Most Catholics in America know that you are not allowed to eat meat on Fridays of Lent. Even so-called bad Catholics know this! To take it a step further (or rather back), every now and then I talk to an “old timer” who recalls the days of Latin Masses, nuns in Catholic school, and fasting every* Friday of the year. [*almost every Friday – not including solemnities 🙂 ]

What the heck? When did that change?

The short answer: the (United States) National Conference of Catholic Bishops on November 18, 1966 amended the rule binding Catholics to fast every Friday (with the exception of Solemnities):

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. (Paragraph 26, Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence)

Unfortunately, for the last 52 years since this document was published, the Catholic Church in America has done an incredibly poor job of explaining the rest of the letter. So…..what is in the letter? Why did American bishops decide to alter the rule?

Let’s start at the beginning (of the document). The bishops open by explaining that although there may be a need to change the way penances are done as times change, there will always be a need for penance as we are in need of “conversion and salvation” (2). There is some talk about the seasons of the Church (Lent, Advent, etc) which we won’t get into, but finally we get to paragraphs 18-28, the subject at hand.

It continues to describe how “Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ”. Catholics are not fasting because it is a mere rule that the Church wants to force us to do for fun. No! It is because we remember Friday as the day Jesus died – a day holy and sacred.

This being in mind, the bishops comment that perhaps giving up meat every Friday (the current rule at the time) is not appropriate anymore. I will let them talk:

Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.

For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died,urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.

Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, 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.

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

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. (19,21-24a)

Did you read what I read? The fuller picture is this: although Catholics are not longer mandated to fast from the fleshy meat on Fridays of the year, we are still required to make the day a day of penance in one way or another. I went to Catholic school my entire life and was never taught this!

We have our answer. With the flexibility that the bishops have given us, it is required that we actively choose a fast on Fridays of the year. Amidst this flexibility, the bishops have given “first place to abstinence from flesh meat” (24). It still isn’t too clear to me of why the bishops decided that the meat fast was too much. Perhaps there wasn’t much of a choice. I recall many Fridays while I served as a Christ in the City missionary (with the poor – all our food was donated) when our choices of what to eat were quite limited and to give up eating meat for the day would be seriously difficult! So we would find other ways of doing a little penance that was more practical. To be explicit, I am of course not saying we all need to leave right now and hide the meat so we don’t see it on Friday because we like the rules. What we instead need to do is find a small way to live out a small little penance on Fridays. Perhaps a rosary, or even visiting the poor, could be your way of entering into the spirit of the bishops’ letter. I hope you attempt to engage with the penitential Friday and be surprised at what you find.

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