Friday Penances: a Catholic practice or not?

Last March, in the wake of sexual abuse of children by clergy, Benedict XVI wrote a pastoral letter to the people of Ireland.  He asked the Church in Ireland to do penance, especially on Fridays.

One of the practices that distinguished Catholic, of which everyone was aware, was the fact that on Fridays Catholics did not eat meat.  Some will argue that this is, in a wealthy society, not a very meaningful penance.  The rules should be flexible enough for people willingly to chose to perform something more meaningful so that it is from the heart.  On the other hand, abstaining from meat was a concrete way to do something.

This week in the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald, there is an article and debate about whether or not we should return to a more serious observance of Friday penance.

Debate: Should the Friday Fast be restored?

Or should it be left up to individual Catholics to observe?

By The Catholic Herald on Friday, 3 December 2010

This week the Irish bishops urged the faithful to take up Friday penance again. They suggest abstaining from meat or alcohol, but also visiting the Blessed Sacrament, making the Stations of the Cross, or helping the sick, poor, old or lonely.

The English and Welsh bishops, meanwhile, considered whether to restore the Friday Fast at their plenary meeting last month.

They have asked Fr Marcus Stock, general secretary of the bishops’ conference, to investigate ways of revitalising Lent as a penitential season.

Of course, Catholics are meant to do some kind of penance on Fridays; the practice, though, is no longer widely observed. Should the bishops put more emphasis on it? The Friday Fast would be another way for Catholics to commit publicly to their faith. It would be an opportunity to remember Christ’s Passion and death, and, in a small way, to share in his suffering.

On the other hand, Friday Fasts, making the Sign of the Cross, saying grace before dinner – these are all external actions. What matters is our interior faith, our interior relationship with Christ.

So, should the bishops restore the Friday Fast? Or should it be left to individual Catholics to observe voluntarily, rather than being imposed?


Chose the best of the two answers and give your reasons in the combox, below.

The (Latin) Catholic Church's rules for penance...

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  1. Ralph says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the Friday Penance was never removed as a requirement. My pastor explained to me that the requirement for the penance remains, but may be substituted for something else rather than a fast.

    So, we don’t neccesarily have to give up meat on friday, but we are supposed to do SOMETHING!

    Is this correct?

  2. Frank H says:

    I voted “adequate but people don’t know”. While I would prefer a return to an imposed Friday abstinence from meat, primarily for the restoration of Catholic identity, I do think the clergy has been lax in teaching on the obligation of a personal Friday penance.

  3. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    Impose it. “You give em an inch, they take a mile” as the expression goes. You enforce something with penalities, most people OBEY.

  4. dans0622 says:

    Even if there aren’t penalties attached to penitential requirements, clear laws in this regard would help people like me, who are, by nature, lazy (slothful) and look for the easy way out.

  5. PghCath says:

    I would like to see something concrete imposed, but perhaps not abstinence from meat. My Dad LOVES Fridays in Lent because they mean a tasty fish dinner. Talk about complying with the letter of the law rather than the spirit. I’m sure many people feel as he does with regard to fish.

    The imposition of some penance would give priests and bishops a teaching moment to dispel rubbish like this: “On the other hand, Friday Fasts, making the Sign of the Cross, saying grace before dinner – these are all [merely] external actions. What matters is our interior faith, our interior relationship with Christ.” What good Protestant theology.

  6. Giambattista says:

    While one can argue that abstaining from meat is hardly a penance for a person in the US, I do think something needs to be imposed. I can count on my hands the number of latin rite Catholics I know who realize Friday is still a penitential day, although I admit people in the Byzantine parish I often attend are more aware of it (i.e. there is a fish on most Wednesday’s and Friday’s of their annually printed liturgical calendar). Even if Catholics were instructed in the current rules (i.e. some type of penance on Friday is required), I don’t think most would do it.

    This reminds me of when the Matins readings were hacked out of the 1961 breviary and John XXIII said something to the effect that he hoped users of the breviary would read the Church Fathers on their own initiative. This was a pipe dream – and so is asking people to “pick a penance” on Friday’s.

  7. Margo says:

    I voted that the rules for penance are too lax. Frankly, I’m ashamed to admit that until I heard Father John Corapi in one of his talks emphasizing the importance of penance I hadn’t been observing that significant part of the Catholic faith for most of my adult life! I think people naturally gravitate toward someone who isn’t afraid to stress the truth. Sometimes the person who screams the loudest against something is the same person who quietly admires it. It’s human nature, I think. We won’t convert everyone, but if we will at least live out our faith the way Christ would have us do, there’s no telling what good things will come of it.

  8. fenetre says:

    I know many Catholics who do not observe any form of penance on Friday at all, thinking this has been abolished at some point. Our Catholic identity becomes very fuzzy. Outward signs are as important as inward intentions. Meatless Friday has once shaped culture i.e. even non-Catholics KNOW Catholics abstain from meat on Friday, and eateries responded accordingly by offering meatless dishes. It is a SIGN of our faith. It is a simple concept.

  9. tzard says:

    They have forgotten about human nature – by giving too many choices, it becomes no choice. It’s become a two step process – first decide what to do of the million things, then do it. People who are struggling won’t do two things – it was hard enough doing one thing.

    I don’t tell my children: ” choose your night time prayers alone”, we say them together. That’s how you teach. Have Bishops and priests been negligent in teaching? Do they even know they’re being negligent? Do they even know how to be fathers?

    We’ve been sold a bill of goods – that freedom of choice trumps everything. What happens when you tell the sheep the rules and let them shepherd themselves? They wander, until the wolves get them.

  10. Augustine says:

    “You enforce something with penalities, most people OBEY.”

    There’s a difference between joyful obedience and reluctant obedience. It sounds like you’re emphasising the latter.

    “The imposition of some penance would give priests and bishops a teaching moment to dispel rubbish like this: “On the other hand, Friday Fasts, making the Sign of the Cross, saying grace before dinner – these are all [merely] external actions. What matters is our interior faith, our interior relationship with Christ.” What good Protestant theology.”

    I think you’ll find that that is Catholic theology. Holy Mother Church maintains, as far as I am aware, that the Apostle Paul was a good Catholic; we ought to remember his preaching on salvation by grace through faith. Yes, faith without works is dead, but the works themselves are nothing without faith.

