E. Christian Brugger is Professor of Moral Theology at Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, FL. He has a BA in biology from Rutgers, Master’s degrees in moral theology and moral philosophy from Seton Hall University, Harvard University and the University of Oxford, and a Ph.D. in moral theology from Oxford. From 2015-2017, he served as a Theological Consultant to the Doctrine Committee of the USCCB. He publishes widely in sexual ethics, bioethics, natural law theory, and Catholic Social Teaching. His most recent book is Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He lives with his wife, Melissa (of 25 years), and three of his five children in Briny Breezes, Florida.
Q. Is participating in Sunday sports consistent with keeping the Third Commandment? My children attend organized practice for their sports teams Sunday mornings and regularly scheduled practices Sunday afternoons and evenings. I know man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man, but I’m also familiar with the Book of Maccabees and how the Jewish children were converted to paganism via sports. I believe there are significant parallels between the Maccabees’ society and the one we live in today. Any thoughts?
A. Your question more generally relates to how Christians should fulfill the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). By “holy,” the Scriptures mean refraining from work, in imitation of God, who, after creating the universe in six days, rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:1-3).
Jews celebrate the Sabbath Saturday. Christians celebrate it on “the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1), Sunday, in honor of the day of resurrection, the Lord’s Day. Either way, it is a recurring celebration, every seventh day, when, leaving briefly behind us the toil that work became after the Fall, we remember God.
“Remembering God” sounds like a strange way to describe our Sunday commitment. Who forgets God? We all do, at times. Because God’s divinity has literally nothing knowable by our senses, and because his humanity is veiled behind the accidents of bread and wine and in our neighbor, we can only — only! — know God through faith.
But the toil of work, even specifically religious work, turns our attention constantly to what we can see. And so we easily forget him whom we can’t see. When we forget, we become like Naaman the Syrian, who, when told by the prophet Elisha to wash seven times in the Jordan and so be cleansed of his leprosy, replied: “Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel?” In other words, we judge with worldly eyes. We often think without faith. We act on our own strength. So every seven days, God asks us to welcome his day, like passing through a doorway into a day of rest.
This pattern is so essential to our spiritual well-being that God elevates the duty to enter the Sabbath rest weekly to the level of one of the 10 great Commandments of the Old Law.
In fulfillment of this duty, the Church teaches that participation in Sunday Mass is morally obligatory. Any moral obligation, whether it excludes some behavior, such as adultery or lying, or enjoins behavior, such as Sunday Mass participation, is intrinsically tied to human well-being; the Church obliges it because we need it. The graver the obligation, the greater the human need.
But like Naaman, we don’t always see it as a need. We may see sneakers and minishorts, hear rambling homilies and off-tune music and taste tasteless wafers and cheap sweet wine. But in faith — but only in faith — we know that the sneaker-wearers are Christ, the Scriptures are Christ, the homilies are by Christ, and the consecrated wine and wafers are Christ.
Christ comes to us in four forms: in our neighbor, in the word of God (Scripture), in the priestly sacramental image, and in the elements of bread and wine. These sublime but hidden realities are what we are invited to interact with, participate in and submit to weekly; and, indeed, it can be a struggle to do it well. But when we attend Sunday Mass and make a minimal effort to engage our minds and hearts, our weeks and our lives spiritually improve.
Is Mass Participation Enough to Fulfill the Third Commandment?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people” (2176). Now “Sunday worship” clearly includes Mass participation as a necessary minimum. So unless one is ill or otherwise incapable of getting to Mass, one’s commitment to the Third Commandment obliges us to attend and participate in the Holy Liturgy.
But “Sunday worship,” I suggest, means more than Mass attendance. The obligation imposed by the Decalogue is to hold the whole day holy, to rest on the Lord’s Day. The Catechism continues saying that, on Sundays, “the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body” (2185).
So while the common minimum is Mass participation, we should strive to dedicate the whole day to God, by ceasing from our weekly toil and opening ourselves to Christian worship.
The Catechism teaches that, for serious reasons, we can be excused from this wider obligation to make the whole day a day of rest — but that in such a case, we should conscientiously avoid making such excuses a habit (2185).
If our livelihood demands that we work on Sundays, and we have made a good-faith effort to express our religious commitments to our employers and they still require it of us, and if we do not have other alternative work options that could free us from Sunday demands, then working on the Lord’s Day can be legitimate. But this does not mean that our human need for a day of rest goes away. We, therefore, ought to establish other weekly routines that permit us to gain the properly religious rest we need.
How About Sunday Sports?
At their best, the watching and playing of sports can be a wonderful break from the weekly grind, a time for family solidarity, as families watch games together on TV or attend the games of family members; they offer opportunities for fun and for pleasurable and healthy physical and mental exertion, truly an appropriate way to spend part of our Lord’s Day. At their worst, they can put competition over sportsmanship, facilitate vulgar language and behavior, and burden families with punishing weekly travel commitments.
Each Christian family involved in Sunday sports therefore has a serious duty to assess whether their participation contributes to or militates against the rest that the Third Commandment means to protect.
Because all serious commitments not only entail gains for us, but also losses, families may conclude that some Sunday sports commitments are not compatible with keeping holy the Lord’s Day. In such a case, families should discuss the situation together, conclude confidently not to participate, and see their decision in the light of the great good that they seek to protect by making the decision.
Parents should help their children to make good decisions by explaining the logic of the Sunday obligation and inviting their children to participate in the process of keeping Sundays a day of rest.
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