What are we OBLIGED to do? (Or, “What?!? Are you saying that people who don’t exercise are going to HELL?!?”)

In yesterday’s post on Taking Your Little Ones to Church, many people attempted to argue against my points by saying that the Church does not oblige them to bring their young children to Church. That is true. Here are several other things the Church does not strictly “oblige” us to do.

-Look both ways before we cross the street.


-Take time to play with our kids

-Make a budget.

-Cut our grass.

-Wash the dishes.

-Do our laundry.

-Help our kids with their homework

-Take out the trash at least weekly

-Eat three balanced meals a day

-Go to the doctor when we’re sick

-Fix a leaking roof

-Throw away moldy food

-Wear deoderant

-Oh, and take our small kids to Church

Shall I go on?

We are not obliged by our faith to do any of these things and many, many, many, other things besides. That said, they are all very, very, very good things to do.

Now, it may happen that I might have a good reason for not doing one or any or all of these things at some point in my life. That’s understood. But I would be a fool to then attempt to turn that deficit into a virtue by, for instance, saying, “Not wearing deoderant is just as good as wearing it and how dare you try to make me feel bad for smelling like GOD made me to smell! Don’t you know how frazzled I am?!? How DARE you write a blog post–on the very day I didn’t have time to de-stinkify my pits no less–on the fact that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that self-care is pleasing to the Lord and failing to do so robs us–ROBS US YOU SAY?!? –of the opportunity to enjoy social interaction to the full. How. DARE. You!”

Just because the Church does not oblige us to do something doesn’t make not doing it a virtue.   So, for example, having the skills to be able to successfully take your small children to Church is, objectively speaking, better than not having the skills to make that happen.  Successfully being able to take your little ones to Church is a desirable thing to learn to do.  If you don’t know how to do it, it would probably be good for you to learn.  It’s ok for you to not know how to do it, but it is hardly a virtue to be incapable of successfully bringing your small children to Church.  It is foolish to try to pretend that it is.

Let me confess something to you. I don’t exercise. I hate it. There are many things I am good at. Exercise is not one of them. Imagine that I read a blog post that says, “The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. St. Irenaeus says that ‘the glory of God is man fully alive!’ and all medical science tells us that exercise is key to living a full and healthy life. Further, the Theology of the Body tells us that the body is a visible sign of all the invisible things that make you a person and projecting an unfit image does a disservice to the wonderful person God created you be. Not exercising robs you of the chance to be the fully healthy and glorious masterpiece you were created by God to be. Therefore, you should exercise.”

There is nothing about that statement that is untrue. That statement, to some degree, convicts me. Exercising may not be my priority in life right now. I may even struggle to live up to it. But that doesn’t mean that the way I live  is, “just as good as” the way someone else who exercises lives. True, my life works for me. My BP and cholesterol are, surprisingly, just fine as they are. But that is not the point.   I could, objectively, stand to learn something from this other person who is living in a healthier way than me.  If I’m healthy now, just imagine how much healthier I could be if I took this dude’s advice. But that’s really hard for me to do, therefore, I might not like what I read.  Even so, maybe it just isn’t a time in my life where I can really start a serious exercise program. So, I read the post. I think, “Hmm. Interesting. Good points. Wish I could do that right now, but I don’t think I can. Maybe I should think a bit more seriously about that. Perhaps I may yet do better!”

But it would be foolish to me to try to make my deficit a virtue. It would be foolish for me to go into the exercise blogger’s combox and post, “Dear Captain Exercise, How dare you suggest that I am not perfect just the way I am for not exercising. I’m just fine. I’m not going to hell for not exercising. The Church doesn’t require me to exercise! Don’t you know how FRAZZLED I am?!? Why are you trying to make me feel guilty for saying that there is some virtue to be gained from exercising?!? SHOW me where that is in the Catechism. I dare you.”