  11. Liz says:

    I don’t know…somehow meat always sounds good on Fridays. It’s harder to make lunches (to take to leftovers from Thursday!) and to deal with the other Catholics who do eat meat. Sure Fish Fries are fun. (Plus, I like how they help to identify us as Catholics.) They are pretty rare since most people only do them during Lent. Still, I think the little inconveniences and having to make an effort on Fridays is very beneficial. Sometimes I feel a little guilty when a Friday meal tastes wonderful, but I’m not sure it’s all bad. I also enjoy the fruits of sacrifices made during Lent. If we don’t watch movies or t.v. then we have time to spend with each other and it’s enjoyable to do so. If we don’t eat that many meatless meals on other days then we might enjoy them on a Friday. Sometimes our most humble meats taste the best. Lentil Rice Casserole and breadsticks. Yum.

  12. pbewig says:

    I work for a community college. We have a saying, “Students don’t do optional.” I support making it mandatory to abstain from meat on Friday.

    Fr Z often talks about liturgy as the point of the spear in reclaiming our Catholic identity. Turning the altar around is a good idea, but it only affects those who walk in the door of the church. Meatless Fridays are a wider cultural phenomenon. Going out to dinner with friends on a Friday evening? Trying to pick a restaurant? “We need to go to a restaurant that serves fish, because we’re Catholic.” That’s a true Catholic cultural identity.

    I’ve long thought that getting rid of meatless Friday was a far bigger change that turning the altar around. Let’s go back.

  13. dcs says:

    I don’t think the Friday abstinence is quite as easy as people make it out to be. If you’re not married, or don’t have any children, then sure, it is easy — you can just go out to a seafood restaurant or get a pizza. But if you do have children, and haven’t been grocery shopping lately, then abstaining on Friday is meaningful. We’ve had grilled cheese or macaroni and cheese more than once for Friday dinner.

    Also, I don’t agree that the fact that one likes a particular type of food means that it is not penitential.

  14. Acolythus says:

    “There’s a difference between joyful obedience and reluctant obedience. It sounds like you’re emphasising the latter.”

    Yes…but…reluctant obedience is better than no obedience at all!

  15. nhaggin says:

    One of the many reasons I’m happy I married my wife is that she’s taught me much about practical asceticism. I have the habit of choosing mountain-scaling, building-jumping, Olympic penances that I get discouraged with and never complete; she, on the other hand, is very good at finding things that are reasonable and achievable. She once said to me that giving up meat on Friday is like a little thorn pricking you from time to time: it’s not deep existential suffering, but it’s a persistent reminder of the Crucifixion.

    This remains true even when you live (as I do) in a town with great vegetarian dining. Heck, my wife makes a yummy pasta-and-mushroom dish with walnuts and lots of garlic and herbs, but when we eat it on Friday, we know we’re eating it rather than a steak because Jesus died and rose for us.

  16. poohbear says:

    I know many people who never knew we were supposed to substitute another penance if choosing to eat meat on Friday. Many were taught in the 1970’s that the obligation to abstain from meat was no longer necessary, but never taught the second half of substitution. Not a few have argued with me that I was making it all up. So, yes, the clergy has to remind people of the obligation. People can’t do what they don’t know should be done. I think, given the facts, people would comply.

    Also, I think abstaining from meat in a wealthy society is difficult, since there is so much emphasis on dining out, too many fast food burger places, too busy a lifestyle to plan a meal, etc.

  17. danphunter1 says:

    Speaking for myself, I really enjoy meat and would like to eat it everyday and do, except for Fridays and Ember Days.
    I do believe that man in his fallen human nature needs hard and fast rules that bind us to definite disciplines of fasting, else we fall to easily into weak penances at best or indifference at worst.
    I think most men enjoy meat quite often and to be mandated to abstain from it once per week is a very honorable and salutary practice as this will help to train us in penetential and joyful discipline.

    ” What matters is our interior faith, our interior relationship with Christ.”
    But not at the expense of exterior manifestations of our faith, and this most definitely applies to penance.
    “Lex Orandi Lex Credendi” and penance should always be a form of prayer.

  18. poohbear says:

    We’ve had grilled cheese or macaroni and cheese more than once for Friday dinner.

    @ dcs
    I’m sure many of us have fond childhood memories of mac & cheese, grilled cheese, or the famous fish sticks on Friday. You are teaching your children well.

  19. irishgirl says:

    I voted for No. 2.
    I grew up during the time when Fridays meant no meat. For some reason (maybe it was the smell of it) I didn’t eat the weekly fish fry with the rest of my family. I ate cereal with milk instead-hey, I was just a kid!
    When my mother was still living with me, she decided that the two of us abstain from meat on Friday ‘in reparation for abortions’. As a result, I would always come home from work on Fridays to pasta and shrimp [yum!]. Since I now live alone, I have meatless meals on Friday. I also try to have just toast and tea in the morning for breakfast.
    Penance should be preached from the pulpits by our Bishops and priests. It’s not these days. And then we wonder why the Church and the world are in such a mess.

  20. Augustine, the acquisition of virtues and good habits takes time and work. Reluctant obedience is meritorious, precisely because reluctant obedience entails a battle against self. It is indeed a path to joyful obedience, if we persist in it. If we wait around to feel joyful about obeying, then we’ll never obey.

    I agree with those who point out that abstinence from meat is a penance precisely because it is inconvenient. For me, there is nothing penitential about eating fish. But there is something penitential about not being able to slap up a quick baloney sandwich when I’m in a hurry, or running out for a hot dog in the middle of a busy day.

  21. I chose the “too lax” option. Penance, true conversion of our souls to be united with Christ’s, shouldn’t be too easy – I like to think of fasting rules as ideals for which I can aim, not a hurdle to be flopped over. Like a couple of the previous commenters, I’ve gotten into a few heated discussions with Catholics who insist that meatless Fridays were abrogated after Vatican II. And even for those (like me) for whom eating seafood is not very penitential on its face, given that I really like it, it’s an outward sign of our Faith. It gets more and more difficult to be a public Christian; I’m all for mandatory meatless Fridays.

  22. JuliB says:

    I LOVE seafood and pasta, but it seems that every Friday, I really really want meat. My SO doesn’t believe that we really need to skip meat, but puts up with it at dinner for my benefit. If it was mandatory, he would do it. He doesn’t do any other penance.

