Question: What does the Church currently teach in regard to Friday abstinence? I have read something to the effect that during Fridays of Lent and each Friday of the year, Catholics over the age of 14 are obliged to refrain from meat. However, in America, for Fridays outside of Lent, we may perform another acceptable penance in substitution to abstinence from meat. When I mentioned this to my prayer group members, no one was aware that we were still required to fast from meat on Fridays or do another form of penance that day. What are we to make of this norm and that so many are unaware of it?
— Joan Metzger
Answer: The problem you describe is sadly true and common. It speaks to human nature and to a need for norms that are clear. The old acronym SMART comes to mind wherein a task or goal is best when it is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based. The current norms for Friday practices fall short of this in numerous ways, but especially in its lack of specificity and the difficulty in knowing if one has met the (uncertain) goal of a Friday sacrifice in some way equivalent to omitting meat.
The current norms in the U.S. go back to 1966. It was a time of great change in the Church. The Second Vatican Council had just finished, and many things were being recast in ways thought to exemplify the renewal coming from the council. There was a common notion at the time that Catholics had matured beyond many of the traditional norms that united us and formed the basis of piety in immigrant years. Further works of justice in the community were a strong emphasis in the period. There was also great emphasis on works of justice in the social order as being more necessary than works of penance. These sorts of trends were reflected in the conclusion of the bishop’s document on Friday abstinence in 1966:
“It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.
“… Let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. Rather, let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth … by which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God’s people” (“Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,” Nos. 27, 28).
These may be worthy goals, but to paraphrase St. Paul, if the trumpet sounds an uncertain call, who will prepare for battle? (cf. 1 Cor 14:8). In other words, the replacement of a focused and shared practice among Catholics with a broadly defined series of behaviors has not been effectively received among the faithful, who have largely dropped any Friday observance outside of Lent. Even when informed about this norm and the suggestion of the bishops of 1966, most Catholics are still uncertain as to how to implement some other practice on a consistent Friday basis. Hence, with the requirement rendered vague and self-determined in its fulfillment, many just shrug and it falls from their mind altogether. It is not that they are necessarily impious, it is more that they are unguided by a recommendation that is not “SMART,” as noted above. Neither are they supported by the common practice of fellow Catholics who together create a culture of Friday abstinence. Realizing this, the bishops of England, who had a similar policy, have gone back to meatless Fridays and the required norm. Perhaps, too, we can hope the same of our own bishops since saying we should do “something” for Friday is seemingly too vague for all to hear and embrace. Something focused and collective seems to better recognize the human need for clear directives.