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Going to Church: “Get” or Debt?

By Lloyd Newton | Lloyd Newton has served as professor of philosophy at Benedictine College since 2003. A convert to the Catholic faith, he earned his M.A. in rhetoric from the University of North Texas and his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Dallas. His doctoral dissertation focused on the influence of theologian and philosopher Blessed John Duns Scotus.

While catching up with some old friends from Canada, I was surprised to find out that the wife, whom I did not know as well, was actually a lapsed Catholic. When pressed for why she left the Church to become Protestant, she replied with the typical claim that she didn’t get much out of going to Mass: It was too formulaic and didn’t reach her where she was, or something to that effect. I had a similar conversation with a neighbor the week before, who lamented the fact that many Catholics are drawn toward Protestant churches because they are more ‘user friendly’, as an advertising agency for a new cell phone might put it. “You don’t go to Mass to be entertained,” retorted my neighbor in anger, “but to receive the Eucharist.” Of course, my neighbor is absolutely correct. The central feature of the Mass is the real presence — something that most Protestant churches do not even claim to offer (high church Anglicans and Lutherans are the main exception). That said, there is something fundamentally wrong, I suspect, with both sides of the debate. Or, to put it more gently, both sides are missing something even more fundamental: The primary function or purpose of going to church is not what one can get out of it, but what one owes.

In the second part of his Summa Theologica (II–II, to be precise), St. Thomas Aquinas treats the various virtues that perfect the human person. First, he discusses the three theological virtues, viz., faith, hope, and charity, since they are the means by which we attain everlasting happiness. Then he turns to the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. What is interesting is that attending church is not discussed as part of the theological virtues, but as part of the moral virtues, most specifically as part of justice. According to Aquinas, justice is the virtue by which one renders to another what one owes him. The standard example is that if you borrow money or a tool from someone, you owe it to him to return the money or tool. But within civil society, our debt to others is much more than repaying what we borrow: we owe obedience to our superiors, honor and praise to those who are excellent in some aspect, gratitude to our benefactors, and even affability to the cantankerous and difficult coworker who makes our lives miserable.

I am sure that we have all seen the disrespectful child at a supermarket abuse his mother for not giving in to his desire for candy or a particular toy. We are often jolted, even offended, by such occasions because the disobedient child owes his parents respect and honor, not a tantrum. In such cases, the injustice is offensive, not just to the mother but to everyone who witnesses such flagrant insubordination. Yet hierarchy, and the corresponding debt to others, exists throughout the universe: animals are to be subordinate to humans; children are to honor their parents; the body is to submit to the soul; gratitude is owed to benefactors, employees are to submit to their employers; and all humans without exception, as humans, are to submit themselves to God. It is in this sense that Aquinas says “it belongs to religion to pay due honor to someone, namely to God” (ST II–II, Q. 81, art. 2).

So even though the central aspect of attending church for a Catholic is the Eucharist, the service as a whole is the liturgy, which is the public duty that one owes to God. In this sense, attending church weekly is not primarily about what one gets out of it, as important as that is, but what one owes the supreme author of our being, namely praise, honor and worship. While discussing the third commandment, Aquinas observes that “there is in man a natural inclination to set aside a certain time for each necessary thing, such as refreshment of the body, sleep, and so forth. Hence, according to the dictate of reason, man sets aside a certain time for spiritual replenishment, by which man’s mind is refreshed in God” (ST II–II, Q. 122, art. 4, reply 1). Thus, just as one sets aside a certain amount of time to sleep and eat each day, so one must set aside a definite amount of time each week to refresh his soul. Looked at in this light, attending church is not primarily about us, about what we get out of it, but about God. This is not to say, of course, that somehow God gains by the praise and honor we give him. Aquinas points out that “We pay honor and reverence, not for His Sake, because He is of Himself full of glory to which no creature can add anything” (ST II–II, Q. 81, art. 7).

Paradoxically, though, precisely in giving God the honor due him, we do get something out of it. “By the very fact that we revere and honor God, our mind is subjected to Him; wherein its perfection consists; since a thing is perfected by being subjected to its superiors” (ibid.). The perfection of the mind brings me back to my initial conversation with my Canadian guest. Under normal circumstances, a petition or prayer to another person is the effect, or sign, of an internal thought. However, in the case of public or formulaic prayers, the prayer is not a sign of our inward thoughts, but a form or pattern by which our inward thoughts become properly or suitably formed to the Divine Mind. Thus, if the formal prayers at Mass are too formulaic for our sensibilities, that simply shows that our mind is not properly confirmed to the mind of Christ, and hence all the more reason why one ought to attend church. It is as natural, and necessary, as eating and sleeping.

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