    So most of the time, we do fish sticks and mac. Once in a while I upgrade to salmon or some other fish. But even then, it’s a small thorn to not have a regular sandwich for lunch, etc.

    Small things matter to our Catholic identity. We need more assistance for growing in holiness, not less.

  23. surgedomine says:

    Most of us poor human beings will not rise higher if we are not challenged. I think is caused by the effects of something called “Original Sin”.

  24. Patikins says:

    I voted “too lax…” though enforcing the existing regulations would be helpful, I think.

    I’m 41 years old and (mis)learned as a child that the Friday fast had been done away with. It wasn’t until ten years or so ago that I learned the truth about the practice and it’s modification. It took a few more years until I started to regularly observe the Friday fast. Now I think I need to add to that by skipping sweets because avoiding meat is (usually) pretty easy. And I have a huge sweet tooth. It would definitely be penitential for me!

  25. mike cliffson says:

    Possible downside : the followers in letter not spiritand scandal-giving hypocrites- on which basis never do anything, ever.
    Upside- it’s good for me I know, and I presume all of us or fasting wouldn’t be “on the books”. I know it’s good even when there’s no real hardship : Often DO have meatless days, but a n abstinence and I wake up thinking of a baconand egg breakfast. ‘snot much, ‘snot enough to be satisfied with, but itall helps : and noncatholics used to notice.

  26. I voted that the rule itself is adequate, I think people have misinterpreted it, though. As far as I know, meatless Fridays have not been “thrown out.” The rule was simply expanded to allow us to substitute another penance. Our parish school, which my youngest daughter still attends, has “hot dog days” as fund raisers. Guess what day of the week they usually are? I instructed my daughter to raise her hand and remind all the hot dog partakers they have to remember to do a special sacrificial deed that day. :)
    I do think remembering to abstain from meat is enough to put our minds in the right disposition. The only exception would be if one is already a vegetarian. I used to be, and had to do something intentional. It is nice to have the Church help us and make it not too hard, but enough to put our minds in gear towards our Lord.

  27. priests wife says:

    I think if Muslims can pray publicly 5 times a day, we Catholics can give up meat (exceptions are always there for medical reasons, etc) once a week. It’s good to keep some kind of outward identity.

  28. Magpie says:

    The clergy are very lax. They don’t talk about fasting in their sermons because they are not doing it themselves. I heard of a true stroy of one priest in a parish who was mocked by the others. They were eating sandwiches (with meat in them) on a Friday in the parochial house and joked not to let the other priest know as he wouldn’t approve! Nom nom nom…

  29. Geoffrey says:

    I voted that “The (Latin) Catholic Church’s rules for penance are adequate, but most people don’t know about them. Priests/bishops don’t stress them.”

    Abstaining from meat on Fridays was never “done away with” as so many believe, but rather other options were allowed by the various bishops conferences. If you wish to eat meat on Friday, then you must perform some other form of penance at your own choosing. If anything, this puts an even greater responsibility on the faithful: do it yourself!

    However, as I voted, very few Catholics know about this.

  30. julie f says:

    I do think it’s reasonable to substitute some other penance than abstaining from meat, if only because the Meat Police are bad enough when you only have to deal with them in Lent. ;) Seriously, though the modern urban setting is full of vegetarians, so abstaining one day a week might not really speak to some people as penitential and I think that’s fair. However, in order to make this a real policy, bishops and clergy ought to be promoting some exemplar, concrete practices. If you want it to take hold, you can’t just go talking about “some other thing” out there in the ether, “Whadda you wanna do?” “I dunno, whadda you wanna do?” As soon as you start looking for a replacement, you start asking questions like, Is abstaining from meat supposed to be hard? Or is it just a gesture? How hard is it supposed to be? How hard does my substitute have to be? If it’s not really difficult does it not count? etc. Personally, I did meatless Fridays for over a year and found myself looking forward to them. I ended up cutting about 50% of the meat I had consumed previously out of my diet over the week, just because I found I liked the semi-veg diet. So, the relationship between identity, penitence, and sacrifice is something that could use clarifying even if we were to return to a straightforward no-meat-on-Fridays instruction.

  31. julie f says:

    I will add, perhaps the direction of renewal is if this situation were taken as an opportunity to encourage a practice of weekly Friday confessions.

  32. okiesarah says:

    I just recently converted this past Easter, and when I was studying the faith I knew I wanted to do the traditional meatless Friday penance. Didn’t think it would be that difficult. But every Friday there seems to be something pop up that makes me really feel the no meat thing. Last Friday for example one of my co-workers brought homemade chicken noodle soup in for everyone. None for me. Today, I got an omelet for breakfast at the cafe and the special was a “meat-lovers” omelet. I got to stare at that omelet for 15 min while mine was being made. It is certainly a penance for me. Plus, just remembering I’m supposed to not eat meat brings to mind the fact that I am Catholic, and that in other ways I should be acting like a Catholic.

  33. Del says:

    Too lax. We need rules that call us to a minimum level of piety. As we mature in our faith, we can grow more deeply into piety. Without the rules to guide our growth, we fail to grow at all.

    Rules are a good thing. As children, we all learn right behaviors by rules first. Later, we learn the moral reasons behind the rules.

    By assuming that all Catholics are born with a mature faith, we have doomed a generation to spiritual infancy. Most Catholics do not know what “penance” is, and “obedience” is a forgotten virtue. This is because we do not invite our children to ask, “Why do we eat fish on Friday?”

  34. GeekLady says:

    We must all feel at times the difficulty of fixing our thoughts as we could wish; but if you are supposing it a frequent thing, that is to say, a weakness grown into a habit from neglect, what could be expected from the private devotions of such persons? Do you think the minds which are suffered, which are indulged in wanderings in a chapel, would be more collected in a closet?”

    Jane Austen nailed this almost two centuries ago.

  35. Elizabeth D says:

    I think Catholics ought to know clearly the difference between fasting and abstinence, and that both these practices should be part of their life. Other kids of sacrifices are valuable too, but there is genuinely an irreplaceable good in food fasting (actually many different kinds of good). Not least the connection between food fasting in general and the Eucharistic fast in particular (a practice which has also been reduced to a minimum but people should still be truly aware of and observe, more than the minimum if practical for them).

