Dear Parishioners, +JMJ
From time to time throughout my priesthood I have had parishioners ask me if the law of abstinence from meat on Fridays still applies. Many of them heard that it no longer applies, since Vatican II. But, in fact, that is a mistaken notion. (Once more post-Vatican II confusion!!) The law of abstinence never really changed with Vatican II. Below are all the canons regarding penitential days and abstinence in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. I actually checked out the code of 1917 as well, since that was the last Code for the Church. But very little changed from the 1917 to 1983. Perhaps the only difference is that 1983 Code allows national bishops’ conferences (e.g., the USCCB, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) to determine some other suitabile penance for Fridays, to replace the universal norm of avoiding meat on Fridays. I really am not sure why there is such widespread confusion about this. Although I admit that we never practiced it growing up…. probably because there was confusion in my family household as well! (The underlining in quotes below is mine.)
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 eating meat or some other food according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops is to be observed on every Friday of the year unless a Friday occurs on a day listed as a solemnity. Abstinence and fasting, however, are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
can. 1252† The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year of age. The law of fasting, however, binds all those who have attained their majority until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors of souls and parents are to take care that minors not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are also educated in a genuine sense of penance.
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.
Our United States Bishops’ conference has not determined another form of penance for Fridays, so abstinence from meat it is. You can imagine that the Code of Canon Law’s permission for a national bishops’ conference makes total sense, because there are some cultures where meat is hardly eaten; so abstinence from meat as a sacrifice would not make sense. But in our culture, meat is eaten plenty. So the abstinence from meat on Fridays has not been altered by our United States Bishops’ conference. You and I should be trying every Friday of the year to avoid meat. In Lent the requirement to avoid meat is just intensified.
That being said, if you were to be invited to a home, or participate in an event, where there were no other options than meat, and you don’t want to walk away hungry for the evening…. then, I would counsel you to find some other sacrifice, rather than imposing on your hosts. I trust the Lord would accept this act of charity on your part. The reason for this is to accept Fridays as a day of penance each week. Why Fridays? Because Jesus sacrificed Himself, taking on the great penance, on Fridays. So, every week we are remembering his sacrifice for us.
I have had some people say to me that they love fish, so this is no sacrifice. No problem! Hopefully entering into the requirement can still make you think of Jesus’ sacrifice. That is still useful. And, you could always add something that is more painful on Fridays, as part of your personal piety!
Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,