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Is Friday Penance Required?

Everybody knows that Catholics in the United States no longer have to abstain from eating meat on most Fridays of the year. (They do still have to do so on a few Fridays.) But are they legally required to do anything on a typical Friday?

A popular perception is that they are. According to many, although one may eat meat on Friday, one is not free to skip doing a penance altogether. One must choose some alternative penance to do.

How accurate is this account?

To find that out, we need to look at the law of the Church. Let’s start with the universal law of the Latin Church, as found in the Code of Canon Law.

According to the Code, the universal law in the Latin Church is that Catholics are to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays except solemnities. But canon 1251 allows national conferences of bishops to substitute some other food for meat as the object of abstinence.

Canon 1253 further expands the competence of the national conference in regulating the practice of abstinence. This means that we in the U.S. need to look at what the particular law is for the United States and how it may differ from universal law.

The U.S. norms are found in a document entitled On Penance and Abstinence, dated November 18, 1966, which, despite the revision of the Code of Canon Law, remains in force.

In this document, it is particularly necessary to distinguish between the language of law and the language of exhortation.

As we’ll see, the bishops removed legal obligations while going on to exhort people to do things freely that were formerly obligatory. In this way they sought to avoid the impression that they were undermining the Church’s penitential practice.

The big legal change comes in norm 3, where the bishops state that “we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday.” So the obligation to abstain from meat was terminated. The question becomes: What obligation, if any, did the bishops put in its place to replace it?

The clause “as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday” is consistent with the idea that they did establish another obligation or a mandate to do penance in some form on Friday, but it also indicates that they did not create a new obligation. If the latter is the case, then the remark simply notes that previously abstinence had been the only prescribed way of observing Friday. Other acts of penance could be performed on Friday, but they had to be in addition to abstinence.

To find out what other obligation there may be, one must look at the surrounding text of the norms. When we do this, we discover several things.

The first thing is that the bishops “give first place to abstinence from flesh meat” (norm 3). This was an exhortation and as such did not establish a legal obligation. So abstinence continued to be a recommended practice for the observance of Friday but not a legally binding one.

The next thing is that Friday continues to be a day of penance (norm 1). The norm clarifies the sense in which this is to be understood by explaining that it is “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.”

This qualification strongly suggests that, though Friday is a day of penance, it is not one on which all of the faithful are legally bound or bound under pain of sin to do penance; nevertheless, “those who seek perfection” will do penance on the day.

This interpretation is confirmed by norm 2, which states that “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.”

Again, the language of exhortation (“we urge”) is used rather than the language of mandate (“all must”). Thus no obligation is created.

The norms—the part of the document that would create a legal obligation if there were one—thus do not do so. Moreover, the document nowhere states an alternative obligation.

As a result, there appears to be no legal obligation in the United States to practice penance on Friday, but Friday remains a day on which the bishops have urged all to do penance and, in particular, recommended the continued practice of abstinence.

There is also a dog that didn’t bark in this text.

The bishops were so concerned to avoid the impression that they were eliminating the practice of penance that, if they were creating an alternative obligation, then they could not have failed to underscore this point.

It would have been a crushing rejoinder to their potential critics if the bishops had said something like “Though we have terminated the obligation to abstain, the faithful are nevertheless bound to perform a penance of their choice on Fridays and thus the Catholic practice of Friday penance remains in place even though the form the penance takes is now left to the determination of the individual.”

The fact that the bishops don’t say this or anything remotely like it indicates that it was not the bishops’ intent to create an alternative obligation. Calling attention to the alternative obligation by stating it would have invalidated the main criticism that the bishops were most concerned to avoid.

The fact that the bishops nowhere state an alternative obligation thus indicates that one does not exist. Legal obligations do not exist if they are not legislated.

Thus we conclude that the American bishops have exercised their competence, later acknowledged by canon 1253 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, to “determine more precisely” the observance of abstinence by restricting the obligation to do it to a few days a year (Ash Wednesday, the non-solemnity Fridays of Lent, and Good Friday—the last being part of the Triduum rather than Lent) and by recommending the continued practice of abstinence and other penances on other Fridays.

In doing so, they did not completely eliminate the legal obligation to do penance on Fridays. They restricted the legal obligation to certain Fridays of the year and replaced it with an exhortation to penance on the remaining Fridays.

When one reads canons 1251 and 1253, it is not obvious that this would be within their competence to do, since the canons speak primarily in terms of the national conference substituting penances. But canon 1253 also says that “the conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as” substituting penances. This means that its ability to “determine more precisely” the observance of abstinence is not limited to substituting something else for it.

Ultimately, the Code means what Rome says it means, and Rome confirmed On Penance and Abstinence, thus making it the law for Latin Catholics in the United States.

For what it is worth, the summary I have offered here regarding penance on typical Fridays also seems to be the understanding indicated in the Canon Law Society of America’s New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law. The commentary on canon 1253 summarizes the U.S. obligations and recommendations without indicating that a legal obligation to do penance continues to exist on typical Fridays of the year.

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