The Importance of Mass Attendance: Some Perspectives from the Social Sciences by Richard M. Rymarz

2008 Winter-Spring - Edition of a peer-reviewed article from an Issue of the Academic Journal "Fidelitas" of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars

The Importance of Mass Attendance: Some Perspectives from the Social Sciences

Richard M. Rymarz holds the Peter and Doris Kule Chair in Catholic Religious Education at St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta

This article will focus on a number of arguments from the social sciences which make the case for seeing mass attendance as a critical part of maintaining Catholic institutional vitality. It stops short of advancing any strategies or proposals that address the current decline in mass attendance rates but seeks to make a case for seeing this decline as a matter of urgent priority. 1 The theological case for the importance of attendance at weekly mass hardly needs stating. Some foundational comments, however, are appropriate. From a historical perspective Benedict XVI puts it in these terms [for early Christians] “the Sunday Eucharist was not a commandment, but an inner necessity. Without him who sustains our lives, life itself is empty. To do without or to betray this focus would deprive life of its very foundation, would take away its inner dignity and beauty”. 1 The Eucharist is the principal means of realizing the Church as communion as it unifies its horizontal and vertical dimensions and as such nourishes the Church’s missionary endeavours. In terms of its own self-definition, the Catholic Church describes the Eucharist as extremely important, “the source and summit of Christian life”. 1

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We mean what we say we mean

The first sociological perspective is offered from so-called Rational Choice Theory (RTC). The first premise of RTC is that individuals make religious choices on the basis of perceived benefit and cost. In other words their behaviour can be understood as a rational choice and not, as held by some social theorists, as a type of illogical response to group pressure, lack of education or superstitious fear. 1 Consider the severe example of Christian martyrs. To many this would seem to be an example of irrational behaviour par excellence. Stark argues, however that martyrdom can best be understood in terms of the perceived rewards that are in play in these situations. 1 If we assume that people anticipate costs and benefits of any action and act of the basis of perceived compensators them martyrdom can take on a rational dimension. If the religious community has provided a credible and sustained argument about the purpose of human life and what happens after death, martyrdom is not to be unexpected. The compensator here is quite substantial, eternal life with God. The Christian community, however, must not only believe the value of martyrdom in a cognitive sense they must provide credible and convincing evidence of the authenticity of this belief. To this end the religious community must promote and collectively value the witness and example of martyrs. It must back up its words with actions.

Stark and Finke would describe Mass attendance as a prime example of objective religious commitment. It is objective in the sense that the tradition identifies this practice as important. 1 Religion is seen in RCT as competing in the market place for followers. 1 A religious community which too often is marked by a serious discrepancy in what it states to be 131

Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada) Winter-Spring 2008

of the upmost importance and how its followers in fact behave runs the serious risk of losing credibility, not only with its followers, but more importantly with those who may be seen as potential members. Why would people choose to become members or retain a high level of commitment to an organization which seems to lack a sense of coherence? Vital religious communities by contrast are marked by a high level of congruence between mandated teaching and action. This in turn leads to the development of strong bonds of fellowship between members who are united in common purpose.

Mass attendance as establishing a boundary

At a fundamental level a boundary is what gives any group its identity. It separates the group from others in the mainstream culture. A group with low boundaries finds to hard to attract or retain members as the reasons for being part of this group as opposed to other groups are not compelling. There are problems also with excessive boundaries which make membership and wider engagement if not mutually exclusive than at least very difficult. A healthy group, therefore, is often defined in terms of strong but not excessive boundaries.

Beginning in the 1960’s the boundaries which defined religious groups were dramatically challenged is a process Bausch calls this “the “collapse of total Church”. 1 For Catholics many distinguishing practices, of which plainchant and fasting are but two examples, effectively disappeared. 1 The incremental effect of these practices was to secure communal identity though a close connection between praxis and theory. Those who were members of the faith community had concrete ways of living out their beliefs in union with others. Douglas, for example, argued decades ago for maintaining the discipline of fasting. She gave the example of

