NOT going to Mass every week isn't necessarily a mortal sin, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, has said.
Archbishop Martin said there are many people who don't practise "but who may be of deep faith", and that an action is only a mortal sin if a person knows what they are doing is gravely wrong. He said this would rarely be the case "with many of the people who don't go to Mass".
Dr Martin said in a newspaper interview that although Mass and the Eucharist are still central aspects of the faith for Catholics, a new model of the Irish Church was emerging which would see regular, occasional and very sporadic church attendance. He said: "There are many, many instances of people who don't practise, but who may be of deep faith."
He also said it is not necessarily a mortal sin not to go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days.
Dr Martin said: "I don't go judging individual people - a mortal sin is always a conscious decision on the part of somebody to do something which is seriously wrong.
"And I don't think that is the case with many of those who don't go to Mass."
Reacting to Archbishop Martin's comments, several priests stressed that although they agreed with him that Mass attendance can be over-emphasised, it was still very important to go in order to remain a part of the wider Catholic community.
Fr Martin Tierney, parish priest at Kill-O'-The-Grange, said: "When you stop going to Mass you cut the umbilical cord with the Catholic community and in my experience when you do that the faith eventually diminishes and dies."
He described Sunday Mass attendance as "a serious obligation", but stressed: "It's up to a parish to make the decision to go easier by providing more interesting liturgies. It's true to say that you can't put huge moral blame on people for not going if their parishes aren't life-giving."
Fr Tom Stack, parish priest at Milltown, remarked that "meticulous Mass attendance is not the be-all and end-all of being a Catholic Christian.
"But keeping in touch with worship is a necessary help. There can be no such thing as a solitary Christian. So one has to put oneself in the company of the believing community to sustain faith."
Fr Bernard Treacy, editor of the religious journal, 'Doctrine and Life', said Archbishop Martin's definition of mortal sin is "the classical one". He remarked that while something can be objectively wrong, if a person is not aware of the wrong he is doing, he can't necessarily be considered subjectively guilty of it.
However, he stressed that Sunday Mass attendance is "a deep obligation of Catholic life".
Archbishop Martin also commented on other areas of Catholic teaching. He said that celibacy "is clearly a requirement for a priest today", and that it "limits and frees a priest at the same time".
Regarding women priests, he said: "When Jesus went on his mission, he was always surrounded by women. It was a scandal in his day. But he did not call them to be apostles. However, today the Church must be seen as having a feminine face and women must be in the immediate entourage of Jesus."