In years past, one reason Catholics did so well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test might have been due to ecclesiastical (that's a 14-letter word) vocabulary: Catholics knew how to spell i-m-m-a-c-u-l-a-t-e and most knew the word “servile.”

Catholics avoided “servile” work on Sundays. While the scrupulous may have exaggerated its incidence, the prohibition against servile work on the Sabbath served a useful purpose. It compelled Catholics to weigh whether a given instance of work was justified. Sunday came first.

That burden of proof is disappearing.

Last September, the Polish Parliament passed a law banning most larger stores from opening on Sundays. President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist, has already promised to veto it. Even if he didn't, however, the new parliamentary majority of former communists elected in September would most likely repeal it.

The interesting thing in the Polish debate was that explicit religious arguments were rarely made for the law. Even its proponents saw themselves as defenders of small shopkeepers against “predatory” foreign supermarkets and malls. (In Poland, “mom-and-pop” type stores open Sunday mornings to let churchgoers buy fresh bread, meat and milk.) Writing in the news weekly Polityka, Joanna Solska argued that a country with a 15% unemployment rate should not be closing stores the day they do 20% of their business. In a new twist on social justice, she argued that real “concern” for workers means not taking away their Sunday jobs.

Just Another Manic Sunday?

In America, “blue” laws have vanished in most jurisdictions, the victims of combined pressure from merchants eager to make a Sunday buck and secularists claiming that the laws violate “separation of church and state.” As a kid growing up in 1960s, New Jersey, I remember two stores being open Sundays: Mike's, where you could buy a Sunday paper (till 1 p.m.) and Mizerak's, where you could get milk and cold cuts (till 2).

Today, the sole remaining vestige of that era is the disclaimer in metro New York advertisements hawking the latest sales: “except in Paramus and Wayne.” (Bergen County, N.J., still has Sunday closing laws, to the lament of mall owners in Paramus and Wayne).

In an economy driven by consumption, where profit is often the “bottom line” governing social policy, what else can one call Sunday work but “servile?” When the working poor have to labor on Sundays, be it because they need the money or because their employer demands it, social injustice is in play. When the 40-hour workweek treats Sunday as just another day in seven, social injustice is in play. Occasionally one still hears laments about the commercialization of Christmas; the commercialization of Sunday is treated as a fait accompli.

Sunday ought to have its own special flavor and texture. You catch a hint of that even in our great cities: Sunday mornings are quiet. Even the traffic moves slower. In Poland not so long ago, Saturdays were still sometimes workdays. Even then, however, things started winding down Saturday afternoon. Big stores closed by 3 or 4 o'clock — 5 at the latest. The approach of Sunday was palpable.

In America, Sunday as a day of religion and rest is being fast replaced by a secularized, ersatz “rest”: the weekend. But weekends are hardly restful. They often become time to attend to the necessities of life (like family shopping) for which a harried workweek leaves no time. In the absence of real rest on week-days (Americans now sleep fewer hours than ever), Sunday is not so much a day of rest — understood as a time of religion and reflection on life's priorities — as a last-gasp recharging of exhausted biological batteries.

That renewal can take the form of Sunday mornings in bed, but it also increasingly takes the form of time for ever-diminishing chances of recreation: Just a few years ago, the bishops of one state had to appeal to public-school districts to stop scheduling soccer games on Sunday mornings, the only time the kids apparently seemed to have left to participate in the basic human good of play.

It is not accidental that Josef Pieper, the great Thomist philosopher, titled one of his books Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Without time to relax, people cannot pursue the kind of reflection culture demands. Consider how many people “relax” on Sunday by visiting a museum, participating in a community activity or even just going off as a family somewhere. Compare that to how many deem a Sunday at the mall the ultimate in relaxation.

Show me a culture whose members look to conspicuous consumption for a sense of community, and I will show you one shallow culture.

Without downplaying law as a shaper of social thinking and values, American Catholics can mount their own personal protests against Sabbath servility (and worker exploitation). Let's apply the test we once applied to others to ourselves. Let's ask: Is this instance of economic activity really necessary? Before making a Sunday purchase, ask: Can't this transaction occur some other day? Do I really need to do the household shopping on Sunday, especially when so many stores are open 24 hours per day?

Next Sunday, as you're paging through the flashy store fliers, ask yourself: Do I really need this stuff? If so, do I really need to have it today?

Even if the only honest answer is Yes, could I not make the sacrifice of some time on a late weeknight to preserve the dignity of Sunday?

And, while we're at it, let's apply the old principle of subsidiarity. If I have to buy staples on a Sunday, why not do it at a small, local merchant open only Sunday mornings rather than in a national chain open all day just to maximize profits?

The Dignity of Downtime

Let's not forget that every time we buy out of convenience on Sunday, somebody has to work. Some of that work may be necessary, but most, honestly, isn't.

In fostering unnecessary economic activity on Sunday, we compel our neighbor to work. The secularist may say, “that's his choice,” but it's hard to believe that most people would not rather have Sundays off.

Even if they choose to work, however, do we want to be complicit in dulling other people's sensitivities to Sunday? And do we really want to live in a culture where Sunday is just another day?

Perhaps we need some of our own Sunday rituals.

In Jewish tradition, the woman of the house lights candles on Friday evening to mark the arrival of the Sabbath. Some family-based rituals are needed by Catholics to recapture our consciousness of Sunday's approach.

Every Catholic can likewise take some small part in recovering — at least in his own heart and home — the special dignity of Sunday.

Man does not live on bread alone; neither does he live on the wage alone. Social justice demands that we recover Sunday as a day of rest for our neighbors and ourselves.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Warsaw.