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the most humble Irish labourer working in London being reminded every Friday that he was part of an ancient and worldwide tradition. He was also actualizing a bond that linked him with his family and loved ones in Ireland and helped him to forget even for a moment his life of toil in the metropolis. 1 To be a Catholic is not just a theoretical position it means participating in distinguishing actions. If these actions disappear or are no longer stressed then distinctive boundaries are imperilled. This is not to say all practices are critically important but certainly the total sum are along with ones that the tradition nominates as vital. Greeley elaborates on this point by likening the loss of Catholic identity to the destruction of a rainforest. One tree can be removed without effect, if however, large parts of the forest are denuded then the whole ecosystem is imperilled. He argues this is what has happened to Catholic life, “beige Catholicism – Catholicism stripped of much of its beauty, its rainforest of metaphors denuded, in a manic and thoughtless effort to be just like everyone else”. 1 To extend this rainforest analogy there are also primordial trees around which many others cluster and depend on, Mass attendance could be liken to this type of organism.

Extenuating the loss of identity has been the emphasis, in many circles, placed on the harmony and continuity between the culture of the Church and the wider culture. This can be seen as moving from a high tension model where the group has many beliefs and practices that set them apart from its environment to a low tension model where such difference are relatively slight. 1 A group which sees itself in low tension with the wider culture has relative difficulty promoting allegiance to the group as the surrounding culture can often be seen as more attractive and less burdensome. In a similar way to boundaries the tension between the group and the

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wider culture needs to reasonably acute if a group is to flourish.

For many Catholics today one of the few markers of identity, the boundary that separates then from others is mass attendance. Similarly one of the few areas of tension that causes then to behave in ways that bring them into conflict with social norms is mass attendance. Rather than, for example, taking the children to sport or the ubiquitous shopping, Sunday, or at least part of it, could be reserved for an increasingly counter-cultural activity – worship. For many Catholic today Mass attendance in the one activity which maintains a boundary between the individual and others in the wider culture. To conclude, once historically and anthropologically rooted practices loses significance it is very difficult to reinstate or replace them. Often all that can be done is ruefully reflect on the process. A strong commitment to what could be the last ritually significant Catholic practice makes good sense.

Need to address excessive personalism

The number of especially younger people who self-identity as Catholic is, of course, higher than mass attendance rates. Many seem willing to retain some connection to the Church but are keen not to overplay this and appear to be overtly religious. Kaiser notes a characteristically Italian variation on this sentiment, when asked about their religion Romans are apt to reply, siamo cattolici, non fanatici –we’re Catholics but we’re not fanatics. 1 This notion is becoming more exacerbated with many Catholics losing a sense of the communal, orthodox faith of the church. Bellah and his colleagues captured this sentiment well when they quote the 

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self description given by "Sheila Larson", a young nurse in their classic study:

I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith carries me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice... It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other. 1

Sheila is the personification of a movement toward individualism in religious expression. A feature of this transition is an emphasis on morality, what we do, and away from creedal conviction, what we believe as a community and how we celebrate and reinforce these beliefs. Yamane commenting on the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Bellah study commented that, “if Sheila Larson had today’s language available to her during the interview, she would surely have offered the contemporary mantra, “I’m spiritual not religious”. 1

A key aspect of developing strong religious commitment, as opposed to a weaker private allegiance, is participation in group ritual and activity, especially those which are described as crucial by the group. For Catholics, Mass attendance is the epitome of this. In order to move beyond a private and moral sense of religious allegiance a feeling of being part of a larger, and in this case, worshipping community is of inestimable importance. If we can imagine the Catholic version of Sheila

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Larson Mass attendance, at least on a regular basis, will probably not be one of the key markers of her religious identity. One could argue about what type of omen having large numbers of Sheila’s in a religious community is. One way of focussing the issue is to ask what do we expect the faith trajectory not of Sheila but of her children to be? It seems plausible that without some type of regular communal expression of faith, religious belief and allegiance over time and generations will become weaker and more atomized. This point is well captured by Christiano, “whether futuregenerations of Quebecers, more than ever imbued with the secular attitudes of their most accomplished artistic, intellectual, and economic elites (if not the critical foundations of those attitudes), will find such loose attachments to religious tradition either useful or ultimately satisfying is still an open question”. 1