I don’t do that, because that would be ridiculous. I recognize that it is not responsible to claim my deficits as a virtue. If I don’t know how to make something work, or if I have made choices in my life that prevent me from enacting some “best practice”,  I have to deal with the fact that my life just isn’t as healthy as it could be.    So what?  Welcome to the human race.

The bottom line is that it is possible to say that some ways to live are better than other ways. Every way is simply NOT as good as every other way, and even if the Church doesn’t “oblige” us to behave in a certain way, that still doesn’t mean that some ways aren’t better than others. That’s where experts come in. The Church DOES tell us that we have an obligation to take the words of experts, not as gospel, but seriously. In the Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, for instance, the Church says, “Parents who are not always prepared to face up to the problematic side of education for love can [be] guided by expert persons who are worthy of trust, for example, doctors, priests, educators.”   Likewise, Pope John Paul II in his statement to mental health professionals of the world said, “You and your associates make an important contribution to the future of society by seeking to point out, in the light of a dispassionate commitment to truth, the limits of certain models of social life….”

And that’s what I am trying to do here. I’m not interested in making anyone feel guilty or arguing with anyone. But, in my capacity as a professional Catholic pastoral counselor, marriage and family expert, university professor, author, and radio host, I am exercising my right to interpret the data and say that certain choices are in fact better than other choices.

Those who are of a mind to listen may do so.  Those who aren’t are free to go elsewhere.

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • Jen

    I don’t know you, but I believe that you desire only to help families and to be a vibrant witness to a fully-lived Catholic faith, and I don’t diminish your education, training, or experience.

    But I have to wonder if you realize how thoroughly smug and uncharitable you sound in this post and its predecessors regarding taking kids to Mass.

    So now, if my husband and I decide that for this Sunday or that Sunday we will go to Mass in shifts and not bring the 18 month-old, it’s because we lack the skills to do it successfully? It’s because we don’t know how? It’s a DEFICIT on our part??

    It couldn’t possibly be because we have thought it over carefully, discussed it, prayed about it, and given our unique family situation at that time with the particular child in question, we have decided to go to Mass without said child? It couldn’t be that our best prudential judgment as parents has brought us to this decision, knowing that this is just a short season?

    Let’s remember what we’re talking about here, or at least what I’m talking about. We’re not talking about a routine of permanent separate Mass-attendance until the kid is ready to make 1st Communion. We’re not talking about a child that never attends Mass. We’re not talking about parenting laziness or an unwillingness to teach said child how to behave in church. We’re not talking about a nonchalant attitude toward faith formation and spiritual life.
    We’re talking about occasions when Mom and Dad decide not to bring say, the 18 month-old, to Mass. Spiritual scarring will certainly not result.

    You have presented the situation as one where if parents decide differently than you have advised, it’s a failing on their part and an injustice to their child, and if they further refuse to accept your opinion, now they are trying to prop up their own uncertainties about their choice and wanting to defend what should not be defended. And finally, if parents ever choose not to bring a child to Mass (for whatever reason) it’s a deficit on their part and because they lack the skills that they should acquire in order to be successful. According to you. And because of your experience and training, if we choose not to listen to you, that is further evidence of failing on our part.

    I have to wonder how much unintentional injustice I have done to my children on the occasions when my husband and I went to Mass in shifts because the kids were sick!! We ROBBED them of the Mass experience because we didn’t take the sick child to Mass that week as a family!

    You have much to offer to many parishes around this country where children are not welcomed in Mass as they should be and parents are made to feel bad for daring to bring them to the Lord’s altar. I’ve been on the receiving end of nasty stares, and had people get up and move away from us once we’d sat down. It’s hurtful and frustrating. We are a faith that teaches and upholds the first society — the family — as paramount and holy and blessed by God. Yet too many parishes treat young children like the enemy.

