Saturday, August 27, 2011

Friday Penance and the English & Welsh bishops: in reparation for the sins agains life, and other questions.

With effect from September 16th the law of abstaining from meat on Fridays becomes binding upon all Catholics in England and Wales. In particular the bishops have suggested that English and Welsh Catholics offer their penance in reparation for sins against life.

The Bishops Conference of England and Wales has issued a very helpful Question and Answer format information leaflet.

Here are some of the Questions and Answers:

Q3. Why are we obliged to practice penitence on Fridays?
From the earliest centuries of the Church’s history, Friday was dedicated to the memory of the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, as a day on which we should make a special effort to practice penitence. The seasons and days of penitence in the course of the Liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday) are therefore intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice.

For this reason, the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church specifies the obligations of Latin Rite Catholics: “All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.” (Canon 1250)

Q5. Eating meat is not that important to me and therefore not much of a penance or sacrifice on my part. What then is the value of my abstaining from meat on a Friday?
For some people abstinence from meat will not necessarily be much of a ‘personal’ penance or sacrifice. Indeed, many people do not eat meat. Giving up going out with friends on a Friday night, for example, would be for some much more of a penance or personal sacrifice. However, to say that we do not eat meat or we dislike meat, or that we ‘prefer fish’, is to miss the point!

What the Bishops are asking us to do, first and foremost, is to make abstaining from meat a common act of penitence; a common witness and sacrifice. This act unites us and reminds us of our personal duty, each Friday, to sacrifice something which is precious to us out of love for Almighty God and out of love for others. Moreover, it is not just as an individual act of witness that we are asked to undertake Friday penance but as a weekly prophetic witness of the whole Catholic community. It witnesses that being a Catholic requires us, as a community, through our prayer, abstaining and almsgiving/works of charity, to stand alongside those who are in need.

If abstaining from meat is not really a sacrifice for us then we should consider doing something in addition to abstaining from meat. This will keep us united in this common sign of witness and enable us to make our act of penitence a real personal sacrifice and help us to stand in solidarity with those in real need.

Q7. What should I do if I am invited out for a meal on a Friday?
If our friends and colleagues value us they will not be offended or upset if we tell them, ahead of time, that we do not eat meat on Fridays. Our choice to observe abstaining from meat in this social setting does permit us though to witness ‐ in an indirect way ‐ that our Catholic faith is important, that we are not ashamed of it. It may also provide us with an opportunity, particularly if we are asked, to explain to our friends and colleagues what the significance of our faith is for us and our lives.

Q8. Why is prayer important to our Friday penance?
Next to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, Friday has always been a special day in the Catholic Church for prayer. On a Sunday our prayer is in thanksgiving to God for the new and eternal life brought to us by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. On a Friday our prayer is in thanksgiving for the gift of the mortal life that we have been given; a life which Christ willingly sacrificed on the cross for our sake. A fitting prayer then, as part of our Friday penance, would be to ask Almighty God to turn away all threats to mortal life.

The act of abstinence itself can be offered consciously as a prayer for life and in reparation for sins against life.

Friday has always remained a day of penance, the observance of which binds gravely. As Pope Paul VI wrote in his Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini in 1966:

The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of "Grande Quaresima" (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely.

The Code of Canon Law allows the bishops of each episcopal conference to determine the manner of the observance of Friday penance:

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 meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning 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.

So, is it a sin not to abstain from meat on a Friday in England and Wales?

The obligation to do penance every Friday (except on Solemnities) is binding, and Pope Paul VI said that the "substantial observance" binds gravely. This is in accord with traditional moral theology. Although the obligation may be binding, there are degrees of failure to observe the obligation. To fail to observe it in its substance, i.e. to deliberately omit the penitential practice enjoined upon us without good reason is grave matter, what we traditionally call "mortal sin". To omit it for good reason, e.g. poor health, doctor's orders, there is simply no other food available, or if we have been dispensed from its practice, is not a sin. To omit it out of carelessness, or because we didn't have the courage of our convictions to give the required witness before our friends, might be a venial or a mortal sin according to the circumstances. But it is a sin.