Concluding comments

In the immediate future, in countries such as Canada, Mass attendance is likely to come under continued pressure. The Church cannot depart from highlighting the importance of regular attendance for indisputable theological reasons. A brief look at some social theory also should inform us that there are good reasons for stressing the importance of participation in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Church in Canada and many other Western countries is facing a decisive time. In the immediate past there may have been a sense of complacency about the need for stressing participation in the communal life of the Church at the deepest level. Rahner writing in 1970’s, for example, argued that the Sunday Mass obligation should not be treated, “as if it had been proclaimed at Sinai as divine law, valid forever”. 1 This attitude, perhaps, reflects an earlier era which was still

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coming to terms with some of the pastoral implications of the Second Vatican Council. The Church cannot now afford to downplay the importance of regular Mass attendance. The challenge for the future is how to more fully engage the large numbers of especially younger people who retain some type of personal, vicarious allegiance to Catholicism but who are not animated by a vibrant faith as evidenced by participation in sacramental life. This is the key focus of John Paul II new evangelization. The sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, are integral to making Christ present in the world. There are, to borrow Maurin’s term, part of the Church’s theological dynamite. Mass attendance also gives Catholics a chance to express their most important beliefs, to stake out a distinctive identity, one that is marked by clear boundaries and not beholden to an introverting personalism.


1. For figures on Mass attendance rates see, Patrick McNamara, Conscience First: Tradition Second, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 23-45. David Voas and Steven Bruce, Research Note. “The 2001 Census and Christian Identification in Britain”, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 2001, 19, 23-28. James E. Curtis, Edward G. Grabb and Douglas E. Baer, “Voluntary Association Membership in Fifteen Countries: A Comparative Analysis, American Sociological Review, 57: 139-152. Reginald W. Bibby, Restless Churches: How Canada’s Churches can Contribute to the Emerging Religious Renaissance, (Toronto: Novalis, 2004), 32.

2. Benedict XVI, Homily Given at Saint Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, L’Osservatore Romano, Monday 10th of September 2007.

3. See Synod of Bishops XI Ordinary General Assembly, The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church. Accessed from the Vatican website,

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_lineamenta-xi-assembly_en.html accessed on 9th of October 2007. See also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Homebush, NSW: St Pauls/Libreria Editirice, 1995), 2181- 2182.

4. Proposition 1, “Within the limits of their information and understanding, restricted by available options, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans attempt to make rational choices” Stark and Finke, Roger Stark and Rodney Fink, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, (Los Angles: University of California Press, 2000), 85

5. Rodney Stark, “The Rise of Christianity”, (San Francisco: Harper, 1997), 163-191.

6. Roger Stark and Rodney Fink, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, (Los Angles: University of California Press, 2000), (Definition 14), 103.

7. The idea of the religious marketplace has developed, amongst other, by Iannaccone, see Laurence R, Iannaccone, “The Consequences of Religious Market Regulation: Adam Smith and the Economics of Religion”, Rationality and Society, 1991, 3, 156-177.

8. William J. Bausch, Catholics in Crisis? The Church Confronts Contemporary Challenges, (Mystic, Ct: Twenty-Third Publications, 1999), 155.

9. “An example of a discarded element of the Catholic heritage: plainsong, which is a rich and powerful element of Catholic culture that has flourished for at least fifteen centuries” Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, (Berkeley, CA: University of California

Press, 2000), 133. Eammon Duffy, Fasting: A Lost Rite, Tablet, 31 January 2004, 14–17.

10. Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1970), 4–27.

11. Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Revolution and the Second Vatican Council: New Wine, Old Wineskins, (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2004), 134. Barron makes a similar point on beige Catholicism, Robert Barron, Bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic, (Latham Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 269.

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12. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776- 2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press), 43-44.

13. Robert B. Kaiser, A Church in Search of Itself, (New York: Alfred A. Knope, 2006), 61.

14. Robert N. Bellah., Richard Madsen, William H. Sullivan, Ann Swindler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (New York: Harper Row, 1986), 221.

15. David Yamane, “Symposium on the 20th Anniversary of Habits of the Heart: Introduction, Habits of the Heart at 20”, Sociology of Religion, 68(2), 2007, 179-187, at 183.

16. Kevin J. Christiano, “The Trajectory of Catholicism in Twentieth- Century Quebec”, in Leslie Woodcock Tentler, The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholicism since 1950 in the United States, Ireland & Quebec, (Washington Dc: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 61.

17. Karl Rahner, The Shape of the Church to Come, (London: SPCK, 1974), 95.