Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

History of Abstinence in the US Since Vatican II

Carnivorous Confusion

There has been much discussion and consternation in my parish over the last few days concerning Friday abstinence. I find it most interesting because my homily on, The Catholic Intellect really was not about this subject. So what is all the hullabaloo about? It seems to revolve around the following comments I made in my homily,

Did you know that as Catholics, we have a particular lifestyle or philosophy that we are called to live by? We are not meant to be accidental or incidental Catholics but people who are deliberately Catholic in all areas of our life. Our coworkers, friends and family are supposed to see us make the sign of the cross and offer grace before we eat at work, in school, or even at the pool! We are supposed to look different. That is why we:

  • Receive ashes on Ash Wednesday: You’re not supposed to wipe it off. It is supposed to provide a small humiliation.
  • Eat fish on Friday’s even outside of Lent; or we offer an acceptable and equivalent penance.

Most of the questions that I have received asked when did the Church after the Second Vatican Council reinstated this practice. The short answer, it never changed the practice.

Admittedly, there have been a number of well-meaning people and clergy that in the “spirit of Vatican II” said that the Law of Abstinence on Friday’s outside of Lent no longer applies. Unfortunately, that was a mistake. What would be more accurate is to say that after the Second Vatican Council, the breaking of this law was no longer grave matter i.e., we do not incur the penalty of mortal sin for disregarding this practice. This does not mean though we are free to ignore this ancient and venerable practice.

To make this easier, I have included a history of the Law of Abstinence for the Latin Rite here in the United States.

Days of Abstinence

For 2,000 years, Friday has been reserved as a day of abstinence to memorialize in a tangible way the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday:

The “Teaching of the Apostles” (viii), Clement of Alexandria (Strom., VI, 75), and Tertullian (De jejun., xiv) make explicit mention of this practice. Pope Nicholas I (858-867) declares that abstinence from flesh meat is enjoined on Fridays. There is every reason to conjecture that Innocent III (1198-1216) had the existence of this law in mind when he said that this obligation is suppressed as often as Christmas Day falls on Friday (De observ. jejunii, lilt. cap. ap. Layman, Theologia Moralis, I, iv, tract. viii, ii).[1]

Traditionally, Wednesdays and Fridays were the fast and abstinence days in the early Church. In some regions, Latin Rite churches opted to hold Saturday instead of Wednesday as a day of abstinence (but that is a different discussion).

Over the past 2,000 years of our Church history, the original requirement to fast twice a week was reduced to once a week. That being said, until 1966, all Fridays throughout the year were obligatory days of abstinence under the pain of mortal sin.

Since 1966, all Fridays during Lent are obligatory under the pain of mortal sin while Friday’s outside of Lent remain days of penance:

The ordinary penance for Friday’s is abstention from meat. However, on non-Lenten Fridays, the faithful may substitute another penance. The substituted penance should involve a level of sacrifice comparable to abstention from meat.[2]

The Apostolic Constitution on Penance that changed this universal practice was entitled, Paenitemini, and promulgated on February 17, 1966 by Pope Paul VI,

It provided for abstinence from meat for all the faithful over 14 years of age. Paenitemini, Chapter III, section C, Norm II, states: “1. The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation through-out 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 rite. Their substantial observance binds gravely. 2. Apart from the faculties referred to in VI and VIII regarding the manner of fulfilling the precept of penitence on such days, abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation, while abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday or, according to local practice, on the first day of ’Great Lent’ and on Good Friday.”[3]

With the 1983 revision and promulgation of the Code of Canon Law by Blessed John Paul II, the Law of Fasting and Abstinence set forth by Pope Paul VI were inscribed into paragraphs 1249 – 1253:

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 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.

This is the Universal Law of the Church but there is particular law or custom relegated by the Bishops of each country, region or diocese.

Practice in the United States

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, now known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence as a clarification of Pope Paul VI’s Paenitemini regarding non-Lenten Fridays (emphasis mine),

 … the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms:

1. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified;

2. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday be freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ;

3. 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 as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, 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. Our expectation is based on the following considerations;

a. We shall thus freely and out of love for Christ Crucified show our solidarity with the generations of believers to whom this practice frequently became, especially in times of persecution and of great poverty, no mean evidence of fidelity in Christ and his Church.

b. We shall thus also remind ourselves that as Christians, although immersed in the world and sharing its life, we must preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world. Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.

We should also recognize that Blessed John Paul II included this venerable practice within the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1438 The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works). [emphasis mine]

2043 The fourth precept (“You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.

Appropriate and Equivalent Substitutions

The follow-up question I usually receive after providing the history for Friday abstinence is, “What is an appropriate and equivalent penance instead of abstaining from meat.” I cannot answer that for you. You need to. However, the USCCB has provided a great “starter” list for us to consider in Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics. I have to be honest though. For me, it’s just easier to abstain from the meat.

Recognizing the Rights of the Bishop

A few years ago, St. Patrick’s day fell on a Friday during Lent. My Bishop, being a good Sicilian, suspended the Law of Abstinence for that Friday…and there was much rejoicing among the (and irish wannabes)! Now, everyone was in an uproar. I do not get it. Complain if we do have to abstain and then complain when we don’t. Ridiculous!

As Catholics, we are supposed to know how to fast and feast. It is perfectly within the right of the bishop to not only suspend and add days of penance but also to change what we are to abstain from. Take for instance what my friend Martha shared concerning the bishops in France,

A number of years ago, in France, the bishops asked the faithful to abstain from meat, tobacco, or alcohol on Fridays.

I wonder what the Diocese of Arlington would do if our Bishop asked us to abstain from Social Media for the day? A beautiful dream and yet, I digress…

Extravagant Fishy Fridays

Lastly, you are right. Many Catholics prior to the Second Vatican Council while living the letter of the law did not live the spirit of the law. Much to the horror and scandle of our non-Catholic Christian brethern – who do not understand these practices anyway, many Catholics ate a whole lot of lobster and other seafood delicacies. Except for the fact that it confused our Christian brethern and is not the way to evangelize, I’m not sure why it matters. Just because Uncle Buck ate extravagantly should not cause your conscience trouble. Why? Well, he doesn’t get the whole penitential thing anyway.

G.K. Chesterton was once asked, “What is the greatest evidence against Christianity.” He replied, “Christians.” We may shoot ourselves in the foot through our public witness from time to time but in the end, I think common sense will illustrate that the Church must be divine with all of our sin, mismanagement and hypocrisy. Besides, I have enough trouble worrying about myself than to spend my time observing everyone else.

Hope this helps…


[1] “Abstinence (Food),” James D. O’Neill, The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914 (San Diego, Catholic Answers, 2007)

[2] Martin Barrack, “Friday Abstinence,” Second Exodus, http://www.secondexodus.com/html/catholicdefinitions/fridayabstinence.htm (accessed July 10, 2012).

[3] Ibid.

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