One of the issues in the headlines recently is whether or not auto dealers in Rhode Island should be permitted to be open on Sundays. Several factors make the question rather complicated.
First is that car dealers in neighboring Massachusetts are allowed to operate on Sundays, a situation that Rhode Island dealers claim places them at a distinct disadvantage.
Next is the confusion that seems to exist in current RI laws. Most retailers are permitted to open on Sundays without special permits. The loosened law does not include car dealers, apparently. The situation has landed the state's Attorney General in a real pickle. Should he attempt to enforce a controverted law, a law that in the end might be unenforceable anyway? A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office explained, "It's complicated. The laws could give you different results."
Further complicating the issue is the fact that while some local dealers insist on remaining open, their professional association has opposed the idea, arguing that Sunday sales don't increase revenue but just spread it over seven work days instead of six. Net effect: more work, same money.
Economic and legal questions aside, the issue presents an interesting dilemma for Christians. Sunday is a sacred day but we live in a secular society. Should Christians open their stores and businesses on Sundays? Should Christians shop on Sundays? Several points to be made here.
It seems to me, first of all, that it's very difficult to establish and enforce purely religious laws in a secular and pluralistic society. For many members of our community, e.g. Jews, Muslims and those without any religious adherence, Sunday isn't a holy day at all. Should Christian religious observances be the law of the land? And if we insist on closing on Sundays, what about other holy days of obligation such as All Saints Day and the Immaculate Conception?
Now, before some astute reader raises the issue, remember that in this discussion of Sunday observance, we're not speaking of an essential moral principle rooted in natural law – such as the dignity of human life, human freedom and the nature of marriage. Civil law should uphold these fundamental principles since they are inherent to human nature and apply to all people equally.
Nowadays our society isn't as monolithically Christian as it used to be, or at least pretended to be. As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh we dealt with the impact of "Blue Laws." And if I recall correctly, they included the suspension of professional sporting events after a certain hour on Sunday evenings. More than one extra-inning Pirate game was left unfinished on Sundays because of the Blue Laws. (An irritating experience, even for a Catholic school student, future priest and bishop!) For better or worse, the days of "Blue Laws" are gone.
We've learned that it's difficult to legislate Sunday as a holy day for the entire community. Perhaps we should adopt the Italian model. Every restaurant in Italy is required by law to be closed at least one day a week for its "weekly rest". The weekly rest might be Sunday. It might also be Monday or Tuesday, or any other day of the week. The practice isn't so much religious law as labor law, guaranteeing owners and employees at least one free day each week, and putting all establishments on equal competitive footing.
But the fact remains, Sunday should be a special day for Christians. In his 1998 Encyclical, Dies Domini ("The Day of the Lord") Pope John Paul wrote of the spiritual significance of Sunday: "The disciples of Christ are asked to avoid any confusion between the celebration of Sunday, which should truly be a way of keeping the Lord's Day holy, and the 'weekend', understood as a time of simple rest and relaxation. This will require a genuine spiritual maturity, which will enable Christians to 'be what they are'." (#4)
Without a doubt it's a challenge for us. But as an expression of our Faith Christian business owners should close on Sunday and Christian consumers should avoid shopping. It would set a good example. Given the society in which we live, however, if you must sell or buy a car on Sunday, or participate in other business activities, you can probably do so without incurring grave sin.
Whenever you buy that car, however, use it to enhance your observance of Sunday. Take the family for a ride, do some charitable or apostolic work, participate in a parish activity and, above all, attend Holy Mass. That's the culmination of our Sunday observance and will give Sunday at least some remnant of the respect it deserves as the Lord's Day.
This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor