One of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s masterpieces (pictured above) is “The Fight between Carnival and Lent.” In the painting, the contending pulls of the village church and village inn are apparent. If you want to gauge how the cross-currents between Catholicism and secularism ebb and flow, you might look no further than Wednesday, Feb. 14. 

Feb. 14 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It is also St. Valentine’s Day.

Ash Wednesday is one of the two days in the Church calendar requiring fast and abstinence. Valentine’s Day, as celebrated in the United States, is generally not associated with temperance.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Valentine’s Day was a lot more innocent back then. A school kid might think about to whom to slip a crudely cutout red construction paper heart. Whitman’s offered little heart-shaped Valentine’s chocolate boxes. Adults might go out to a special dinner. Somebody usually mentioned something about traditions associated with the martyr, Valentine.

Few folks today ever refer to Feb. 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day. One barometer of the sexualization of Valentine’s Day is that it has become the target period to release date the next “Fifty Shades” film series. Adult parties, particularly “costume parties,” feature progressively less costume, sharing more in common with the scantily-clad youth whom Plutarch describes running through Rome on Lupercalia, the pagan forerunner of a mid-February feast.

I reflected on the tension between Catholicism and secularization earlier this year, when I discussed the peculiar confluence of events that occasionally strips Jan. 1 of its status as a holy day of obligation. The Feast of Mary, Mother of God, the Octave Day of Christmas, is a feast of precept in the United States except when it falls on a Saturday or Monday. This year, Jan. 1 was not a canonically binding holy day of obligation in the United States (although Christmas, a week earlier and also on Monday, was). The “Saturday/Monday” exception was part of an ongoing set of compromises that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops worked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when one party sought to minimize most holy days of obligation in the United States, while the other thought there had been adequate concession to secularism and that something distinctive of Catholic practice should remain. Another trace of that controversy was the fact that the Feast of the Ascension falls on different dates in different ecclesiastical provinces of the United States.

A similar issue arises every few years when March 17, which will always be in Lent, falls on a Friday. As a Lenten Friday, it is a day of abstinence. As St. Patrick’s Day, American Irish and Irish wanna-be’s will necessarily want to drink green beer and down corned beef and cabbage. The Archdiocese of New York regularly dispenses from the abstinence obligation, which is at least arguable, given that St. Patrick is the diocesan feast. Dispensation seems less justified in other places, where the cathedral is not named after Ireland’s great saint. One suspects, however, that it is also a practical pastoral concession: after 256 years of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York and big Irish populations in places like Boston, the Church probably understands that, given ecclesiastical discipline versus cultural tradition, the latter would prevail. But that’s exactly the point: to what extent has our Catholicism come to accommodate secular practices because, when push comes to shove, Western Catholics are more prone to practice the secular? 

So I was wondering what I would hear about the clash between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day.

Well, in the United States, I’ve heard mostly crickets. Few, if any, commentators have addressed the confluence. Even those columns in diocesan papers that answer questions from readers about being Catholic have not been particularly disturbed by whether consuming that Whitman’s Sampler breaks the fast, or whether one’s resolution to give up candy for Lent can get a delayed implementation.

Germany, whose local church I always expect to be ready to accommodate to bourgeois practices at the expense of Catholic identity, did not let me down. The Archdiocese of Munich, for example, has a whole website page of what parishes where in the city will have special concerts and blessing ceremonies for “couples.” (One would traditionally hope that “couples,” in Catholic usage, would mean marrieds or at least men and women thinking seriously about whether their love will grow into marriage but, given recent statements by Bishop Bode and Cardinal Marx as well as Germany’s new Ehe fuer alle (marriage for everybody) law, that hope may be ungrounded.) Here is how the archdiocesan website describes one service: “On Wednesday, Feb. 14—which is at the same time Ash Wednesday—there will be at 7 p.m. service in St. Ursula’s Parish Church, Schwabing (Kaiserplatz 1) with imposition of ashes and personal blessings of lovers….” Having lived three years in Switzerland and attended German expatriate parishes elsewhere abroad, I have always found it interesting that contemporary German Sunday Masses often reduce the three Biblical readings to two (even though Germany is the homeland of “Biblical” Protestantism!) while “singen wir zusammen” (let’s sing together) often fills in that space. By the way, a “service” such as St. Ursula’s mentions above is not necessarily a Mass, an interesting perspective on priorities at the beginning of Lent.

In Poland, of course, things are a lot clearer. A number of diocesan papers have been addressing the overlay of Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day, and the practically universal guidance is (a) Valentine’s Day (at least as celebrated today) is not part of Polish religious or cultural tradition, but Lent is (b) Lent is a time of denial, sacrifice not for its own sake, but for the sake of love.

Yes, Polish pastoral guidance does not just end with “suck it up, it’s Lent,” but in fact takes cognizance of the values in Valentine’s Day and raises the conversation a step further. There is no real love without sacrifice. Love demands giving up for the sake of the beloved. The greatest giving up, the highest self-abnegation, is giving up of self, the surrender of the “I.” But true love, which regards the good of the beloved as my own, presupposes that.

That said, I’d suggest that there is even a place on Valentine’s-Day-Ash-Wednesday, in a society that often treats this “day of love” in a highly sexualized way, as an opportunity to discuss contraception and natural family planning. This year is the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, and I fear that golden jubilee will likely be met by the Church in the United States with the same crickets that I noted above. (Dissident theologians, however, are likely to be rather vocal.) But natural family planning is more than just self-denial or periodic abstinence. As the late Bishop James McHugh, who was once in charge of the American Church’s pro-life activities, was wont to note: natural family planning (NFP) is first and foremost a virtue, a way of life, and only subsequently a technique. NFP can also be abused if it is treated as “Catholic contraception,” i.e., if a husband and wife bring an anti-life motivation to their practice of NFP. NFP starts first and foremost with perspective: God is Lord and Giver of Life and so, although in our judgment we do not think this is the appropriate moment for us to share in that great good and gift of life (and so we abstain from conjugal intercourse), God remains the one who decides when life is given — and our attitude to the good of life is to treat it as a good to be respected, not a “temporary bad to be avoided by some technique.”

Helping Catholics understand THAT kind of self-denial in the name of love would be, I suggest, far more useful than parsing whether they should eat those cherry-filled chocolates on Feb. 14 or droning on with the chancery’s annual notice about days of fast and abstinence.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day!