Archbp. Dolan on meatless Fridays and external signs of our Catholic identity

His Excellency Most Rev. Timothy Dolan of New York City has an interesting post on his blog The Gospel in the Digital Age.  I would like to support something important he raised.

Keep in mind that Archbishop Dolan has a combox under his post.  Would you go there and give him comments of support (and if you want say “Hi!” from Fr. Z!)?

Edited and with my emphases and comments.

External Markers of Our Faith

It caused somewhat of a stir . . .

A few months back, you might have heard, the bishops of England reintroduced the discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays. [I wrote about that HERE.]

Every Catholic mid-fifties and older can recall how abstinence from meat on all Fridays was a constant of our lives.  In 1967, Pope Paul VI relaxed this discipline, decreeing it no longer obligatory, but voluntary, while highly encouraged, on Fridays (except during Lent, when it remained binding).

This modification–the pros and cons still being debated–almost became the symbol of “change” in the post-Vatican II Church.

Whether one agrees with that decision or not, all must admit that penance and mortification–essentials of Christian discipleship, according to Jesus Himself–have sadly diminished as a trait of Catholic life.  Such was hardly the intent of Pope Paul VI, as is clear from his 1967 teaching, but, it is a somber fact.

That’s one of the reasons the bishops of Great Britain have reintroduced the discipline, calling their brothers and sisters, faithful to the Gospel, back to external acts of penance, so necessary to fight the reign of sin so evident in our personal lives, in the world, and even within the Church.

Another reason that usually surfaces in any discussion of this issue is the value of what are called external markers enhancing our religious identity. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?  At the same time, there were other markers too… right?  You can think of a few I am sure.  But let’s stay on target with Friday penance.]

Scholars of religion–all religions, not just Catholic–tell us that an essential of a vibrant, sustained, attractive, meaningful life of faith in a given creed is external markers.


For some religions, it might be dress; others are noted for feastdays, seasons, calendars, music, ritual, customs, special devotions, and binding moral obligations.

Islam, for example, is renowned for Ramadan, the holy season now upon them; dress; required prayer three times daily; and obligatory pilgrimage. [The use of a sacred language.]

Orthodox Jews are obvious, for instance, for their skull caps, for the seriousness of the Sabbath, and for feastdays. [The use of a sacred language.]

What about us Catholics?  For God’s sake, I trust we are recognized for our faith, worship, charity, and lives of virtue.

But, what are the external markers that make us stand out?

Lord knows, there used to be tons of them: [Used to be!] Friday abstinence from meat was one of them, but we recall so many others:  seriousness about Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; fasting on the Ember Days; saints names for children; confession at least annually; loyal membership in the local parish; fasting for three hours before Holy Communion, just to name a few. [The use of a sacred language.]


Debate it you may.  But, the scholars tell us that, without such identifiable characteristics, any religion risks becoming listless, bland, and unattractive.  Even the sociologist Father Andrew Greeley, hardly some nostalgic conservative, concluded that the dropping of Friday abstinence was a loss to Catholic identity.

And that’s another reason many welcomed the initiative of the bishops of England as a step in the right direction:  restoring a sense of belonging, an exterior sign of membership, to a Church at times adrift. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

Is it fair and timely to ask if we “threw out the baby with the bathwater” when we got rid of so many distinctive, identifying marks of Catholic life five decades ago[Yes, Your Excellency!  It’s fair! It’s fair!]

I’m not saying we should re-introduce any or all of these markers. [Ummmm…. why?  They worked, right?  But we do things “brick by brick”.] The toothpaste is probably out of the tube.  I’m just suggesting that this is a conversation well-worth having. [Perhaps we need less talk and more action?  I’m just sayin’  …]

[QUAERITUR] Perhaps the pivotal question is:  what makes us different as a Catholic?

A balance is good:  if all the emphasis is on these external markers, the danger is hypocrisy and scrupulous observance of man-made laws.

But, if all the emphasis is on the interior, with no exterior sign of identity, the risk is a loss of a sense of belonging and communal solidarity.

We sure need both.

So, I ask again:  what makes us different as Catholics?  Are the bishops of England on to something?

WDTPRS kudos to Archbp. Dolan for raising the questions and supporting that initiative of the Bishops of England and Wales.

To this end, I will post in a separate entry a WDTPRS on whether we should have, in the USA, a return to meatless Fridays as an expression of Friday penance throughout the whole year, and not just during Lent.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. wolfeken says:

    Archbishop Dolan would be an outstanding Church leader if any of his blog post suggestions, from marriage to liturgy to discipline to pro-life, were to actually be implemented as mandatory policy.

    Perhaps the head of the USCCB can turn these blog posts into actions with consequences.

