Q: Are we Catholics still supposed to abstain from meat on Fridays? Or has this definitely been done away with? –Vince
A: Lent has just begun, and we Catholics are well aware of the obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays until the Easter season. Vince’s question, however, doesn’t specifically address lenten abstinence, but rather the traditional requirement that Catholics refrain from eating meat on Fridays year-round. As we all know, few Catholics actually follow this practice any more. But is that because we are no longer required to do so, or because the majority of Catholics are actually ignoring church law?
Canon 1250 states that the days and times of penance for the whole Church are the Fridays of the entire year, and the season of Lent. And canon 1251 gives further details on just how Catholics are to make these days penitential: Unless a solemnity falls on a Friday, abstinence from meat, or some other food as determined by the Bishops’ Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays; while Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of both abstinence and fasting. There is quite a lot of information in this latter canon, so let’s unpack it.
First of all, if a solemn holy day happens to fall on a Friday, Catholics are not expected to follow the ordinary rules of abstinence. Engaging in penitential practices on days of celebration, like Christmas or New Year’s Day, goes against the very notion of what a “feast” day really is. Similarly, if a wedding happens to take place on a Friday, abstinence at the wedding reception would be incongruous with true celebration. This is why traditionally bishops have announced that when an important feast-day within the diocese falls on a Friday, Catholics are not required to abstain from meat on that day. Once in a while, a pastor will dispense some of his parishioners for a more localized reason (like a wedding). Many readers at some point have probably heard such announcements made about St. Patrick’s Day in dioceses with large numbers of Irish, or about St. Joseph’s Day in areas with a significant Italian population. Since such feast-days have greater cultural importance in some regions than in others, it would make little sense for the entire Church worldwide to be dispensed from abstinence when these feasts fall on a Friday.
Secondly, the canon states that abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Practicing Catholics in the US are certainly familiar with this regulation, and so it need not concern us here.
But less clear is the requirement that on all Fridays throughout the year, we are to abstain from meat or some other food as determined by the Bishops’ Conference. What is a Bishops’ Conference, anyway? And what has it said about this?
A Bishops’ Conference (also known as an Episcopal Conference) is a permanent institution comprising all the bishops of a country or a particular territory, that as a body exercises certain pastoral functions for the faithful of their territory (c. 447). In the US, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is located in Washington, DC, and all the bishops of dioceses within the United States are de facto members. Generally, the bishops of each country together form their own Bishops’ Conference; but in some parts of the world, particularly in poorer countries or small countries with low Catholic populations, an Episcopal Conference may include the bishops of more than one country. In Africa, for example, the bishops of Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone together form a single Inter-Territorial Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The Irish Episcopal Conference includes not only all the bishops of the Republic of Ireland, but those of the Catholic dioceses in Northern Ireland (which is part of a separate country) as well.
One could say that the functions of an Episcopal Conference are largely pastoral. Probably most American Catholics are at least vaguely familiar with statements issued over the years by the USCCB on issues like the rights of immigrants, or the duty of all Catholics to respect human life. Such statements in and of themselves are not laws; rather, they ordinarily constitute practical applications of Catholic teaching in the US. Of course each diocesan bishop can, and should, be teaching the people of his diocese about these subjects himself; but when important moral issues are relevant nation-wide, it is often useful for American bishops to be united in making a single public statement.
But there are a handful of places in the Code of Canon Law where the Church actually gives Bishops’ Conferences the right and obligation to make laws that bind all the bishops and all the Catholics in their territories. Canon 1251, regarding abstinence on Fridays, is one of them.
It may seem logical enough to us Westerners that abstaining from meat on certain days is a traditional form of penance. But in countries whose inhabitants might hardly ever eat meat anyway, it’s likely that such a requirement would be pointless—one might as well tell Catholics in such places that as penance, they are to abstain from travelling to the moon! In some cultures there might very well be a better food to abstain from, if Catholics there are truly to perform a penitential act. This is why the Church has not given us here an absolute, across-the-board requirement that applies to all Catholics throughout the world. We all should perform penance, but what may be a true sacrifice in some cultures may not be a sacrifice at all in others. This is why each Bishops’ Conference was required by the Code of Canon Law to make its own, particular law on this subject.
So has our USCCB give us the required instructions about Friday abstinence for Catholics in the United States? Absolutely—in fact, we have had a Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence on the books in the US since 1966. It is true that these norms were in place many years before canon 1251 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law gave Bishops’ Conferences the obligation to provide them; but the Conference has rightly noted that since they fulfill the requirement, and are not contrary to any provisions of the 1983 code, they can remain in force even though they were made before that code even came into existence (cf. c. 6.1 n. 2).
But unfortunately, if we expect to find in this Pastoral Statement a black-and-white answer to our questions about Friday abstinence for American Catholics, we will be disappointed. The Statement contains many beautiful statements about the purpose of penance, which are theologically sound and thought-provoking, but it is decidedly non-specific about what exactly we are not supposed to eat on Fridays:
Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms:
Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year…For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.
Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law… (Nos. 19-24).
In other words, the US bishops encourage all American Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays—but if we can find a more effective type of penance to perform on Fridays, we are invited to do so. Our bishops have given each of us the green light to decide for ourselves how best to make our Fridays penitential. How sad, therefore, that most Catholics have wrongly interpreted this as meaning simply that “we don’t need to abstain from meat on Fridays anymore,” without replacing that abstinence with another form of penance! It is just as sad to realize that most of our diocesan clergy do not remind the Catholics under their care of this important obligation.
How many Catholics are genuinely unaware that they are actually required to perform some kind of penance every Friday? Sincere, practicing Catholics who honestly do not know of this obligation are of course not culpable for failing to follow it; but the fact remains that they should be made aware of this disciplinary rule.
Thus we can see that the answer to Vince’s question is actually more complicated than one might expect. Nevertheless, we can safely say that the popular idea that Friday abstinence has been completely “done away with” is oversimplistic. “Christ died for our Salvation on Friday,” the Pastoral statement points out (no. 18), and by some sort of penance we should be reminding ourselves of that pivotal element of our faith every single week.
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