Bishops Re-Establish Friday Abstinence from Meat
On May 14th the bishops of England and Wales announced that they are re-establishing the requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays.
As Bishop Christopher Budd (who was our bishop at that time) explained in his Ad clerum of July 2011, this is now a matter of “precept”, i.e. a legally established moral obligation.
Why are the bishops of England and Wales re-establishing abstaining from meat on Fridays?
The bishops have given 3 reasons:
(1) First, Catholic identity. By all doing the same penance, even if it is a small penance, we are doing something together and establishing a common identity. The bishops “recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve” and that this will give Catholics “a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity”.
(2) Secondly, witness. This practice will be a “common witness” to our secular world about what we Catholics believe and practice, namely, the value of self-denial and of union with Christ on the Cross.
(3) Thirdly, and most importantly, this will help increase our general awareness of the importance of doing penance, especially Friday penance. In this regard it’s important to note that abstaining from meat is the minimum we are being called to do. All of the other voluntary Friday penances that were previously recommended to us are still things for us to consider (in addition): abstaining from chocolate, or a dessert, or TV etc. Or, the type of penance involved in sacrificing our spare time to help others. Or, adding additional prayer to our Friday routine. In Lent we die and rise with Christ by our self-denial in ‘giving things up for Lent’. Friday penance carries some of this spirit and some of this benefit into the rest of the year.
Why the reversal?
After a quarter of a century of experiencing the effect of permitting us to eat meat on Fridays it seems that the bishops feel that the effect wasn’t what they intended: they didn’t intend the loss of Catholic identity and witness, and, more directly, they didn’t intend the change to be misinterpreted in the way that many of us did: many of us took the permission to eat meat on Fridays as a sign that we no longer needed to do any penance at all on Fridays, whereas, the intention was that we should all choose a variety of different penances but still do penance. Now, we have a basic penance of not eating meat that is required of us and we can choose additional penances as is suitable.
What will this mean for us in practice?
Not eating meat on Fridays will involve a significant shift in many of our habits. For one thing, we’ll have to plan to have non-meat food in the house for Fridays, i.e. a vegetarian option or fish. Also, if you’re being invited to dinner at a friend’s house on a Friday you’ll need to say that you’ll need a non-meat dish (this is something that vegetarians have to do all the time). Similarly, at public gatherings like buffets, there may well be occasions when we find that a non-meat dish isn’t provided and we’ll have to do the penance of just have more vegetables etc.
Does the Church really have the right to impose a law on us?
In our modern world we’re often used to thinking that no-one has the right to tell us what to do. However, by being Catholics we’re buying into a different way of thinking. Or course, any society has rules that organise its members, for their good and for the common good of the society. In the Church, the source of authority comes from Jesus Christ who appointed St Peter and the Apostles saying, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”(Mt 16:19; 18:18), and, “He who hears you hears me; he who rejects you rejects me”(Lk 10:16). Thus, the apostles (and their successors the bishops) made laws, and in the early Church, we can read a First Century record of how such laws included the requirement for the early Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (The Didache 8).
What exactly does the new law require?
As of Friday 16th September 2011 Catholics in England and Wales will be required to abstain from meat on Fridays. This means we will be re-joining the normative practice of the universal Church law (c.f. Paenitemini, III.III.1). The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat (of mammals and birds). However, eggs, milk products, fish, shell fish, and all other cold blooded animals may be eaten, e.g. snails. Similarly, small quantities of condiments (i.e. flavourings) made from animal fat may be eaten, as may meat broth, gelatine made from animal products, and meat extracts that have lost the taste of meat. (It would seem obvious that a thick meat soup with large chunks of meat would move from the category of broth to that of forbidden meat.)
The law of abstinence binds those who are 14 and older (Canon 1252)-unlike the law of fasting there is no upper age limit when the law of abstinence ceases to apply.
The seriousness of the Christian obligation to do penance is such that the Church teaches that disobeying this now re-established precept is a grave matter, i.e. a matter of mortal sin (Paenitemini, III.II.1).
What counts as ‘meat’?
Many of us have forgotten how meat is defined with respect to abstinence. A simple summary of how theologians and the Church authorities have specificed this is viewable at this post: "Friday Abstinence: What counts as 'meat'?"
Breaking the Law of Abstinence is a Mortal Sin
The seriousness of the Christian obligation to do penance is such that the Church teaches that disobeying this now re-established precept is a grave matter, i.e. failure to make "substantial observance" of this law is not only a sin but is a mortal sin (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, III.II.1).
A post describing this matter is more detail is viewable at this post: "Friday Abstinence and Mortal Sin"
Friday Abstinence: Dispensations
A blog post describing how your parish priest can dispense you, for a just cause, from the obligation is viewable at this post: "Friday Abstinence: Dispensations"
Which Fridays are Exempt?
The law of abstinence applies to all Fridays except when that Friday is also a 'solemnity' (i.e. a particular type of feast day) (Canon 1251). On such solemnities our Faith calls on us to celebrate in a manner that supersedes the usual call to Friday penance. In England and Wales the following are solemnities and if they fall on a Friday in any particular year then they supersede the Friday absence law:
Jan 1 (Mother of God),
March 19 (St Joseph),
March 25 (Annunciation),
April 23 (St George),
The Friday in the Octave of Easter (i.e. the Friday following Easter),
Sacred Heart (the Friday following Corpus Christi Sunday)
June 24 (St John the Baptist),
June 29 (St Peter & St Paul),
Aug 15 (Assumption),
Nov 1 (All Saints),
Dec 8 (Immaculate Conception),
Dec 25 (Christmas),
& the Friday in the octave of Christmas (i.e. the Friday following Christmas).
A spokesperson for the Bishops' Conference of England & Wales made the clarification about Fridays in the Christmas Octave in December 2014, saying that it is “contrary to the mentality of what an octave is to consider one of its days as penitential.”
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales
Plenary Resolutions, Spring 2011
The Bishops of England and Wales have met to discuss their priorities for the next 3-5 years. At an announcement at the end of their bi-annual meeting in Leeds from the 9-12 May the bishops outlined their resolutions for the next few years including stating the desire to re-establish the practice of Friday penance by giving up meat on Fridays.
The resolutions are outlined below:
Catholic Witness - Friday Penance
By the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.
Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord. The law of the Church requires Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, or some other form of food, or to observe some other form of penance laid down by the Bishops' Conference.
The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.
Respectful of this, and in accordance with the mind of the whole Church, the Bishops' Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake. This is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.
Many may wish to go beyond this simple act of common witness and mark each Friday with a time of prayer and further self-sacrifice. In all these ways we unite our sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ, who gave up his very life for our salvation.
From “Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Plenary Resolutions, Spring 2011” http://www.rcdow.org.uk/diocese/default.asp?library_ref=4&content_ref=3355 accessed 14/5/11