More theology, please

eucharistWhen my wonderful wife first told me about the mother fighting a church’s legal ban on her autistic son attendance at Catholic Mass, I worried the news coverage would be rather shallow. On Sunday, Dave Kolpack of the Associated Press was able to publish a longish well developed update of this ongoing story that has important Catholic theology at its heart.

A reader had the following to say:

It’s a decent story, but I noticed that it has quotes only from the mother about Sunday Mass obligations — the reporter apparently did not ask the diocesan spokesperson about this theological question that is one of the issues at the heart of this dispute.

As is often unfortunately the case, the church official requesting the restraining order, Father Daniel Walz, did not respond to requests for comment. A church spokesman is briefly quoted about how the church’s board tried to work with the family to find an accommodation to this difficult issue, such as a live video feed of Mass that could be watched in the church basement, but the family was not too thrilled with the idea to say the least:

Carol Race dismissed the church’s suggestion that Adam watch a video feed in the church basement, saying that “does not have the same status as attending Mass. Otherwise we could all just sit home and watch it on TV and not bother to come in.”

“It’s considered a sin in the Catholic church not to attend Mass on Sundays and every holy day of obligation,” she said. “And that’s what this is about. I’m just trying to fulfill my obligations.”

Adam is one of five children. The family’s home in nearby Eagle Bend has separate study rooms so the other children can read books and use crayons that Adam could otherwise destroy.

I am no expert in Catholic theology, but even a life-long Presbyterian like myself will understand that attendance at Catholic Mass is quite significant. According to fellow-blogger Mark Stricherz, the mother quoted in the story is largely correct according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

A Catholic must “take part in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days and, prepared by the sacrament of Reconciliation, to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, if possible during the Easter season.” (1389)

I understand what reporters go through when key sources won’t talk, such as the case in this story. But there are ways around those barriers, such as seeking out official documents that are readily available. There is also an endless range of experts that would be more than willing to expound on the mother’s comment regarding Mass attendance.

As one who has worked with autistic children in a church setting, I know this is a touchy issue for everyone involved. As much as this is a touchy private issue, when a family is willing to speak about it reporters ought to do their best to cover all the bases thoroughly.

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  • Jeff Miller

    The problem with the mother in the stories is that she does not have her facts exactly right. The general obligation to attend Mass is a grave one, but like most grave obligations, it can be mitigated in particular circumstances. For example if you are sick or you need to take care of someone who is sick.

    As Canon Lawyer Ed Peters wrote “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.”

  • Jerry

    Reading the story I’m struck not by the theology but by the ordinary facts. The claim is that he struck someone and nearly knocked someone down but that fact is not denied. The claim is that he urinated in the church and the counter statement is that he did not urinate on anyone. So I think the facts come out if one reads the story carefully.

    I also do agree that there should have been a statement in the story about what the facts really are as Jeff Miller pointed out.

  • e

    Ditto to the erudite comments that Jeff Miller made.

    An additional point to be made is that the parish had offered accommodations to the family that, while not quite the same as attending Mass, would have at least allowed them some measure of participation… No, video feed in the basement is not the same as being upstairs in the church building with the other parishioners. But it is something. And, if the parish and diocese are both offering this accommodation, isn’t that a signal that the pastor and/or bishop believe that the obligation to attend Sunday Mass (at least for the boy and probably his caregivers) is excused or mitigated in this situation?

    I understand that this is a complex story, and I think the AP reporter did a fairly good job covering it — but please, reporters, don’t let representations of what the official teaching of a religion is slide by so easily.

  • Brian Walden

    Like Jeff said, it seems pretty clear that if the boy isn’t able to attend Mass without being a disruption and debatably a danger, then he and his caretaker are relieved of the obligation. If they are able to watch in the church basement that may be the next best thing.

    The boy, being baptized, does have a canonical right to the sacraments. If the Church told him he couldn’t come to Mass and also refused to allow him to arrange for confession or to request a Eucharistic Minister, then I think the mother has a case.

    But all that aside, the issue at hand is a legal one. Does a church have a right to obtain a restraining order against an individual? I think the obvious answer is yes. So then, did the family violate the restraining order? By the mother’s own admission, yes. I don’t think there’s a case that the boys legal rights are being violated. If the mother feels his canonical rights are being violated, I’m sure she’d be able to find a canon lawyer who would take her case – but going through government courts won’t help anything.

  • Brian Walden

    I think this might have been added to the article after it was originally published. I don’t recall seeing it the first time, but maybe I just missed it:

    In his court petition, Walz said that after one service Adam got into another family’s car, started it and revved up the engine while there were people in front of the vehicle.

    This is very serious. I understand that this a very emotional issue for the family and the mother’s argument is that he hasn’t actually hurt anyone yet. While I think everyone agrees that this boy has no intent to harm anyone, it seems his actions have demonstrated that there is a good possibility that someone may get hurt eventually.

    If the parish didn’t have a restraining order and he does hurt someone after all of these near misses, who do you think will get sued? Will it be the family, who doesn’t have enough money to even afford a lawyer, or the diocese? While I wish this didn’t have to come down to a restraining order, what choice does the parish have when the family has refused to compromise?

  • Elaine T

    The article I dug up when I first ran into this story, from the local newspaper, said the priest had also offered to come to the Race home to say Mass for them. They turned it down. If that claim is true I wish it had made it into the AP story.

    I read the AP story and also noticed the ordinary facts that made it in: the bolting from the building, the revving of the car while people were in front of it, the fact he sometimes needs to be restrained bodily. Even in Mass? (apparently yes, from other articles).

    Brian’s remark about the mother finding a canon lawyer is a good one, but as I never thought of it, and I’m a reasonably knowledgeable Catholic, I certainly can’t fault the reporter for not thinking of that and asking about her choice to go to the government instead of the Church.

  • Gerry

    There’s nothing bizarre about watching a Mass via a video link.
    In fact, I know that it happens when the church I attend simply can’t hold all the people attending a particular Mass.

  • Chip

    The reporter is just (too) subtle. Note the juxtaposition of the mother’s rejection of the alternative location for the child to “take part” in Mass with the following statement about home life:

    Adam is one of five children. The family’s home in nearby Eagle Bend has separate study rooms so the other children can read books and use crayons that Adam could otherwise destroy.

    Isn’t mom rejecting the very solution that she imposes on her son at home?

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