Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger

by Fr. Christian Mathis on September 16, 2011

The recent decision by the bishops of England and Wales to return to the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays might be a bit confusing to those who believed this practice was abolished after the Second Vatican Council. The truth is this penitential practice has remained a part of our Catholic tradition. Here is how the current code of canon law reads.

Canon 1250  All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.

Canon 1251  Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In addition, however, the code gives the bishops of each country permission to substitute other forms of penance if they believe it will be of benefit to the faithful.

Can. 1253  It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

This change in practice in countries like England and the United States was based upon the 1966 document by Pope Paul VI entitled Paenitemini, which was intended to both define the rules for fasting and abstinence and to explain its spiritual benefits.

It is unfortunate that many Catholics have apparently misheard what our bishops have said and rather than substituting works of charity or prayer in place of abstaining from meat on Fridays, have simply dropped the practice altogether. I often think Pope Paul VI may have made a mistake on this one and wonder what would have happened if instead of allowing for a substitution, he were to have called for the addition of increased prayer and works of charity on Fridays.

I would like to share five reasons I agree with bishops of England and Wales on the restoration of this practice.

1. Fasting and abstinence are penitential. Fridays above all else for Christians are days when we recall the passion and death of our savior Jesus Christ. Having a physical reminder throughout the day of this is a powerful way to remind ourselves of the forgiveness attained for us through the cross. Participating in some form of penance on this day unites us more closely to Christ himself.

2. Fasting and abstinence increase our discipline. The dean of students at the Catholic high school where I once served as Spiritual Director liked to remind the students that the words disciple and discipline are closely related. Those who wish to be followers of Christ need discipline in order to be successful.  If we are unable to exercise control over our body, how much more difficult will it be to control our spirit when we are tempted to fix our eyes on things other than Christ?

3. Fasting and abstinence lead to purification. You are what you eat. Fasting and abstinence allow us to do outwardly what we are attempting as Christians to do inwardly. We should be continually seeking greater purity within ourselves, so as to allow more and more room for God. Fasting is a way of reminding ourselves that when we take in less of the things of this world, there is more space for the things of the next. It might also remind us that it is not only the things that we take in through our mouths, but also through our eyes, ears and other senses that can do harm to our souls.

4. Fasting and abstinence remind us we are not alone. Meatless Fridays can be a powerful reminder of the communal nature of our faith. We are not individual Christians but the unified Body of Christ. Having a common outward sign of penance and preparation for the Lord’s Day can strengthen our ability to live the faith when we see others are trying to do the same. We are all constantly being tempted to give up. Knowing that others are also being tested, but choose to continue on the journey towards God can give us encouragement in times of weakness.

5. Fasting and abstinence allow us to give witness to our Catholic faith. Fridays of Lent were always interesting as a child growing up in the predominantly Baptist South. Non-Catholic friends always questioned why I wasn’t eating meat. Those conversations provided many opportunities to speak about our faith to those unfamiliar with it. How many more opportunities would there have been if I had been abstaining every Friday? Restoring this simple practice could be a huge help to evangelization.

Whether or not our bishops will decide to follow the lead of their brothers in England and Wales is yet to be seen, but I for one hope they will at least consider doing so. If they do, many Catholics will make the charge that we are simply going backwards, becoming more legalistic and abandoning the “spirit” of Vatican II. My own experience tells me that sometimes backtracking isn’t all bad, especially if there is a path that leads to a richer and fuller practice of our faith.

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  • Anonymous

    I hope our bishops will follow the example of those in England and Wales.  Often I need externals imposed on me to motivate me to do the right thing or to go above and beyond.  That’s my weakness, though.  Maybe others do better without that.

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    Even if our bishops do not follow suit, here is a quote from them when they made the change in 1966 that expresses more clearly what they intended.

    “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.”

    It seems the intent was to get away from the reliance on fear of sin as the driving force in the practice. I can certainly agree with that. Having said this, I still think this is a case where having a set standard would be beneficial.

  • Father J.B. Shelton

    Before we go back to the simplistic discipline (which certainly had its merits), I suggest we really need to give Paul VI’s directives and the US bishops’ specifications a serious try first, which we have not yet done.  These shepherds were inviting Catholics into a ”grown-up” approach to faith, one motivated by the passion of Christ and directed towards the needy.  This approach is harder to teach and practice than a straight-forward rule, but it corresponds better to the realities of a world that is very hard on the needy.  

  • Father J.B. Shelton

    BTW, despite what the US bishops said, Pope Paul VI said that the “substantial observance” of penitential days and times “binds gravely” (ch. III, no. ii). Was he not defining Friday and Lenten penance, in whatever form, as grave matter?  Just curious.

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    I agree that they were calling for a more mature faith. They may have been calling for it without having prepared the people to receive it.

  • Father J.B. Shelton

    Sorry for so many comments, but another priest serving in the Diocese of Knoxville is also discussing this on his blog:

  • Father J.B. Shelton

    You mightn’t know that you don’t know that this blog is nominated for a Bloggers Choice Award. 

  • Anonymous

    Like I said, I need that (?) fear factor.  In fact, I do attempt meatless Fridays, but if I forget, I don’t sweat it.  But the truth is, I don’t find meatlessness to be all that penitential.  Fasting is another story.  That, to me, is really difficult.  I always look forward to its being over and done with.  I never have understood the value of fasting.  I definitely do it when and because the Church demands it.  Although, now I’m beyond the age when it’s required.

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    Thanks for the heads up Fr. Brent!

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    I learn new things every day!

  • mgalbaugh

    In addition to Tuesday & Thursdays, I intend to lead sung Evening Prayer on Fridays, as well.  The Friday Psalms give me great consolation & joy.

  • Fr. Christian Mathis

    sounds like a plan.

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