    I think fasting from flesh meat should be the norm on Fridays and that replacing meat with fish (especially fried!) should not be the norm because it is little sacrifice for most people or even basically an indulgence. How about soup, beans, nuts, whole wheat pasta with red sauce or pesto, peanut butter and jelly, or any vegetarian dish? I also think more people should consider not only abstience but also genuine fasting on Fridays (one rather simple meal, taken preferably in the evening, with one or two small snacks only if really necessary to fulfill one’s duties well). Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays together with extra prayers (the “stational fast”) was not a new idea at Fatima, it was a tradition of the ancient Church and still a good idea.

    Today, even religious orders (Benedictines, Carmelites, etc) whose ancient rule counsels them to fast daily for all or part of the year, in some cases do no fasting whatsoever and in many cases no more abstience from meat than Catholic laity. The ancient spiritual writers connected the practice of fasting with the often more challenging practice of chastity, without limiting the purpose and benefits of fasting to that. How many people might have stayed out of grave sins of lust, if they had the good support of a dedication to the humble practice of fasting, perhaps taught in the family from childhood? I actually think the ancient Fathers were right.

  36. Joshua08 says:

    Not just lax. The laxiest that any Church has ever had in the entire history of the Church. Not just lax, but pathetic and without any aid to virtue. The quasi-fast (let us be honest, the “fast” as most people do in on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday is not a real fast anymore) done twice a year, and no meat for 5 additional days a year is pathetic, pathetic, pathetic

    The Church in constantly relaxing and stripping the life of penance from her common life has constantly tried to get the lowest common denominator. I am sorry, but it just drops more when you do that. In the Middle Ages the laity did penance. They added penance upon their penances! Like every Catholic they abstained from meat on all Fridays and Saturdays (a practice sadly lost only in the last 150 years). But it was common for them to add Wednesday. In other words, they continued something no longer of law. They observed not just the Lenten fast (which was a real fast, just one small meal, no two smaller ones that really aren’t that small), oh and this included sexual abstinence of course, they observed St. Martin’s lent

    Already by the time of Dom Gueranger he could complain how effeminate we have become in penance. And the practice in our times make what was effeminate to him by the standard of times past, look as full of fortitude as the martyrs

    We are the mamby-panzies of Christians. At least, even the greatly mitigated rules before the revolution in the 1960’s had enough to acquire some virtue. 6 weeks of fasting is enough to acquire a virtue (3 weeks to corrupt a bad habit, 3 weeks to form a good one) with several instances of common penance throughout the year that help keep the virtue. I would argue that a Catholic who did the minimum back then could well, depending on his circumstances, be said to fulfill the divine law to do penance. The Catholic who does the minimum now could not be said to fulfill the divine law to do penance.

    Further, a penance through the law of the Church has more value than that which is purely taken up by the individual

    1. There is a value in it precisely as a common action of the Church. Public prayer is more powerful that private.

    2. The act of humility is involved in one who accepts the determination of penance by another for him. He who does all his penance through his own picking and choosing is in risk of pride

    3. There is the act of obedience involved

    The objection about wealthier countries misses these point. The focusing purely on abstinence from meat is really a very very low demoninator. And a “do it yourself” aspect to penance, taken this fall, deprives the faithful of the many merits of penance as a public prayer, done in obedience

    Oh and to some posters above, no penance is required in the US on Fridays outside of Lent. The document from 1966 is still in force, renewed after the 1983 CIC which actually calls for the Bishops to substitute another penance, I would would specifically, not the protestantized “pick for youself”. But the US bishops never did that. There is no obligation to penance, just an urging. They remain days of penance, but not obligatory.


  37. Carolina Geo says:

    Some will argue that this is, in a wealthy society, not a very meaningful penance.

    This might be true if we were a wealthy Catholic society, but not in our post-Christian society. Living in the southeast, where barbecue is the favored dish, I find my meatless Fridays to be quite a hefty penance indeed. While everyone is enjoying their pulled pork, I have to make due with my can of tuna. It makes the sacrifice that much more poignant and meanful.

    The imposition of some penance would give priests and bishops a teaching moment to dispel rubbish like this: “On the other hand, Friday Fasts, making the Sign of the Cross, saying grace before dinner – these are all [merely] external actions. What matters is our interior faith, our interior relationship with Christ.” What good Protestant theology.

    Sadly, I know too many priests who say exactly this. They are typically the ones enjoying the pulled pork on Fridays that I mentioned above. I think often the clergy avoid telling the laity about the need for penance because they themselves want to avoid it.

    We live in interesting times: at a moment in time when we should be doing more penance than ever in light of our societal norms and practices, the Church – in so many of her bishops and priests – tells us that fasting and penance are not necessary.

  38. maynardus says:

    I am so sick of the “lobster dinner” argument contra Friday abstinence. Not all “penance” and mortification need be of the hairshirt variety. First off, the simple act of obedience to this law on *every* Friday is penitential in and of itself. The law is *abstinence* on Friday, not super-heroic fasting. Also there is the very important symbolism which has, perhaps, been a casualty of the suppression of the Last Gospel (shortly before the “adjustment” in the law of abstinence – coincidence?) which reminded us at least weekly that not only did God become man, as we acknowledge in the Creed, but that “the Word became flesh”. Our Lord used the same word – “flesh” – in teaching about the Eucharist, and I’ve always felt that it was perfectly logical, if we were going to abstain from *anything* in remembrance of his death, it would be… flesh – meat.

    (Interestingly enough, this latter argument actually made a great deal of sense to my protestant inlaws, who formerly delighted in pointing out the “hypocrisy” of my family enjoying a savory – and expensive – seafood dinner of a particular Friday night…)

    And of course there is the element of Catholic identity, to which others have also alluded. “Modern Man” thought pretty highly of himself back in the 1960’s, but over the past 40-45 years we’ve had a chance to see how smart that old barnacle-ridden pre-Conciliar Church really was…

  39. pelerin says:

    I too voted ‘too lax’. I remember when the Friday penance changed and have to admit that once this was done I never gave an alternative penance to abstinence a second thought. Too busy bringing up my family I think and could not think of another penance to substitute which would fit in with them.

    It is only after having changed parishes that I was reminded of it when I was surprised to discover others who still stuck with meatless Fridays. And ever since I have tried to stick to it myself as I had once done originally. Discipline in small things helps discipline in more important things. I believe the Bishops of England and Wales are going to discuss bringing back Friday abstinence. I do hope they do.