    But you have gone far off the mark with your tone in these posts and your insistence that if parents ever choose not to bring a small child to Mass and do Mass in shifts that they have failed; have robbed their children; have committed some injustice against the child or the Faith; that it’s a deficit on their parts and not actually a prudential judgment they are free to make without mortal fear. You may be a wonderful doctor, but here you sound arrogant, condescending, and unkind. You continue to be dismissive and mocking rather than engage those who differ with you. That is a real shame.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      You’re overstaing my points and putting words in my mouth. Exceptions exist. I respect those exceptions. i do not respect parents habitually leaving children at home. It is clear that’s what I’m addressing. Feel free to criticize me. Just do it for things I’ve done not things you imagine. Thank you. Dr.Greg

  • http://www.littlecatholicbubble.blogspot.com Leila

    Again, all due respect (and I have many of your books, so I appreciate your expertise), I’m still trying to understand. You aren’t simply saying, “I think it’s best, even ideal, that babies and toddlers go to mass with the family every week”, which I could understand. Instead you are saying that not taking them is an “injustice” and a “very serious impediment to future catechesis and spiritual development”. These words imply that parents are sinning against their children by doing split shifts. Sinning against children by committing injustice, seriously impeding their spiritual development — that is not just giving your opinion on something like wearing deodorant and being socially unacceptable (after all, it’s not a sin not to wear deodorant, or else Jesus — and pretty much everyone in the history of mankind — would be guilty of that sin; it’s not even a sin to be socially unacceptable).

    I know I am being redundant, but what I wish you would address for us (or clear up) is your implication that not taking babies/toddlers to mass is a sin (I asked about that in the previous post). If you walk it back, even just a little bit, then I would understand. It’s something you feel strongly about and I understand that (and I love seeing kids at mass, even my own!), but I don’t believe you have the authority to raise it to the level of sin (“injustice” is a sin).

    And as far as interpreting data, I didn’t know there was data on the kids of folks who did split shifts. I would love to be a subject in that study, because we have split-shifted on and off these last couple of decades, and my kids, thank you Jesus, are all faithful Catholics (the oldest, an Aquinas-loving girl with a Latin degree getting married in September to another devout Catholic who loves the mass as much as she does; the second child living a chaste and faithful life as a college student, living next year at the Newman Center; the third with a passion for Catholic moral theology and seriously considering a religious vocation; the next two faithful altar boys who love their Catholicism; and then the little ones whose teachers and priests can vouch for their love and knowledge of Jesus and the Faith). Could they go off the rails at some point? Yes, that whole free will thing is a beast, and one never knows what a particular soul will choose. But from my experience and my friends’ experiences, missing mass as babies/toddlers has not impeded their faith formation. In fact my orthodox Catholic parish provides an option of child care during mass (“Church school”) from infant to age six (we have a ton of very large families). In your opinion, are the young priests there impeding the formation of the children of the parish and enabling the parishioners to sin against their kids?

    I guess my only hope is not that we will agree (not even sure what we are disagreeing about, even), but that you will pull back and make it clear that we are not talking about sin, which is very much your implication.

    Thank you, Dr. Popcak!

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg


      I apppreciate you taking the time to puzzle this out with me. One thing you need to know about me is that I am anything but subtle. It comes from my work as a counselor. People who are stuck in an unhealthy place have a hard time processing subtle. I aim for gently in your face. That seems to do the trick. My point is, if I want to say something is sinful, I’ll say “That’s sinful.” I didn’t say that. I meant exactly what I said. Anyone who is baptized has a spiritual and canonical right to be admitted to the sanctuary. It is presumed–given normal circumstances-that they will be there. The Church, in her mercy, makes allowances, but we, as parents who take our mission to educate our children in the faith and introduce them to a personal experience with the Lord from the earliest age, should not treat an allowance as a license.

