50 years after the U.S. bishops made it optional, year-round Friday abstinence is making a modest comeback — but for many American Catholics it isn’t even a real option, because they’ve never been told it’s still a thing.
“Lent is over. Why bring up meatless Fridays now?”
Yeah. About that…
“Catholics used to eat fish on Fridays instead of meat, but Vatican II changed all that.”
“What’s the point of meatless Fridays? Meat isn’t a luxury these days, and avoiding it for one day isn’t a sacrifice for most people. So why bother?”
Okay, let’s talk about that.
Let’s start at the beginning…
Contrary to common misconception, abstinence from meat on Fridays throughout the year has never been abolished from Roman law. It was not abolished by Vatican II. It was not abolished by Pope Paul VI or Pope St. John Paul II. It was not abolished by the 1983 Code of Canon Law. It remains the universal law of the Latin Church — even if not everyone has to obey it (more on this in a bit).
Per the 1983 Code of Canon Law:
Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.
Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, 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.
Note the reasoning: Penance is not man’s idea, but God’s. God says we must do penance. What sort of penance and when is not specified by the divine law, but as human beings, members of a community, and heirs to a tradition, it behooves us to have forms of penitential observance that bind us together, linking us to one another and to our common past.
One important way we can be united in our penitential practices is by observing common penitential days and seasons. Friday, of course, has always been a day of penance for Christians because Jesus died on a Friday, just as Sunday is the Lord’s Day because Jesus rose on a Sunday.
Every Sunday is like a mini-Easter season, and every Friday is like a mini-Lent in preparation for Sunday. That describes how it’s been throughout Church history, and that’s the way it still is in the universal law of the Latin Church — not to mention the laws of the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, which continue to observe abstinence on Fridays. (Their abstinence also includes Wednesdays, as ours once did…and their abstinence is sterner than ours, excluding fish, dairy, and other animal products).
Although Friday abstinence remains the law of the Latin Church, many national bishops’ conferences — including the U.S. bishops — make exceptions in their jurisdictions, permitting Catholics to choose another form of penance instead.
Fifty years ago, in 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence” in which they declared, among other things:
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.
Strikingly, the phrase “we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin” is relegated to a subordinate clause in a lengthy discourse on a point that has been almost entirely lost on the average Catholic in the pew:
The U.S. bishops, in the very act of abolishing the law of Friday abstinence in their jurisdiction, expressed the “hope” and “expectation” that “the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”
Now, clearly that’s a “hope” and “expectation” that has been overwhelmingly disappointed, and even gone overwhelmingly unheard.
All most American Catholics have known for decades is “No more no meat on Fridays.” Many never got the message that Friday is still a day of penance that they’re still meant to observe in some meaningful way. They certainly haven’t been told “Your pastors, the bishops, hope and expect that Catholics as a community will ordinarily continue to practice Friday abstinence by free choice.”
At least, the bishops hoped and expected that in 1966. What about today? Actually, they still actively encourage it.
For example, in 2012 the U.S. bishops approved a “pastoral strategy” calling the faithful to prayer and sacrifice for life, marriage, and religious liberty. As part of this pastoral strategy, the faithful were encouraged to practice Friday abstention from meat and even fasting, particularly for the intention of the protection of life, marriage, and religious liberty.
The pastoral strategy web page even included a pledge to abstain and fast on Fridays. The online pledge sheet is no longer active, but you can still sign up for a weekly email or text message reminder to fast and abstain from meat on Fridays. (To sign up for the weekly text message, text “FAST” to 55000.)
The call to fast as part of this pastoral strategy is just one example of ongoing support or interest in the idea from the U.S. bishops.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the “pastoral strategy” didn’t really filter down to the faithful. We heard quite a bit about religious liberty in 2012, but little if anything about Friday abstinence or fasting. (In 2012 I was (a) attending a distinctly conservative-leaning parish — the same parish I attend today — and (b) beginning my journey toward the diaconate. If I didn’t hear about Friday abstinence and fasting in 2012, I doubt many Catholics did.)
Four years later — despite this and other signs of renewed interest in the practice (more about this later) — year-round Friday abstinence still isn’t on most Catholics’ radar, even faithful, Mass-going Catholics.
Whatever this or that bishop has written over the years — and some bishops have — most Catholics have never heard a single homily about Friday abstinence. They probably haven’t heard about it in the Catholic press. They’ve never heard Friday abstinence mentioned in any way, except in connection with Lent.
In a word, year-round Friday abstinence isn’t even a realistic option for most Catholics, because no one has ever told them it’s still a thing.
That needs to change. The faithful need to hear that that Friday abstinence is still a thing. In my (admittedly limited) experience, for many faithful Catholics, all they need to willingly embrace Friday abstinence is an invitation to do so.
