The Archdiocese of Atlanta officially welcomed the faithful back to Mass for the Feast of Pentecost on May 22. The Catholic Conference of Ohio declared that “the general obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation” would resume throughout the state the weekend of June 6. Pennsylvania’s dioceses announced in July that the general dispensation would expire in time for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15.
Meanwhile, on June 30, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote a letter to his own flock explaining why no similar announcement was forthcoming: “Here in the Archdiocese of New York, there has never been a dispensation from Sunday Mass, because no man can ‘dispense’ or set aside a Divine (as opposed to man-made) law.” He explained that the Third Commandment, which requires believers to keep the Sabbath holy, makes it impossible for him to dispense with the Sunday obligation, adding, “to deliberately miss Mass is a sin.”
Dolan’s claim that a bishop is never able to issue a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass is difficult to reconcile with the fact that bishops across the country, and in dioceses neighboring New York, did exactly that in March 2020. Cardinal Dolan surely knows this; in fact, as the metropolitan archbishop of the region, he has a responsibility to know it. What must those other bishops think of his accusing them of disregard for the Commandments? What are we lay people to think?
“Of course,” Dolan goes on, “the Church has always held that there may be some justifiable reasons why a person can miss Mass, including old age, illness, and infirmity; this is still the case.” Yes, and the point of issuing a general dispensation is to confirm that such a justification exists for everyone in a given diocese. It is a pastoral response to an acute threat to the well-being of a community, like a blizzard, a hurricane, or a deadly communicable disease.