  2. gracie says:

    The reason Catholics didn’t eat meat on Fridays years ago was because Friday was the day that Jesus was crucified and giving up meat was a sacrifice we made as a way of remembering Christ’s sacrifice. How many people today think of Our Lord’s crucifixion when Fridays roll around? I would venture hardly anyone which means that it’s yet one more traditional practice tossed out after Vatican II that has served to loosen, rather than strengthen, our relationship to Christ. By all means bring it back.

  3. benedetta says:

    I really admire the Bishops in England for taking this step and I hope that we will do it in America as well. It’s not so much the requirement just for itself but for its meaning, the simple but concrete action, and that it unifies in a visible way.

  4. APX says:

    I was already under the impression the US was like Canada and still required abstaining from meat on Fridays. Here in Canada abstaining from meat on Fridays is still required, but few seem to do it. I’m surprised to find out that I was wrong.

    At one point Catholics not eating meat on Fridays was so prevalent, that Catholics caused McDonald’s to lose a mass amount of money on Fridays. It caused so much significant profit losses that someone who worked for the company invented the Fillet-o-fish sandwich (ever notice how it goes on sale every Lent, and it was always Friday’s $3.99 special?) to get Catholics coming into the restaurant on Fridays. We used to be that influential. Imagine the impact we could have today if we practiced what we preached!

    I think it’s a good requirement to have, and should be re-introduced to the US.

  5. hald says:

    I am not R.C., but I grew up in a largely R.C. neighborhood. My mother would frequently purchase a partial lunch plan for me, as I liked to have the fish meal which was offered every Friday at the public school.

    Today, in the Kansas City area, at least, Wendy’s always has a fish sandwich on the menu through the Lenten season.

  6. Ah. I remember being stuck with McDonalds as my only option one Friday–their fish sandwich: now THAT’s penance!

  7. anilwang says:

    “The toothpaste is probably out of the tube. ”

    Unfortunately, most of us are too steeped in modernism to see how fundamentally absurd this statement is.

    As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, the moderns ” are always saying ` you can’t put the clock back.’ The simple and obvious answer is, ` You can.’ A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour.” .

    Sure it will not be easy to restore all the external signs, it has been done several times before and let’s not forget that Catholicism was able to convert an empire that accepted outright infanticide (i.e. Roman) as laudable if you give birth to a girl or disabled or just don’t like the look of your baby.

    All that’s required is that the faith be taught in its fullness and for Catholics to be called on to live that faith.

    WRT Catholic identity, one thing Catholics are known for is the sign of the cross. While its use has greatly diminished, it is still known even by atheists (if from nothing else, old vampire/werewolf/Frankenstein movies). Unfortunately, Catholics of this generation are shy about doing the sign of the cross in public. Most notably I have yet to see a Catholic make the sign of the cross while eating in public, especially in mixed company. While it might not be appropriate to have a common prayer before meals in mixed company, there is no excuse for having a private (possibly hidden) prayer and (visible) sign of the cross before meals.

  8. maynardus says:

    Gracie makes an excellent point above and perhaps you (Father) would care to comment further on it. These days one seems to hear Friday Abstinence referred to as mainly a (personal) penitential discipline. This is in and of itself quite laudible, and when imposed by obligation does indeed establish a marker of Catholic identity. But how many times have we heard comments by our elders, bemoaning the “bad old days”, displaying a complete lack of comprehension for the reason behind the practice? If – God willing- we are to have a re-introduction of Friday Abstinence in the United States, there needs to be proper catechesis.

    I’ve found that when people recognize the correlation between the *specific* penitential practice of abstaining from *flesh meat* on *Fridays* and the Crucifixion of Our Lord’s earthly – fleshly – body on Good Friday, the whole thing becomes a whole lot more logical to them. After all, most of us aren’t as pious as we ought to be; disciplines like this exist mainly for us sinners rather than the few saints amongst us. Even the “modern Church” reminds us that Sunday is the day of the Resurection, a “little Easter”; what’s wrong with likewise commemorating the Crucifixion by keeping every Friday as a “little Good Friday”? Speaking as a poor sinner myself, I certainly found it easier to embrace Friday Abstinence after came to this realization. And I think this fuller understanding makes it an even more powerful and effective sign of Catholic identity.

  9. guatadopt says:

    “A balance is good: if all the emphasis is on these external markers, the danger is hypocrisy and scrupulous observance of man-made laws.”

    He is so right about that. There are many people who fall into the extreme camp of observance of “law” as the means to salvation. Faith first, external works second and only supplementing the faith. That’s what we have lost.

  10. Paul M says:

    Nice to hear an archbishop of a major metro area speak of external acts of penance. As you’ve said so often Father, it’s about the renewal of Catholic identity.

    His Excellency states, “However, genuine interior religion then gives rise to external traits, especially acts of charity and virtue.” I think the reverse is also true, that externals can give rise to the internal. Sometimes it’s those externals that help keep our faith alive when our internal faith life wanes.

