For many Catholics, especially in the US, the practice of abstaining from meat on all Fridays of the year has been relegated to pre-Vatican II Catholicism. They assume that the obligation has been done away with and so is no longer binding upon them. But an examination of the Code of Canon Law presents a different, although nuanced picture, of our obligations. Because this is a source of confusion for many in the Church, it is instructive for us to examine exactly what the Church law says about abstinence.
To begin, it is important that we remind ourselves that the law of God commands that man does penance. The first words out of Our Lord’s mouth when He began His public ministry were to “repent (literally “do penance”) and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). This followed a long Scriptural tradition commanding acts of penance (c.f. Jer 18:11, 25:5; Ez 18:30, 33:11-15; Joel 2:12). While, Scripture does not enunciate all the ways we might practice penance, it is commonly spoken of in terms of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Jesus addresses the penitential spirit in which each of these acts is to be performed in a number of places (c.f. Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) and commands that His followers to fast once He departed (c.f. Luke 5:35). So in practice, we are all obligated to perform acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
There is another important, although somewhat obvious, point that needs to be made. To fail to perform any of the Lord’s Commandments is objectively sinful. This means that when we fail to practice penance, we increase our guilt. Why this is important for the discussion at hand will become obvious in a moment.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law says the following:
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…
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…
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.
Notice how the language may have changed, previously the Church had spoken of the “law of abstinence” being binding “under the pain of sin” but that the principle remains the same—all Christians are bound to do penance. Just because there is no mention of the “pain of sin”, does not mean that it is still not sinful to omit penitential practice. That is assumed. What has changed however is that the Church has sought to adapt this teaching to her universality. Abstaining from meat does not have the same sacrificial weight upon all. There are areas of the world where they do not have much meat at all and so to abstain from meat is no sacrifice. Likewise in places where meat is found in abundance, abstaining on one day represents little more than an inconvenience. This is why the Church has left it to the individual Bishop Conferences to decide how best to practice the penitential days given the economic and social conditions of their region.
Why not just leave it up to the individual? Why should we have any law at all? The Church, because she has binding and loosing authority, has sought to make it easier for the faithful to fulfill this obligation. By setting aside a specific day of the week and a specific practice, it becomes an easy way to cultivate the virtue of Penance. As St. Thomas says, all laws ought to have as their end to cultivate virtue so that these particular laws when followed will lead to virtue.
So what exactly is the law in the United States? In 1966, the National Conference of Bishops in the United States issued a document called the Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. In this document they removed the obligation of abstinence saying:
Every Catholic Christian understands that the fast and abstinence regulations admit of change, unlike the commandments and precepts of that unchanging divine moral law which the Church must today and always defend as immutable. This said, we emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence,except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that “no”scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience,confessions, or personal decisions on this point. (number 26, emphasis added)
The point is that they recognized that times had changed and “abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential” (No. 20). Ever concerned for the spiritual health of the flock, they recognized that Penance that represented such a small sacrifice, becomes little more than following a law. The penitential spirit that ought to accompany the sacrifice was endangered and so they raised the bar.
Unfortunately, many only saw the abrogation, but missed the most important point. “[l]et it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance” (No. 28). In other words, the removal of the obligation for abstinence was meant to invite Catholics into a deeper spirit of penance. It was not meant to remove the binding necessity for doing Penance on Fridays. But in most cases, the reverse happened and now confusion reigns. Instead of accepting the Bishops’ invitation to undertake abstinence freely, most have omitted Friday penitential acts completely thinking that there is no binding obligation on them.
Although the ecclesiastical laws throughout time have changed, the Church has sought to use her laws to make our obedience to the Divine laws of penance easier. Still the requirement remains, namely: “unless you do penance, you shall likewise perish” (Lk 13:5). Although no longer required, Friday abstinence is still a salutary and recommended practice. Therefore, in this month dedicated to fostering our love to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, let us take to heart the need to do penance and heed the Church’s instructions on these most pleasing acts. Strive to make this Friday and all Fridays days of Penance offered to Our Lord to ease His suffering and to share more fully in His love of the Father.