Moral Briefs – Chapter LIII – Servile Works

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonBut, if servile works are prohibited on the Lord’s day, it must be remembered that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,” that, for certain good and sufficient reasons, the law ceases to oblige; and, in these circumstances, works of a purely servile nature are no longer unlawful. This is a truth Christ made very clear to the straight-laced Pharisees of the old dispensation who interpreted too rigorously the divine prohibition; and certain Pharisees of the new dispensation, who are supposed assiduously to read the Bible, should jog their memories on the point in order to save themselves from the ridicule that surrounds the memory of their ancestors of Blue-Law fame. The Church enters into the spirit of her divine Founder and recognizes cases in which labor on Sunday may be, and is, more agreeable to God, and more meritorious to ourselves, than rest from labor.

The law certainly does not intend to forbid a kind of works, specifically servile in themselves, connected with divine worship, required by the necessities of public religion, or needed to give to that worship all the solemnity and pomp which it deserves; provided, of course, such things could not well be done on another day. All God’s laws are for His greater glory, and to assert that works necessary for the honoring of God are forbidden by His law is to be guilty of a contradiction in terms. All things therefore needed for the preparation and becoming celebration of the rites of religion, even though of a servile nature, are lawful and do not come under the head of this prohibition.

The law ceases likewise to bind when its observance would prevent an act of charity towards the neighbor in distress, necessity, or pressing need. If the necessity is real and true charity demands it, in matters not what work, not intrinsically evil, is to be done, on what day or for how long a time it is to be done; charity overrides every law, for it is itself the first law of God. Thus, if the neighbor is in danger of suffering, or actually suffers, any injury, damage or ill, God requires that we give our services to that neighbor rather than to Himself. As a matter of fact, in thus serving the neighbor, we serve God in the best possible way.

Finally, necessity, public as well as personal, dispenses from obligation to the law. In time of war, all things required for its carrying on are licit. It is lawful to fight the elements when they threaten destruction, to save crops in an interval of fine weather when delay would mean a risk; to cater to public conveniences which custom adjudges necessary, and by custom we mean that which has at least the implicit sanction of authority, such as public conveyances, pharmacies, hotels, etc. Certain industries run by steam power require that their fires should not be put out altogether, and the labor necessary to keep them going is not considered illicit. In general, all servile work that is necessary to insure against serious loss is lawful.

As for the individual, it is easier to allow him to toil on Sunday, that is, a less serious reason is required, if he assists at divine worship, than in the contrary event. One can be justified in omitting both obligations only in the event of inability otherwise to provide for self and family. He whose occupation demands Sunday labor need not consider himself guilty so long as he is unable to secure a position with something like the same emoluments; but it is his duty to regret the necessity that prevents him from fulfilling the law, and to make efforts to better his condition from a spiritual point of view, even if the change does not to any appreciable extent better it financially; a pursuit equally available should be preferred. Neglect in seeking out such an amelioration of situation would cause the necessity of it to cease and make the delinquent responsible for habitual breach of the law.

If it is always a sin to engage without necessity in servile works on Sunday, it is not equally sinful to labor little or labor much. Common sense tells us that all our failings are not in the same measure offensive to God, for they do not all contain the same amount of malice and contempt of authority. A person who resolves to break the law and persists in working all day long, is of a certainty more guilty than he who after attending divine service fails so far as to labor an hour. The question therefore is, how long must one work on Sunday to be guilty of a mortal sin.

The answer to this question is: a notable time; but that does not throw a very great abundance of light on the subject. But surely a fourth of the whole is a notable part. Now, considering that a day’s work is, not twenty-four hours, but ten hours, very rarely twelve, frequently only eight, it will be seen to follow that two hours’ work would be considered a notable breach of the law of rest. And this is the decision of competent authority. Not but that less might make us grievously guilty, but we may take it as certain that he who works during two full hours, at a labor considered servile, without sufficient reason, commits a mortal sin.