Of course, an invitation alone isn’t enough. We need to talk about why Friday abstinence still matters, which means talking about why it was abolished for so many Catholics — and why it might be time to bring it back.
On the one hand, yes, times have changed…and the U.S. bishops note in their 1966 pastoral statement that there are reasons why abstaining from meat may no longer have exactly the same significance for most Westerners that it once did.
In the past, abstaining from meat was not so much a substantial sacrifice, like fasting from food in general, as it was eschewing something special. Today, meat is no longer special.
At the same time, for many people it’s not such a staple that abstaining for one day is a sacrifice. Or is it?
Over 10 percent of Americans are vegetarians or vegans … at some point in their lives. Most, though, eventually go back to eating meat — and many people who call themselves “vegetarians” cheat more often than you’d think. Let’s not kid ourselves, bacon cheeseburgers are tasty!
For the few who are vegetarians or vegans, obviously Friday penance would have to take a form other than abtaining from meat. Still, meatless Fridays would make a real difference in most people’s lives. Yes, times have changed…
…but on the other hand there are still meaningful reasons to observe Friday abstinence from meat. The U.S. bishops note some reasons in their document. By abstaining from meat on Fridays, in the first place, we
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.
In other words, it is fitting that Catholics should continue to abstain from meat on Fridays simply because doing so was an integral part of Catholic piety and identity for nearly all of the past two millennia.
Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, still observe abstinence on Fridays (and on Wednesdays, as Catholics once did — and their abstinence is sterner than ours, excluding fish, dairy, and other animal products).
In anti-Catholic times, on the modest end of the spectrum, Catholics were mocked for avoiding meat, for example with slurs like “fish-eaters” or “mackerel snappers” that Catholics have claimed as badges of honor.
For this and other reasons, by avoiding meat on Fridays, we remind ourselves that we are part of something bigger than our own cultural moment.
The bishops also offer a second reason:
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.
Avoiding meat on Friday mattered simply because it made us different. It’s something we do, other than going to Mass on Sundays, that marks us as Catholic — and this is beneficial both to us and to those around us.
Very often in the past the injunction to abstain from meat on Fridays was thought of as a positive injunction to eat fish. If you were out for lunch with friends from work on a Friday and someone ordered the fish sandwich, it was a good bet they were Catholic.
That fish sandwich meant something. Not always, of course, and not for everyone. Obviously it was and is possible to violate the spirit of the discipline by ordering the lobster, or some other fish delicacy. Conversely, there have always been those who don’t eat that much meat anyway, and barely notice a day without it.
But often enough, and for many people, fish on Fridays was a small but meaningful weekly reminder of one’s religious identity: a concrete way in which one’s heritage impacted one’s life. It was a small sacrifice; just as importantly, it was a small obedience. To obey simply because it’s the rule, even in those cases where the sacrifice in itself might not otherwise be meaningful to you personally, has a meaning of its own.
It was also potentially a silent witness to others. While sometimes attracting derision, the Catholic practice has also won admiration and respect. Either way, people notice. (A friend on social media tells me that she always observes Friday abstinence in part because her family is Protestant, and even if she forgets, “they always remember.”)
Just as importantly, when you ate that fish sandwich, you knew countless other Catholics were eschewing meat (and/or eating fish) just like you, as they had done basically forever. The shared cost of membership fosters a sense of belonging, of connection to others. It’s a way of telling yourself and others: This is our thing. These are my people. This is what we do. This is part of what makes us Catholic. (The same principle applies in other religious traditions: keeping kosher; praying five times daily facing Mecca; etc.)
Nobody asked me what I think, but for what it’s worth, in retrospect, I think these considerations alone were more than sufficient to warrant the law of Friday abstinence. I believe the abolition of year-round Friday abstinence has been devastating to Catholic cultural identity, to the penitential character of Friday, and to the broader practice of penance in general.
The bishops’ stated intentions were “far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday”; on the contrary, they were “motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays.”
If so, it was — there’s no sugar-coating it — an utter failure. The spirit of penance, especially on Fridays, was not revitalized, it was decimated. For most Catholics, even churchgoing Catholics, Friday is no different from any other day, and hasn’t been for decades.
And it wasn’t an isolated failure. It goes beyond the scope of this essay, but abolition of Friday abstinence was part of a broader program of weakening and abolishing traditional Catholic ascesis, from the one-hour Eucharistic “fast” to the two pitiful days out of the year designated as “fast” days, i.e., Ash Wednesday and Good Friday — during which Catholics can still eat three times a day!
In the past, all the Fridays of Lent — not just Good Friday — were days not only of abstinence but of fasting, and for the six weeks of Lent meat was off the menu all week long, not just on Fridays. Eggs and dairy, too, were prohibited during Lent. (Think about it: Easter eggs meant something if you hadn’t been eating eggs through Lent!)