  40. michelelyl says:

    I think “some” are missing the point of abstaining on Fridays…it’s not about the seafood, it’s about the discipline. I would completely support a return to abstaining on every Friday as a form of penance- but the Bishops and priests must teach deeply about the purpose of penance first.
    On a related note-it kinda bothers me that the parish fish fry during Lent is a big social event. Cocktails are even served at our local K of C event! My mother’s parish in So Cal has several choices for their fish fry- broiled salmon, or baked halibut or deep fried fish & chips. Of course, it all comes with dessert :) What is the point of not eating meat if you have a lovely lobster, cracked crab or shrimp scampi dinner instead at a fine restaurant? I’m not seeing the connection to a penance or discipline. My family eats fish sticks (which I personally dislike) or vegetarian..but we really try to make sure it is not our favorite vegetarian dish.

  41. Titus says:

    Some will argue that [abstaining from meat] is, in a wealthy society, not a very meaningful penance.

    This is BANANAS. I know it’s not your sentiment, Father, so I don’t mind saying that it is pure, genuine Chiquita Bananas. Abstaining from meat is not as meaningful a penance in a poor society. If my diet is made up of cheap food, grain-dependent, and I don’t eat a lot of meat to begin with, I am giving up less by abstaining from it. Does a Cistercian engage in meaningful penance when he says “I’ll abstain from meat today”? Only if the Cistercian is giving up meat on one of the few days that he’s allowed to eat it to begin with, which aren’t many. A person who can only afford to eat meat three times a week is not losing something in the overall calculation if he kicks the third day from Friday to Saturday. That’s not to say he can’t make that move penitentially, just that he’s not diminishing his overall consumption. (And it would be entirely different if a poor person were for some reason only able to have access to meat on Fridays and passed on that opportunity.)

    The fact that we in the West and in other wealthy parts of the world have such wide access to foods of our choice and often eat at least some meat every day means that sacrificing it on penitential days is arguably more of a sacrifice. First, we actually decreasing, rather than merely shuffling, our consumption of meat. Second, our everyday use of meat requires often requires an active choice to do so. Third, because we eat better than many people in the world, the excising of an expensive item from our diets allows us to unite our penance with their misfortune and suffering. Folks have been heard to say “poor people don’t get meat, so it’s not good to have rich people abstain from it.” This argument stretches the bounds of credulity and eliminates the possibility of almost any physical penitential practice, because the poor and the downtrodden often hurt: if their lives were great, they would not be poor and downtrodden, and we would not have any obligation towards them.

    Abstinence is the traditional penance assigned to Fridays in the Latin church. It is still the norm imposed by law, albeit one for which an episcopal conference can designate a substitute (who knows what the substitute penance designated by the USCCB is? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?). The arguments levied against it are specious.

  42. cblanch says:

    I voted “too lax” mostly because I’m confused personally about this and tighter rules would clarify it for everyone. I didn’t even know we were supposed to be doing something on Friday until I saw the EWTN “fish promo” several years ago. Because of health issues, I tried to make other sacrifices and only recently have I began to try to go “meatless”. However, I’ve been struggling with this and brought it into the confessional about a month ago. I got the whole “there are enough sins in the world without the Church creating more” speech and I was told flat out that “they” did away with the requirement to not eat meat on Fridays years ago. So which is it?

  43. Calypso says:

    It seems to me that there are too many, rather than too few, negative instances in the Church today of allowing one to “choose” how to do something instead of making it a strict obligation. The abuses that have crept so rampantly into many Novus Ordo Masses comes to mind. Allowing people to run without specific guidelines or enforcing clarity of those guidelines only serves to make our fallen human nature take over and follow the path of least resistance. Few people are going to go out of their way to not only do an extra penance on Friday — especially if they don’t know its still required — but to go through the trouble to figure out an adequate penance, as well. Personally, I like when the Church is firm and gives guidelines and rules that must be followed for my own betterment. To preach, to teach, and to sanctify — that’s what the Church is there for! In other words — to lead us to the truth, to clarify things for us to understand, and to help us become holy. Penance is so important in our world today, especially to be coming from Catholics. We need more penance these days rather than less, and I think enforcing a specific penance (i.e. to abstain from meat on Fridays) has a much greater chance of being received and followed than a sense of loose advisability. I went to confession recently and was given the impression from the priest that penance on Friday was no longer obligatory — recommended, but not required. How is that going to make me want to go out and make sacrifices?

    At least five people in this combox so far have spoken about our “Catholic identity”. I think that is so important! The point here is not even whether or not abstaining from meat is difficult or not in our society today, or whether another penance would be better for us. The point is obedience — and heaven knows that can be quite a sacrifice in itself sometimes! If everyone was required to abstain from meat, not only would that be another factor in helping to unite Catholics again, it would also require obedience and humility — some days are going to be harder than others. It’s those difficult days when there is no more fish in your freezer and the leftover ham is looking so good; or the smell from the neighbor’s barbecuing that is coming through your open windows; or the time when you’re out with Protestant friends at a steakhouse… It’s these very times more than others when this specific penance will be the most beneficial and meaningful! Let’s help to recapture our Catholic cultural identity. I think it’s very important these days.

    I could say so much more on this subject, but I will just reiterate that I think it would be a good thing for the mandatory Friday abstinence from fish to be reinstated; and also, that this boosted fight against the flesh should once more be proudly led and taught from the pulpits!

  44. HyacinthClare says:

    Oh, cblanch… I’m so sorry. Let me apologize for that awful response you got. You are looking for real Catholicism and you WILL find it, with all its glory. Meatless Fridays are our badge of honor, whether they are pasta and shrimp (ymmm!) or fish sticks (yech). Have you all tried the red beans and rice box put out by a certain New Orleans company? I’m a convert. It’s part of the whole Catholic family practice that I chose (because Christ let me, blessed be his mercy), and now my protestant family sighs and always has something marvelous and meatless for the Friday after Thanksgiving. “They”, whoever they are, will pass away. Whatever reminds of us Christ’s sacrifice must last forever.

  45. dcs says:

    Abstaining from meat on Fridays was never “done away with” as so many believe, but rather other options were allowed by the various bishops conferences.

    Except the USCCB never established another option! They merely did away with the abstinence, but without substituting another penance, or even saying that we had to substitute another penance, in its place.

