Today is a solemnity within the octave of Easter, so no penances on this Friday. But what about all the Fridays to come?
Yourself: Lent is over! Jesus is risen!
Myself: Indeed, he is truly risen.
Y: That means no more meatless Fridays.
M: Well, it may, but—
Y: We can eat steak, hamburgers, pork chops, lamb kebabs, bacon, chicken wings…
M: Yes, I get it.
Y: …turkey wraps, Peking duck, beef jerky, and bacon.
M: You already said bacon.
Y: I know what I said.
M: It’s true that on the Friday of the Octave of Easter we don’t have the obligation to do penance such as abstaining from meat. Every day in the octave is a feast. But for most of the Church year, every Friday is a day of penance, and the ordinary way Catholics observe the penance is by abstaining from meat.
Y: You mean during Lent.
M: I mean during Lent, ordinary time, Advent . . . every Friday that isn’t a solemnity or a local feast.
Y: That’s not true. Catholics used to have to abstain from meat on Fridays, but that was one of the things they changed at Vatican II. I read in a Chick tract someplace that it was because the pope sold his stock in Red Lobster.
M: Well, you’re partly right. The year after Vatican II closed, Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Paenitemini allowed local bishops’ conferences to substitute “other forms of penitence” for people in their territory, in place of abstinence from meat. This is reflected in the current Code of Canon Law, which says that “abstinence from meat, or some other food as determined by the episcopal conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday” (1251). A couple paragraphs later, the Code further empowers local episcopal conferences to decide whether other forms of penance can be performed on Fridays, instead of abstinence from meat or some other food (1253).
Y: And the Red Lobster thing?
M: I heard it was Long John Silver’s.
Y: So most Fridays are days of penance, and Catholics are still required to observe them by abstaining from meat, unless their bishops’ conference gives them other options?
M: Catholics of the Latin (or Western) Church, yes. Eastern Catholics have their own laws and penitential traditions.
Y: Oh, yeah, I’ve heard about that. Those guys don’t mess around.
M: No, they do not.
Y: Okay, so what do the episcopal conferences say?
M: Different things. The U.S. bishops’ conference gives us the option of substituting penance. So if you’re an American Catholic in the Latin Church, you may deliberately select some other kind of penance in place of abstinence from meat. But our bishops stressed that, despite this option, “we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat,” and that means no bacon. Are . . . are you okay?
Y: I felt a great disturbance in the Force.
M: In certain other countries the episcopal conferences do not allow for substitute penances. And at least one conference—England and Wales—used to allow substitutes but recently switched back to abstinence from meat for everyone.
Y: I don’t agree with that. A voluntary, individual form of penance allows people to make a real sacrifice that is meaningful to them—not just follow some Church law. And what if they don’t like meat? That’s no sacrifice.
M: On the contrary, I can think of three reasons why going back to the universal practice of Friday abstinence would be a good move. Care to hear them?
Y: I don’t know . . . I have a thing to get to . . .
M: There’s a Slim Jim in it for you.
Y: I’m listening.
M: The first reason is symbolism. When the early Christians chose Friday as a day of penance, they didn’t do so by accident. Friday was the day of Christ’s passion and death. They didn’t choose abstinence from meat by accident, either, but because it was a fitting sacrifice. First because it was—and in most countries even today still is—a luxurious food, making abstinence from it an act of voluntary poverty. But also because of the symbolic connection between the bloody flesh of animals and the bloody flesh of Jesus on the cross. When we abstain from flesh on Fridays we recall the sacrifice of Christ’s body.
Y: Ah, so that’s why beef and fowl are considered “meat” but fish is not.
M: Right. Fish is not warm-blooded “flesh” in the same way. Same goes for alligator, apparently.
Y: I’ll remember that.
M: So, I think restoring universal Friday abstinence from flesh meat would be a symbolically fitting practice, not just for doing penance, but for meditating on Christ’s sufferings in the flesh.
Y: Gotcha. And your second reason?
Y: I see what you’re doing there.
M: Although on paper it may seem attractive to be able to choose from many kinds of penance, or even invent a custom one just for ourselves, in practice it may create needless complication. We have to keep track of each Friday’s variable penance, which can lead to self-negotiation: Did I just drink that beer? Okay, no pie for me later. Man, that was good pie . . . Okay, I’ll be extra-nice for the rest of the night and maybe pray a few decades in bed.
Y: Are you a psychic?
M: There’s also the pitfall of subjectivity. The scrupulous may agonize over whether they can ever choose a penance that’s hard enough, whereas those who are more . . . sanguine about spiritual self-discipline may set too low a bar for themselves, or simply habitually forget.
For some people, sure, choosing personal penitential practices can be rewarding, but for most I suspect that the simplicity of a single ordinary practice is more beneficial. It’s easy to remember, it’s time-tested, and it’s neither too easy nor too demanding for most people.
Y: What about vegetarians, or people who can’t eat meat for medical reasons? For them it’s no sacrifice at all. They don’t, or can’t, eat meat anyway.
M: There’s nothing stopping such people from recognizing this and making a different voluntary sacrifice. In fact, the bishops of England and Wales specifically required this in their 2011 document restoring Friday abstinence. But there’s a big difference between recognizing that there will be some exceptions to a norm and making a norm out of the exceptions.
Y: Now I’m feeling psychic. I sense a third reason coming . . . something like sssssss—
Y: I was just going to say that.
M: Right. So, in addition to the individual spiritual benefits that come from observing a Friday penance, there are corporate benefits for the whole Church. Friday abstinence is like ashes on Ash Wednesday or wearing a crucifix or holy medal—
Y: Or rosary beads hanging from your rearview mirror.
M: If you take them down from there to pray with sometimes, yes. These things put us in a communion of common identity with other Catholics. They strengthen on a human and tangible level the bonds of solidarity that we share with each other spiritually in the Mystical Body. A single shared sacrifice, like abstinence from meat, accomplishes this more powerfully than a general sense that all of us are supposed to be doing something penitential on Fridays.
It also allows us more easily to help our brothers and sisters with their share of the burden. At a Friday gathering of Catholic friends everyone will know that meatless pizza or fish and chips is the menu instead of some having to lay off the meat, others the booze, and others indulging in everything because they’re going to watch a half-hour less TV later. We can remind and encourage each other to join together in a little bit of Catholic culture. In so doing we will remind ourselves that we’re in the world but not of it. And the world will notice, too.
Of course, nothing is stopping us from doing that right now. So no matter what your local bishops’ conference says, in your personal and family life consider extending the Lenten practice of Friday abstinence into the rest of the Church year. You may find it more beneficial than you imagined.
Y: I’ll try it. Now give me that Slim Jim.