That’s probably way too austere for most of us today, especially all at once, and I don’t want to frighten anyone. In any case, the last two paragraphs is fodder for another discussion on another day.
It’s important to note that interest in Friday abstinence didn’t die in 1966. Some points to note in this regard:
- In 1995 Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore encouraged Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays in preparation for the visit of Pope John Paul II.
- In 2009 Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, then of the Diocese of Steubenville, encouraged all Catholics of his diocese to resume abstaining from meat on all Fridays as a form of pro-life witness and penance.
- In 2011 the bishops of England and Wales restored meatless Fridays for the faithful of their jurisdictions.
- Responding to the restoration of Friday abstinence in England and Wales, in 2011 Cardinal Timothy Dolan published a reflection on the value of external markers of religious identity, wondering whether Catholics “threw out the baby with the bathwater” and whether the English bishops were “on to something.”
- In 2012 Cardinal Dolan, then president of the USCCB, invited the nation’s bishops to reflect on “re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.”
- Later in 2012 came the USCCB “pastoral strategy” noted above, which included recommending fasting as well as abstinence on Fridays. Since then, the USCCB has published weekly prayer intentions for Friday abstinence and fasting. As mentioned above, you can get these via email or text message.
- In 2013 Bishop Edward Weisenburger of the Diocese of Salina, Kansas asked the faithful in his diocese to reembrace year-round Friday abstinence.
- In 2014 several Australian bishops indicated their support for reestablishing year-round Friday abstinence in Australia.
- In 2015 Bishop Early Boyea of Lansing raised the topic of year-round Friday abstinence, alluding to the collapse of Friday penance in general and referring to an increased desire among the faithful for the restoration of Friday abstinence.
- Also in 2015, Bishop Glen John Provost of Lake Charles, Louisiana wrote a pastoral letter asking for a “renewal of the sense of Fridays” as a day of penance and highlighting abstinence from meat as a form of penance encouraged in canon law “to this day.”
If anyone knows of any other individual bishops who have advocated Friday abstinence for their flocks, let me know and I’ll add them to this list.
In addition to the above, over the last several years I’ve noticed a number of Catholic writers and bloggers have increasingly been broaching the topic. Just yesterday, while I was writing this post, Aleteia ran a short piece on the subject. (Read more, more, more, and more.)
Finally, some closing thoughts:
- The crucial point that Friday is a day of penance. Don’t let it be just like any other day. Whether or not you choose to abstain from meat — and I heartily recommend that you do — do something. Consider doing more than abstaining: consider fasting every Friday. Or perhaps do without your evening beer or glass of wine. If you’re a vegan and a teetotaler, that still doesn’t get you off the hook! Find something. It could be something positive: Pray the Liturgy of the Hours or the rosary if you don’t already do it every day, or do some extra spiritual reading.
- Whatever you do, do it in a prayerful, penitential, Christian spirit. Do it to honor God, to remember Christ’s crucifixion, to discipline your appetites, to obey the Church, to express solidarity with your fellow Christians living and dead, and to prepare for Sunday Mass. (If you feel yourself weakening sometime in the afternoon, remember that it was in mid-afternoon that Christ died, and stay strong.)
- Don’t make avoiding meat the be-all and end-all. For example, avoid whatever would be a special indulgence for you. Make it meaningful to you. There is literally nothing in this world I enjoy eating more than really good sushi. Since I typically eat sushi once or twice a month, it’s definitely a special indulgence for me. It’s fish, but for me it’s contrary to the spirit of Friday penance, so I should probably avoid sushi on Fridays. The same would go for other fish delicacies. For that matter, if pizza is your favorite food in the world, maybe don’t do pizza on Fridays.
- Don’t complain about your penances, voluntary or otherwise. Every year those of us who don’t give up social media for Lent experience the special treat of certain Catholics who find it necessary to moan and groan every Friday about the intolerable burden of going without their bacon cheeseburgers for an entire day at a time. A certain amount of this in the right spirit can be funny and human; more often it’s unattractive and lame, and contrary to the Christian spirit of ascesis given by our Lord.
- Spread the word. Like I said, many faithful Catholics are entirely willing to embrace Friday abstinence if someone invites them to do so. This is a delicate business because you don’t want to go around loudly proclaiming your own spiritual disciplines to the world; here, too, we are constrained by our Lord’s words. There’s a right way and a wrong way to share with others what’s been helpful to you. Look for the right ways. (If you found this article or any of the articles linked above helpful, consider sharing them with others.)
- There’s nothing wrong with respectfully asking your priest or deacon if he would consider preaching about Friday as a day of penance, and perhaps even recommend Friday abstinence.
- Don’t judge others on what they do or don’t do. Whether or not Friday abstinence should be binding, the bottom line is that it isn’t. We can recommend it, and I do recommend, but we can’t and shouldn’t try to make it quasi-mandatory.