  46. Supertradmum says:

    I would very much like it if the Bishops made a unified statement for the entire Church in America. If we all fasted on the same day, the spiritual power gained would be immense. As I live in the Midwest, the fish is horrible, unless one can get fresh trout in the summer. So, eating fish here is a penance. Perogies, meatless chili, meatless tacos, bean burritos, pancakes or waffles, cheese souffle are all alternatives.

    It is confusing to live in different dioceses with different rules. One rule for the country would be very helpful for continuity.

  47. If it comes down to that, in Mediterranean society the basic food was bread, with meat or fish or veggies only counting as a sort of dessert course or condiment. (Which is why the ancient Greeks looked down on someone who ate more than a nice little bit of fish at dinner, because anyone who even approached the same amount of fish as bread, or betrayed that they liked fish better than bread, was clearly a greedyguts.) So clearly, if you were really penitent, you’d give up carrots and greens, right? :)

    Seriously, though… there’s no reason you should hate your penance. The law of the Lord is sweet as honey. Every Catholic (or Orthodox) country in the world has a cuisine of fast days (or several cuisines, if there’s several kinds of fasting and abstinence). Even in monasteries, the cooking is supposed to be appetizing, not something that will encourage sickness, waste, or reluctant consumption. Treating God’s gifts of food with contempt is not in the spirit of our religion. To learn more about Creation, and to use it more wisely, is part of God’s initial commandments for us all.

    (Of course, if somebody does cook badly, we shouldn’t make too much fuss about it unless it’s dangerous; but you don’t have to let them go on cooking badly forever.)

  48. dominic1955 says:

    The dichotomy between “joyful obedience” and “forced obedience” is nonsense. It is human nature to learn from “having” to do something. Ideally, this grows into a sort of joyful obedience that no longer only looks to fulfill some minimum requirement. Although it may be hard for some of us who are amongst the “elect” to understand, sometimes you just have to “fake it until you make it”. Requirements like the Friday fast/abstinence under pain of sin were just much more in tune with real human nature. Letting people pick what they want to do usually translates into doing nothing.

  49. Supertradmum says:


    fyi, yesterday, at a monastery where my son is staying, dinner was mashed potatoes, leeks, and blood pudding. Most of the guests passed their portion of blood pudding down to my son, who actually likes it and leaks. Not necessarily appetizing, but wholesome….

  50. I attend a Catholic liberal arts university. It is not as Catholic as I would like, but it is still better than most. Yet even here, the ‘Religious Studies’ department and the most popular priest on campus do not tell people about penances. I’m not sure they even really talk about sin. One would think that a student at a Catholic school would at least have an idea about fasting. As it is, I had to tell people about the required fast on Ash Wednesday/Good Friday when they asked if I wanted to go to lunch.

  51. Joe in Canada says:

    The earliest Church document other than the Scriptures says, speaking to Christians, “you fast on the 4th day (Wednesday) and the Day of Preparation (Friday)”. This has been a universal characteristic of Christians from the start.

    Fasting on Friday is part and parcel of living a truly liturgical life, with a Holy Hour on Thursday evening, Our Lady’s Saturday, and celebrating the Resurrection of Christ on Sunday. Every week we ‘review’ the Passion of Christ and renew our baptism. I think a true liturgical renewal will have to look at the role of these traditional practices, including Sunday Vespers (I and II) and Matins. One of the great mystics of the 20th century, Marthe Robin, relived the Passion and Resurrection of Christ every week, from Thursday evening to Sunday morning.

    And I think talk about “eating fish” is a bit of a red herring. The fast referred to was probably no animal products at all, similar to the Byzantine Lenten fast. Fish was a concession to human weakness, and it can not be turned to the Church’s shame if some of Her children luxuriate in lobster dinners while the poor are starving at their doors (unless Her ministers start glorying in their bellies).

  52. SGCOLC says:

    I think we should return to the whole fast and abstinence regimen that we used to have. I think it is pitiful that we have only two so-called fast days a year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We in the north and the west should experience some hunger on a regular basis, in solidarity with the poor who are lucky to get a bowl of beans and rice once a day. And like someone else said, most people don’t do optional. Fasting and abstinence should be mandatory, and the reasoning should be vigorously taught by our pastors! If so, I don’t think people will then often find themselves confessing the failure to do penance – the ones who don’t do penance are not often the ones going to confession. Teach the meaning of penance, and expect the penance to be performed!

  53. asophist says:

    I agree with SCCOLC completely – the more so because, there being no mandatory penance, I almost never remember to do any. And I don’t remember to confess it, either. I don’t know when was the last time I heard it mentioned from the pulpit. Some of us really need mandatory penance in order to get off our derriers and do some.

  54. Supertradmum says:

    under the veil,

    ditto to what you wrote, and the liberal arts college attended by one of my children, name of college not to be mentioned, had meat on Fridays, and so did the American seminary where my son was for awhile. Why do these places have meat, when it is clear the bishops in those dioceses spoke openly about not having it? When I asked at both places, I was told that the students had “to make their own choices”. Rubbish. It is a scandal.

  55. DHippolito says:

    This goes back to a question I tried to ask concerning the German bishop’s penitential prostration: What’s the ultimate upshot? Catholics have been doing penance for centuries before Vatican II, for various sins and transgressions. I wouldn’t be surprised if clerical sex abuse was among them; after all, that problem is centuries old (just ask St. Alphonsus Ligouri).

    How has that been working, lately?

    If mass penance will give the laity the strength to challenge Church leaders to make legitimate reforms, and not just engage in window dressing, so much the better. If not, then what’s the point?

    The bigger question is, “what does God want?” The prophet Micah makes is plain: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

    The ultimate problem isn’t the lack of effective penance. The ultimate problem is the inbred arrogance and sense of entitlement that permeates the higher clergy and hierarchy as a whole. That, sadly, never seemed to diminish even when penance was a popular practice.

    Good, conservative Catholics like Stephen Brady and Leon Podles have warned of these problems for awhile — and have been conveniently and patently ignored by Catholics who claim to be “faithful to the Magisterium.”

    The ultimate solution is revival. Seriously. The ultimate solution is for the hierarchy to reject massively the monarchistic pretensions it has been clinging to and repent. How would this work? By immediately implementing Canon Law concerning sexual transgressors and the bishops who enabled them, and holding canonical trials in Rome. That would be an effective first step that deals directly with the problem. Whether such bishops are retirement age is quite beside the point.

