Q. Is it still required to abstain from meat on all the Fridays of the year? I was in Minnesota and read in a parish bulletin that this was true (i.e. all Fridays, not just during Lent.). Recently my daughter was visiting from Virginia and said that she had heard the same thing. What is the truth? (Breese, Illinois)
A. The simple and direct answer to your question is “no.” Catholics in the United States are not required to abstain from meat on Fridays. But the full and fair response is more complicated. Catholics throughout the world are obliged to observe each Friday as a day of special penance in recognition of the fact that Jesus died for us on that day. The church’s Code of Canon Law (specifically Nos. 1251 and 1253) grants national conferences of bishops the authority to determine what, specifically, that penance might entail for Catholics of their countries.
In 1966, the bishops of the United States issued a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence”in which they removed the obligation for American Catholics to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. (The bishops said that on the Fridays during the season of Lent, they were preserving the tradition of abstinence from meat “confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.”)
In 2011, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales restored year-round Friday abstinence as the rule for those countries. The U.S. bishops have not done so, although in their 1966 statement, people were strongly encouraged to adopt such a practice on their own. (“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 … 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.”)
Lost in much of the discussion — and, I would guess, in the understanding of many American Catholics — is this: Abstaining from meat on Fridays is optional; doing penance on Fridays is not. If you choose to eat meat on Friday, you should — in fidelity to church law and to church tradition — substitute some other practice of self-denial. In this way, Christ’s passion and death on Good Friday is highlighted and honored.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St. Albany, N.Y. 12208.