The above applies simply to the practice of Friday penance. Now that the Bishops of England and Wales have stated that this penance is to be observed by abstaining from meat, it would seem to me that to deliberately omit the observance of this penance would be sinful.

According to an authoritative statement form the Sacred Congregation of the Council in 1967 (see footnote 20 of this article),

this grave obligation does not refer to the individual days of penance, but to “the whole complexus of penitential days to be observed . . . that is, one sins gravely against the law, who, without an excusable cause, omits a notable part, quantitative or qualitative, of the penitential observance which is prescribed as a whole (February 24, 1967; reprinted in Canon Law Digest, vol. 6, pp. 684–85).

So, if one simply ignores the laws on penance, one is committing a grave sin. If one, through negligence or without some excusable cause eats meat on a given Friday, one would not be guilty of grave sin, but it would still be a sin.

As my learned friend Father Dylan James points out, the advice issued by Father Marcus Stock, General Secretary of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales, comes to a different conclusion in stating that
"The failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin."
I would agree with Father James that, while failure to abstain on a particular Friday might not constitute a mortal or grave sin, it would still be a sin, the gravity of which would depend on the circumstances.

However, one should not be unnecessarily caught up with whether it is a sin or not to fail to abstain from meat on a Friday but rather embrace with gratitude this directive from the Engish and Welsh bishops that all Catholics in England and Wales be united in this common act of penitence and to joyfully - but penitentially - bear witness to this in our families and amongst our social contacts. As the bishops point out, no one should be offended if we respectfully point out to friends who might invite us out for a meal on a Friday that we do not eat meat on Friday.

I notice here in the US (at least in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) that many restuarants advertise Friday fish menus.

But what about the discipline to be observed by Catholics in the USA?

In a 1983 pastoral letter, they wrote (my emphases added):

As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance, and almsgiving for peace.

But they did

warn those who decide to keep the Friday abstinence for reasons of personal piety and special love that they must not pass judgment on those who elect to substitute other penitential observances.
Above quotations taken from previously referred to article.
Presumably those who do elect to observe the traditional practice can expect a similar non-judgemental and respectful attitude from those who do not.


  1. I'm reminded of this: "The old language – of mortal sin, for example – was, he says, a misguided attempt to motivate the faithful." (TELEGRAPH)

  2. A very helpful post, Father, thank you. I've shared it on Google plus :-)

  3. At the moment I live in Scotland and choose to abstain from meat on Fridays. Is it a case of "When in Rome"? In other words does the new rule bind only people who live in England and Wales or would it also be binding on visitors who happen to be in England or Wales on a Friday? Either way the answer would not have any effect on what I would do but it would affect how I would explain my abstinence to people I am visiting.

  4. It used to be ‘common knowledge’ that Catholics did not eat meat on Fridays and it would not raise any eyebrows. That probably led to the proliferation the ‘Friday Fish Fry’ here in the US - especially here in the Midwest (the fishing industry had no objections either, I’m sure!).

    So while it is not a formal obligation here in the US (as yet - there are some moves in that direction after the E&W bishops’ initiative), I doubt that one’s non-Catholic friends would be surprised by this. Many Catholics have continued to observe Abstinence on Fridays regardless - and I’m not aware of a falling-off in attendance at Friday Fish Fries!

    I did have occasion to remonstrate with a restaurant once for not having a meatless soup on the menu. But that was on an Ash Wednesday and the owners were Greek Orthodox. Given the issue about the dating of Easter, perhaps that wasn’t ‘their’ Ash Wednesday…

  5. Mike

    Canon 13 §2. Travelers are not bound:
    1/ by the particular laws of their own territory as long as they are absent from it unless either the transgression of those laws causes harm in their own territory or the laws are personal;
    2/ by the laws of the territory in which they are present, with the exception of those laws which provide for public order, which determine the formalities of acts, or which regard immovable goods located in the territory.

    So a Scot visiting E&W could eat meat on Friday, as long as it does not cause any wonderment. This is where the "public order" aspect comes in. Obviously this would only happen if it was known that you are a Catholic and if it was generally known in the area or among the people you were visiting that Catholics in E&W are bound to abstain from meat on a Friday.


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