  56. Supertradmum says:

    PS same seminary in the guest dining room also consistently had meat on Friday. I would not go on retreat there. When I ask why, I was told that the monastery would not impose its abstinence on the guests, some of whom were not Catholic. Disgusting….stupid political correctness. If one goes on a retreat, meat on Friday is actually a contradiction of the meaning of retreat and penance.

  57. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    “There’s a difference between joyful obedience and reluctant obedience. It sounds like you’re emphasising the latter.”

    Yes…but…reluctant obedience is better than no obedience at all!

    I agree with the response to Augustine here. The lack of practice of meatless friday in such periods as Lent or Advent is part of a larger problem here at the church. While I am post Vat-II (and I disagree with those who say THE COUNCIL ITSELF is evil or ruined the Church) I can understand through learning about the times and traditions of old, was that there was better obedience and practice in the Church and in the world. Perhaps many of those people prior to Vat II RELUCTANTLY had to go to Mass on sundays and dress in “Sunday Best” for it, and gave up meat on Fridays but at least they were fulfilling their minimal requirements and would think about raising their kid Catholic or putting to practice what was emphasized at Mass. Plus don’t these works have graces attached to them or spiritual benefits in the actions themselves?

    Fast forward 50 years later and can you ask yourself, how many people even go to Mass at all? How many Catholic Parents are even choosing to have their kids get the sacraments administered? If they do, does the family ever go to Mass outside of Xmas and Good Friday and Easter and the “Necessities?” How many so called “Catholics” are obedient to their faith and choose to instead follow secular mainstream culture? Think about it. The Church’s clergy are supposed to be leaders for us. When they swung left by the poisons of modernism, feminism, and liberalism, they stopped preaching this, enforcing the practices of the faith INCLUDING MEATLESS FRIDAYS (even though it’s still written down in Canon Law or elsewhere, but what average Catholic KNOWS about these writings?). So no wonder most people don’t care. At least if there is enforcement of practices, leading to what Augstine calls “reluctant obedience” at least it will save more souls and it’s better they be reluctantly obedient Catholics vs. “Catholic” liars whose souls are in so much sin.

    Hence like the respondent: “…reluctant obedience is better than no obedience at all!”

  58. Supertradmum says:

    Obedience is obedience. Remember the parable of Christ, when He taught that the two sons responded to a request from their father to do something. The second said “Yes”, but did not follow through. The first son said “No”, but ended up doing his father’s will. Obviously, reluctance can lead to a change of heart. Matt 21:28-32

  59. abiologistforlife says:

    I was born too late to ever have meatless Fridays (heard of it from family, yes, but as something past); and I had never heard of the substitute-some-other-penance rule until I saw it on this blog — it’s not something I ever see or hear discussed in real life.

    I voted ‘too lax’ but with reservations; the current discipline would be perfectly fine if it were actually taught — I just think that having a unified thing to do would help in getting it actually taught. (And the factor of building identity is significant, too.)

  60. QMJ says:

    The practice of an optional penance is too lax. It is way too easy for people to be too lax on themselves or too hard on themselves. Abstinence from meat is neither too lax nor too hard. It also requires us to be more conscious of being penitential. The only people who should have an option are those who do not eat meat, cannot eat meat, or who live in a region where fish is more regularly eaten than meat.

  61. Andrew says:

    One of the customs that has done great damage to Friday’s penitential character is the concept of the Weekend and the TGIF mentality. In our society Friday is a festive anticipation of the weekend with Happy Hour, shopping, going out, eating, celebrating. When I was a child my dear dad used to get on my case even if I turned on the radio on Friday. To this day I cannot participate in anything festive on Friday without an inner cringe. To this day I don’t listen to music on Fridays. Perhaps a useful way to counter this loss of Friday’s penitential character might be having Stations of the Cross or Eucharistic Benedictions on Friday evenings. Christians need each other’s mutual support. If you’re out there all by yourself with the whole world celebrating, what can you do?

  62. Joan M says:

    When I was 23 I spent 3 months in Madrid. I had heard that the Friday abstinence had been done away with, but had seen no official notices to that effect. However, on my first Friday in Madrid, while deciding what to order in a restaurant, I spotted a Catholic priest being served carne…. Well, that did it for me. If a priest was eating meat on Friday, it was definitely true that the abstinence was gone!

    It was not until about 10 or 11 years ago that I learned, from the internet, that only the requirement, on pain of sin, had gone away; that we were supposed to chose some other penance if we ate meat.

    So, for about 10 years or so my husband and I do not eat meat on Fridays. And, since I am the one that usually cooks dinner, anyone who eats dinner in my home on Friday will be served some sort of fish dish. Tonight it will be Tilapia, served with some version of potatoes (I am leaning towards roast potato wedges), and whatever vegetable I feel like when I start cooking.

    Actually, it has become so much a comfortable habit that, should I be some place where I am served a meal that has meat, it is a penance to say nothing and eat it!

  63. Joan M says:

    FWIW, I was in Madrid in the winter of 1966 – 67 :-)

  64. Joe in Canada: somebody correct me if I’m wrong on this, but: I believe the reason fish does not count as meat for purposes of abstinence is that in the Church law on abstinence, the Latin word for “meat” refers to the flesh of warm-blooded animals, which fish are not. (So I guess, theoretically, we could eat the flesh of bugs and reptiles on Fridays; I for one am not nearly heroic enough for that penance.)

    Carolina Geo:

    We live in interesting times: at a moment in time when we should be doing more penance than ever in light of our societal norms and practices, the Church – in so many of her bishops and priests – tells us that fasting and penance are not necessary.

    I’ll see you, and raise you. I submit that a huge contributing factor to our present societal norms and practices is precisely that we have grown lax in our penances. It is a curious thing that, in the midst of the bloodiest and most horrific century in human history, we should have considered ourselves to have somehow evolved beyond a need for penance.

  65. mike cliffson says:

    Joan M.
    Spain always was different: Except for lenten fridays, unlike the rest of Catholic christendomFriday abstinence was patchily observed, where and if at all, yonks before VatII. Like you in 69, many Catholic visitors were scandalized. It comes from 7 centuries of continuous slow resistance and reconquest against a peaceful invader with peaceful swords and peaceful proseltizing, much of which was offically crusading, with the corresponding indulgences. I have heard stories about how a patchwork of these indulnces were somehow maintained during any analagous warfare, or near, or whatever, in the centuries following the reconquest of Granada. To outsiders, it seemed like a right fiddle.

