has issued rules about his priests granting dispensations from attending Sunday Mass, it’s a safe bet that this decision by the parish priest is not in accord with them, since the priest’s action in this case is theologically and pastorally unsound.

All this being said, it is possible to encounter a situation which really would justify a long-term dispensation by the parish priest from the Sunday obligation.  Let’s imagine that the man is a doctor with a rare specialization, who performs surgeries at the local hospital.  Now let’s say that in this non-Christian country, the hospital routinely schedules surgeries on Sunday mornings, and this man is the only doctor around who can do them.  He has tried to get the hospital to rearrange its schedule, so that he can attend Mass on Sundays, but the hospital will not/cannot budge.  And let’s pretend that there’s only one Sunday Mass in the entire region, because the priest has to travel to other (distant) places to say Sunday Masses there as well.  The net result would be that this man could attend Sunday Mass only on those very rare occasions when there were no surgeries scheduled of the type that only he can do.

In this fictitious scenario, which of course is entirely different from the one we’re actually dealing with, the pastor of the man’s parish could perhaps tell the man that in lieu of attending Mass on Sundays, he could (say) attend the Mass celebrated on Wednesday evenings instead.  In other words, he wouldn’t tell the man to quit his job—but at the same time, he wouldn’t tell the man to simply forget about attending any Mass at all.  This is one way that the parish priest could rightly use his power to dispense an individual person from the Sunday obligation.

Now that he knows that the law was not correctly applied in this case, what should Patrik do?  If the priest who wrongly “dispensed” this man from regular Mass attendance is no longer the pastor of the parish, Patrik should tell the new pastor what happened.  He needs to know what is going on—especially since this may not be an isolated case!  Who knows, maybe there are a sizeable number of Catholics from his parish who were told they don’t need to attend Mass in years gone by?  If they hardly ever come to church, the priest might very well not even know that they exist.  Tracking them down and carefully explaining to them that they were misinformed may be a huge pastoral task, but it needs to be done.

If the same priest is still head of the parish, then it may be best for Patrik to go to the bishop and explain the situation.  He too needs to know what is happening with the faithful of his diocese, as he is ultimately responsible for their spiritual welfare in general—and in particular, he is required to ensure that there are no ecclesiastical abuses in his diocese concerning worship and the sacraments (c. 392).  This parish priest, who thought/thinks he has the power to grant a permanent dispensation from attending Mass for fundamentally frivolous reasons, provides a “good” example of an abuse that needs correcting.

Many Catholics could probably have logically deduced the basic answer to Patrik’s question without recourse to the Code of Canon Law.  That’s because the law in this matter is entirely reasonable.  Sunday Mass attendance is a serious obligation on us Catholics, and missing Mass is certainly not something to be done lightly; but common sense can usually tell us that when we are genuinely unable to get to church, the law excuses us from doing the impossible.

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