    Sure, many Catholics would ignore an obligatory Friday abstinence, but a huge percentage already ignore their Sunday Mass obligation. How about Mass attendance on the few remaining Holy Days of Obligation? Seems like the easier the hierarchy has tried to make “being Catholic”, the easier it’s been to just walk away.

  11. anilwang says:

    guatadopt, actually I don’t see that too often. I don’t think it was all that common even in Biblical times, since otherwise why would James say “But someone will say, You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith out of my works.”?

    Paul himself states that we were created to do good works. Faith isn’t an abstract intellectual idea. It permeates your life such that faith without works is dead.

    What Jesus, Paul, and James repeatedly condemn is not works, but works that are used to either puff yourself up or look down on others or works that attempt to make God your debtor (i.e. bargaining with God) or works that are used to defy God in the name of God (e.g. Mark 7:10-13).

    Truth be told, people are lazy then and now. If people can get away with squeaking by or slacking off or avoid being a martyr (dry or wet) even if called to be one, they will. It’s true now as it was back then (read the homilies of Church Fathers like St John Chrysostom).

    Fasting among other things at allows us to become more able to resist yielding to the temptations that pull us from the faith. Other rituals such as blessing our children with holy water or reading the daily office, even if they had no other effect, at least remind us of the faith at key points in the day. Without such reminders, we’ll too easily lapse into forgetting God and becoming worldly like the foolish virgins of the parable since God isn’t immediately in visible to us every second of the day.

  12. UncleBlobb says:

    @Archbishop Dolan: Please TRY to put the toothpaste back into the tube.

  13. benedetta says:

    anilwang, I find what you say really helpful. I agree that we tend to tune out this sort of thing about the horses have left the barn or you can’t put the toothpaste back and feel hopeless in process. I have to say I was taken by surprise by the announcement regarding returning to no meat on Fridays from the Bishops of England, and I was also surprised in the same way by the Pastoral Letter to Young People on Chastity of the Canadian Bishops. Health of spirit, mind and body are all things encouraged by secular health experts, as well as participation and identity with one’s faith tradition. Numerous secular psychologists and others who work in education and with young people agree that the sex ed curriculum, the pornography, and so many other influences generally haven’t been very helpful towards the overall healthy development for youth. There has been little official discussion of the supporting young people who choose to develop the virtue of chastity for a couple generations now. I do see many parents, education groups and psychologists, in faith communities and in secular contexts, discussing more and more and trying to find ways to constructively support young people.

    It may not be instantaneous but I still think many things are worth a fair discussion and opportunity to discover if helpful for us in the spiritual struggle.

  14. Dr. Eric says:

    You CAN get the shampoo back in the bottle.

  15. FranzJosf says:

    Interesting note: Japanese tempura (batter fried vegetables and fish) is named for the food eaten during Lent by Catholic converts when the Jesuits evangelized Japan. From the Latin “Tempus Quadragesimae” (Time of Forty [Days]).

    Yes, we should bring this back.

  16. irishgirl says:

    Just went over to the Archbishop’s blog and submitted a comment (told him ‘Hi from Father Z!’).
    This is a good start. Now His Excellency and the other Bishops in this country have to keep the ball rolling and REALLY RE-ASSERT our Catholic identity!
    For one thing, put the Holy Days of Obligation back to where they always were; none of this ‘no-Mass-Friday-to-Monday’ nonsense. (I forgot to mention this to him)
    Actions, not just words, Your Excellencies!

  17. newtrad says:

    This is something my family started doing a few years ago and it really does remind us every Friday that Our Lord died on this day for us. It does make a statement to others and is a good visual sign to the world that we have not forgotten Our Lord. Recently having moved to Lincoln,Ne , I am amazed at the amount of restaurants in town that offer meatless Friday specials all year long. Perhaps it is because there is a large number of businesses owned by Catholics or perhaps it is just the message has been spread well by our beloved Bishop. It sure is nice to have options on Fridays all year long!

  18. Matthew16 says:

    I am going to buck the trend – I hope the Church leaves “meatless Fridays” outside of Lent as an optional discipline.

    I think a more appropriate wider Catholic symbolic Friday ritual/symbol would be Stations of the Cross, Eucharistic adoration, or public or private recitation and meditation on the Divine Mercy Chaplet or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. I submit that any of those four would be better “markers” of our Catholic identity than whether we abstain from meat on Friday. A day of fasting would be a good spiritual discipline, but simply abstaining from meat seems a bit simplistic and obsolete (yes, even knowing its origins).

    Perhaps not everything old is worthwhile and should be resumed; and if the Church has gone too far in relaxing disciplines over the past fifty years to the point where Catholic identity is elusive and fungible, maybe a new and active approach is needed in order to inculcate a more reverent, penitential, and visible people of God.

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