  66. thereseb says:

    Even before 1962 there were “getout” clauses. My father was travelling one-time with business colleagues in a ferry restaurant – eating fish as usual when one of his colleagues pointed out a priest at the next table tucking into a juicy steak. Afterwards, Dad went over discreetly and pointed out that this was giving scandal (oh for the days before pantsuited nuns et al), and the priest replied sheepishly that it was ok as he was travelling.

    When JP2 tried to “reintroduce” it, my meek and generally observant mother would have none of it. She said that they couldn’t keep changing their minds once the genie was out of the bottle – it stays out.

    I started observing when reading blogs like this – and I enjoy the challenge. I don’t eat fish, so go veggie, but cook fish for the others.

    BTW – during the Deformation, Friday penances were abolished, but were re-introduced by Elizabeth I after pleading from the fishing industry, and the Proddy bishops, who had a nice line in selling exemptions…..

  67. suzannaleigh says:

    I voted that the rules are too lax and I’m not thinking only in terms of Fridays but also in how Lent is celebrated and in how the rules are currently given. It used to be that Lent was celebrated in a way that required sacrifice: not only no meat but no or eggs if I remember correctly. Now however you have people practicing childish Lents where they “give up” chocolate and only fast once or twice the entire season.

    Furthermore, whenever I hear the words explained, the ability to choose to do something less strict is always stressed. So what happens? The majority chooses the easy way out.

    I honestly think that because of this, many Catholics do not have a clear idea of what penance is, why it’s important, and why it’s a part of
    who we are. Also, I think this is why vocations to monstic orders are dropping. If people don’t understand penance, why would they choose to dedicate themselves to it as a vocation?

  68. suzannaleigh says:

    I meant to say no dairy and no eggs. Sorry.

  69. bookworm says:

    Generally I try to fast on Fridays in some fashion — usually by skipping or greatly reducing my breakfast and lunch. I may also spend my lunch hour praying the Rosary or Chaplet of Divine Mercy (privately, while walking or driving between necessary errands). I will abstain as long as I can but since my husband, alas, does not practice his faith and may insist on being served meat at dinnertime, I will serve it.

    For me fasting is both harder and easier than abstaining. It’s easier in the sense that I can do it privately without imposing on anyone else; it’s harder in the sense of being more of a physical mortification.

    If obligatory Friday penance is restored, a choice of EITHER fasting or abstinence would be reasonable (although both would be encouraged, you would only “have to” do one). It would require real sacrifice but would be flexible.

  70. Dr. Eric says:

    In the beginning the fasting rules were much much more strict. No meat from any animal with a spine or that has red blood, no dairy, no eggs, no oil, no wine, no lovin’ on every Wednesday, Friday, and during Lent (the St. Philip’s Fast was introduced later). Some places observed the black fast, upon which Ramadan is modeled, in that in addition to the above rules no food was to be eaten until after 3 pm. This reflected the lifestyle of the Mediterranean world at the time. Many people still enjoyed squid, octopus, sea urchin, sea cucumber, etc… (all of which make me gag).

    Through the centuries as the Faith spread the rules were changed to reflect the culture that embraced the Faith. Although most of them could be mitigated through almsgiving, the Butter Tower of Rouen is an example of what the alms paid for. Luther really hated giving up butter, from what I have read. In fact, in the frozen north there is no fasting requirement because the only thing to eat are the blubbery semi aquatic mammals who live in the arctic circle!

    After writing the above, I have to go on record in writing that our fasting rules are waaaaay too lax. The Orhodox think “giving up gummy bears for Lent” is a joke. But I have read that one of the early Fathers was of the opinion that it is easy to Fast when you live in a Christian society, but in the End Times just being a Christian will be harder than keeping the black fast and the greatest Saints will live in the End Times. Who knows, “Meatless Monday” started by the new age animal worshipers might replace our Friday abstinence and be a signal to catch Christians who don’t instead abstain on Mondays.

    Sinner that I am, I abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays unless a Feast Day falls on those days. I incorporated the meatless days into my fitness regimen and the cycling of carbohydrates aids in fat loss as well. Once again, perhaps the cycles of fasting and abstinence are good for us as well.

  71. DHippolito says:

    I have always considered the Lenten “regulations” concerning fasting that come from my diocese to be a joke. Why? Because the emphasis is on types of foods and portions, not on spiritual renewal. It becomes an arcane, legalistic device. People used to fast in order to pray, to read Scripture, to help others. Why can’t that be encouraged? For that matter, who says that fasting has to involve food? Why can’t it involve not watching television, not playing video games, not buying unnecessary luxuries, in order to do something else? After all, what’s the point of fasting if one does not spiritually mature in the process?

  72. Dr. Eric says:

    Aren’t you the same guy on Fr. Longenecker’s blog who has called him to task to disprove Sola Scriptura as you have separated yourself from Holy Mother Church?

  73. People here [ Portugal ]suppose they are catholics but, really, they don’t even dream what is to be catholic. So, when my girls say in public that we don’t eat meat at fridays, you should see people’s faces!

  74. RickInPew7 says:

    I have no resources for this, but when I was in High School in the mid 60’s, I learned that Spain was exempted from the Lenten Friday Abstinence rule in recognition of Spain’s participation in the Inquisition. Perhaps when the Papal Dispensation was given, Portugal and Spain were one country. It was my understanding that the Dispensation applied to all of the Spanish Empire too, which included the New World and the Philippines. As I say, I could be way off base on this, but I have been to both Mexico and the Philippines in Lent, and they have no idea what Friday abstinence is all about.

  75. albinus1 says:

    When I was 23 I spent 3 months in Madrid. I had heard that the Friday abstinence had been done away with, but had seen no official notices to that effect. However, on my first Friday in Madrid, while deciding what to order in a restaurant, I spotted a Catholic priest being served carne…. Well, that did it for me. If a priest was eating meat on Friday, it was definitely true that the abstinence was gone!


    According to my friend and colleague Mike Foley, writing in a recent issue of The Latin Mass, Spain and its possessions long had some sort of blanket dispensation from the Friday meat abstinence.

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