This past Lent, my family and I were good (at least better than usual) at remembering to abstain from meat on Fridays.
Now that Lent is over, we’ve decided to make it a thing we do every Friday; a way to remember the Lord’s passion, and fast as a family.
My wife and I have three young kids. We have, in the words of Janet Smith, reached a point of chaos from which we will never return; and though I’d love to be the uber-pious Catholic family that gets together each morning to pray the Rosary, I’m still trying to get my five-year-old son to make the sign of the cross without getting distracted: “In the name of the Father, and of the—hey, Dad, my arm’s like a sword!”
My point is that in giving up meat on Fridays, in deciding that this is what we’re doing, we’ll be reminding ourselves in a very simple and poignant way that our lives are about Jesus Christ. We may even ask the kids each Friday who they will be fasting for.
Before Vatican II
Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were required to abstain from meat on Fridays in remembrance of the Lord’s passion, and as an act of communal penance.
Here’s what the Code of Canon Law has to say:
Can. 1251: Abstinence from eating meat or some other food according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1253: The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.
So while the law of the Latin rite of the Church is that Catholics abstain from meat on all Fridays throughout the year, (except solemnities) as well as Ash Wednesday, canon 1251 permits the conference of bishops to substitute some other food for meat on these days, and canon 1254 goes one step further, stating that the conference of bishops can even choose other forms of penance in place of abstaining from meat.
This means that as U.S Catholics we need to look to what the Conference of Catholic Bishops has said. When we do so we see that it has “terminated” the law that states that a Catholic sins if he eats meat on Friday.
What the U.S. Bishops Have Said
Here’s the section of what the document, Pastoral Statement On Penance And Abstinence, says about abstaining from meat on Fridays:
22. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.
23. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire 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.
24. 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. Our expectation is based on the following considerations:
We shall thus freely and out of love for Christ Crucified show our solidarity with the generations of believers to whom this practice frequently became,especially in times of persecution and of great poverty,no mean evidence of fidelity to Christ and His Church.
We shall thus also remind ourselves that as Christians, although immersed in the world and sharing its life, we must preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world. Our deliberate,personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.
So while we as Catholics are not obligated to abstain from meat on Fridays, my family has decided that we’re going to anyway. Who’s with me?