      I don’t think there is a catechist alive who would say that a “best practice” for raising a kid in the faith is to leave a dependent child at home so that mommy and daddy can get “me time” with God. Do you understand the unconscious message that sends, “Yes, child, I know that you are not developmentally or cognitively able to see yourself as a distinct person from me (until, really, about age 3), but I need to go to see God, and you’re kind of a handful so…good luck with that.” I do not think parents consciously intend to say that, but seen through the prism of the developmental stage that the children we’re talking about are in that IS the message that’s being sent. The only reason parents think this is kosher is because most parents have been taught that if they do what works for them, babies will just follow suit. That’s nonsense. There is no science to bad that idea up at all.

      Denying small children their right to come to mass with you ISN’T a sin, but only because not all stupid things are sinful. It’s bad pedagogy, bad catechesis, and bad psychology. I understand that it’s “worked” for some people, but so, for some, has smoking 6 packs a day since age 12. That’s called anedotal evidence and it isn’t worth spit. There is just no intellectual way to defend leaving children at home as a habit. I understand that exceptions must be made. I respect those exceptions. But the people arguing against my recommendations aren’t talking exceptions. They are either saying that they are so overwhelmed as parents that they do not have the skills or the wherewithal to bring a small child to mass (which sounds, in my book, like a problem that ought to be solved not tolerated and celebrated)or they are saying that they just don’t care enough to try because they really want some me time with God and that’s just not OK for the reasons I described above.

      St Frances of Rome said that if you are before God in the Blessed Sacrament and word comes to that the smallest member of your household needs you, you are “to quit God at the altar and find him again in your family.”

      Now, I’m just one man. I have strong and well-informed opinions on this matter. But no one needs my permission to disagree or live differently. I respect that others may disagree. I think they’re foolish for all the reasons I’ve outlined, but I respect their right to do as they please. That said, please don’t put words in my mouth. If I think something is sinful, I’ll tell you and I’ll cite the catechism to back it up. If I don’t do that, then saying i said something was sinful when i didn’t is just a dishonest rhetorical device used to discredit the weight of my well-considered points. I hope that clarifies things.

      I do genuinely appreciate your thoughtful comments however, and I hope you will come back and comment often.

      God Bless,
      Dr. Greg

      • http://catholicstand.com Joseph Mazzara

        Dr. Greg,

        Again, you’re talking about your own anecdotal experience, and deriving some rather stark general principles about how all parents should behave toward their children. Every child is born with a different personality. No one approach of child-rearing is successful with every child in every family at all times. Not bringing a child to Sunday Mass is not treating an allowance as a license any more than homeschoolers are taking any license from the Church’s statement that parents are the primary educators of their children. We are the primary educators in the Faith not because the Church gives us that right, but because of a natural privilege we have as their parents, a privilege of responsibility that we receive from God when with Him we conceive our children.

        Furthermore, just because someone has a right to something, does not mean they must exercise that right, nor does it mean those in authority over them have an absolute responsibility to see that those under them receive access to that right. Because you seem to like analogies, for instance, take a soldier in war may have some sort of natural “right” that Pro-lifers say human beings have to life, but that right is subject to the needs of the community. There can be circumstances and situations that effect the exercise of a particular right.

        If a parent is otherwise raising their children in the Faith, and teaching them how to pray, and their child’s personality is not such that it is suitable that he be present the family, and the parish community at Mass, there is no license taken, that is an exercise of that “allowance” you say is given to parents. To call it foolish is to say it is imprudent, since commonly that which is not prudent is called foolish. What is prudence? “An intellectual habit enabling us to see in any given juncture of human affairs what is virtuous and what is not, and how to come at the one and avoid the other.”

        You are claiming there is a hierarchy of good between bringing your child to Mass or not bringing him to Mass. If bringing him to Mass causes scandal because of his behavior and immaturity, it is prudent, i.e. virtuous to not bring him to Mass. On the other hand, if you don’t bring him to Mass, and the kid can be obedient, and attend without causing a sufficient amount of ruckus that he gets asked to leave the knave by the priest as the priest is starting his homily? Then you are being unvirtuous and imprudent. In the former instance, bringing the child to Mass would be imprudent, and the latter bringing him would be prudent.

