Meating the Church's Requirements

By Marc Massery

Do you eat meat on Fridays? Saint Faustina didn’t. When writing about the religious order she hoped to one day establish, she said that they wouldn’t eat meat at all. She wrote, “Our meals shall be such that not even the poor will have any reason to envy us” (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 546).

So, it should come as no surprise that St. Faustina abstained from meat on Fridays. In fact, that was Canon Law for all Catholics at the time. Since then, however, Canon Law has permitted many of us to choose another penance on Fridays outside of Lent in place of abstaining from meat. The Code of Canon Law says:

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 (1253).

In 1966, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued its Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence that explains the change in policy. The USCCB says: 

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 (19).

The practice of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent remains. As mentioned, the substitution only applies to Fridays outside of Lent. Now, by this change, the Church is emphasizing the importance of penance and self-discipline, not diminishing it. They go on to say:

Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential. (Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinance, 20)

For some of us, it’s not hard to give up meat on Fridays, and we would be better off spiritually performing some other form of penance or act of charity, such as giving up television, praying an extra Rosary, or volunteering to help the needy. Whatever we choose, the goal is to treat Friday as “something of what Lent is in the entire year” (Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinance, 23).

Though we can choose a different penance on Fridays, the USCCB still values the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays and “give[s] first place to abstinence from flesh meat” (24). As the USCCB acknowledges, abstaining from meat on Fridays connects us in a spiritual way to the millions of Catholics who didn’t eat meat on Fridays for hundreds of years.

Now, treating Fridays as a day of sacrifice and doing some form of penance isn’t optional for Catholics. It’s actually one of the five precepts of the Church. In other words, if you want to do the bare minimum that Catholics are called to, you need to do some form of penance on Fridays. In case you’re wondering, the other precepts of the Church include attending Mass on Sunday, going to Confession once per year, receiving the Eucharist during the Easter season, and supporting the Church financially (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2042).

If you’re already doing penance consistently on Fridays outside of Lent, then good for you. You are choosing, in a small way, to “suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him” (Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinance, 18). Unfortunately, the change in Canon Law allowing us to choose another penance has led to some Catholics forgetting to do a Friday penance altogether. Some Catholics don’t seem to know that doing penance on Fridays is still a precept of the Church. So, spread the word to your Catholic family and friends.

Photo by José Ignacio Pompé on Unsplash

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