        Is imprudence sinful? Why don’t we let a much better Doctor than you (and anyone else) comment on that: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3053.htm

        And what St. Thomas is saying there about imprudence? That’s why Leila, who knows what she is talking about, is accusing you of saying that it is sinful to bring your kid to Mass. Because you say it is foolish. If you want to quibble about words and semantics like a Sophist, and say you don’t mean what your words actually mean, then I guess this conversation will be over. Otherwise, I recommend you use a word other than “foolish” which is a synonym for “imprudent,” you know, which itself is a kind of sin?

        • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

          I have already answered this. Please see the post on the main blog page. I have never claimed that not taking kids to mass is sinful. That is nothing more than a rhetorical device critics are unjustly using in a flawed and uncharitable attempt to discredit the power of my words. Please read my response to this argument. I will delete any further comments that persist in this nonsensical accusation that I have argued that it is somehow sinful to not take children to Mass. Not everything that is profoundly stupid is sinful. Dr. Greg

          • http://catholicstand.com Joseph Mazzara

            Like I said Dr. Greg, you aren’t explicitly claiming that, but it is implied by the very definition of the words you are using. Will you actually address my arguments as to why using foolish is a bad choice of words because it does imply the sin of imprudence? I mean, you say yourself that are less good ways, and that we should just own up and admit it when we’ve chosen a bad option, or less than good option. “Foolish” means imprudent, and imprudence is a sin.

            I am not saying you are arguing that it is sinful, I am saying that your words imply that and that you need to select some other word than “foolish.” I am surprised you’re not understanding the argument here.

            I’m sorry if I’m not being subtle here, but Belloc says the mark of intelligence is the ability to recognize distinctions. Are you going to admit “foolish” was a bad word choice because it means “imprudence” and because “imprudence” is a sin, and therefore you implied something you didn’t intend to? Or will you persist with using the term “foolish” for parents who don’t bring their kids to Mass, delete this comment, and refuse to be more clear on exactly what you’re saying. We aren’t stupid, words means things and while you can explain away that you aren’t saying it is a sin, you are still using the term “foolish,” which is itself a word that implies sin.

          • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg


            You’re being cute. I said foolish and I meant it. Use your obvious intelligence to make the distinction between foolishness and sinfulness. Feel free to comment again, but if you don’t say anything new, I’ll round file it. Dr.Greg

  • Becky

    As a tired mother of 2 tiny people (a 4 mo and 2 year old) and a neurotic dachshund, it is so affirming to read your last few posts. It is a constant battle to get everyone ready and out the door to Mass on Sunday. At times, it is a battle to fully participate in Mass. It is quite often a humbling experience. Especially during those silent points of the mass, where your son’s baby rosary breaks and the beads go in all different directions. Nevertheless, my husband and I know this is sacrifice worth doing every week. My real point is that the local parish can really make a difference in fostering a culture life starting with the Mass. We are lucky to be belong to parish in Ann Arbor, Mich. where bringing very young kids to mass is seen as normal. So we don’t stick out like a sore thumb. In contrast, when I visit my parents in the suburbs of Chicago, the Mass situation is very different. I feel like I am the only one with small kids and the sanctuary is very quiet. One little squeak from my kids and the whole congregation is staring at us. Nevertheless, we will bear the stares and keep bringing our kids there. :) I really appreciate the times when after Mass a parishioner will give me some words of encouragement, giving me more strength to fight the next battle.

  • Jared B.

    “The bottom line is that it is possible to say that some ways to live are better than other ways.”
    “I’m not interested in making anyone feel guilty”

    Setting aside the specific topic of taking small children to Mass, I’m not sure it’s possible to square that circle. If one way to live is objectively superior to another (something that is obviously true in many, many areas of life), how could anyone reasonably expect someone to feel about living ‘option B’ other than kinda guilty?

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Is it not impossible to see a possibility of improvement in one’s life without feeling guilty that one is not yet perfect? Dr.Greg