QUAERITUR: Does the obligation to do penance on Fridays bind us under pain of sin?

From a reader:

I advised a friend that Catholics are either to abstain from meat on Fridays or to substitute another form of prayer, good work, or abstinence; and that she should confess if she failed to do this. In the confessional, the priest sharply rebuked her and told her it was absolutely done away with. Is there a document that I can refer her to that vindicates this position? And should we be confessing when we omit the abstinence or act of charity/prayer

The country is not identified, so let’s confine this to these United States of America.

I refer you to the U.S. Bishops’ 1966 document called On Penance and Abstinence.  This document, following Paul VI’s changes in the matter, still has force.  It was not abrogated by can. 6 of the 1983 Code or by subsequent legislation.  On Penance and Abstinence did away with the obligation to abstain on Fridays under pain of sin.

The bishops urged Catholics to continue to do penance by abstaining from eating meat, or to substitute some other form of penance, but they did not legislate any penance, under pain of sin.

These norms still have the approval of the Holy See. Until the law is changed, Catholics these United States are not bound, under pain of sin, to do anything penitential on Fridays. We are merely “strongly urged” to do so!

At this point let’s reflect collectively on Luke 17:10 on doing only do what is absolutely expected of us. What was it the Lord said of those types? Something about “unprofitable servants”?

At the same time, it is reprehensible that any confessor would sharply rebuke a penitent for confessing something she thought was a sin.

Sinners should be treated kindly by their confessors.

If someone thinks some act or omission is sinful and does it or fails to do it, there is definitely some element of sin. A good confessor, it seems to me, would explain the situation and educate, form the penitent’s conscience.

This is why it is important that seminarians be taught well what the Church’s law really says. The law can put people at ease, comfort them.

Let us pray that the U.S. bishops will soon clarify the issue of Friday abstinence by reasserting the traditional practice and the universal law. Let us urge them to take concrete steps to do so, and swiftly.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Even if it were still a requirement, she would not be sinning (at least not mortally) if she had not known about the requirement prior to her friend enlightening her. Unless I am misunderstanding the story, I find it a little troubling that the friend told her that she ought to confess this in the first place (maybe the friend meant it in a “now that you know” sense, and meant future transgressions?). In any case, it is always awful when a priest reacts that way in the confessional–it can be a huge blow to a person’s confidence and willingness to confess again.

  2. MichaelJ says:

    mamajen, I’m genuinely curious as to why you find it troubling that ” the friend told her that she ought to confess this “? If I commit an act that is a sin, there would be no personal culpability if I was unaware, but it would still be a sin.

    Would you not feel obligated to apologise and make restitution if you unknowingly ran over your neighbor’s dog?

  3. thepapalbull says:

    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.

    From the above, it would seem the only decision relegated to the conferences is how the Friday penance is to be observed, not whether it is to be observed at all. The blog entry states that we, as American Catholics, are urged to perform a penance on Friday’s but that it is not required, under pain of sin. But clearly we are required by Canon Law, are we not? Is it merely the case that Canon Law here does not bind us “under pain of sin,” that being left to the various conferences? How then do we know which canons in the Code bind under pain of sin and which do not?


  4. Panterina says:

    But not abstaining from meat on Fridays is not a sin of omission, so there’s no obligation to confess it, is there not?

  5. thepapalbull says:

    “It was not abrogated by can. 6 of the 1983 Code or by subsequent legislation.”

    Ah, just read canon 6. Wouldn’t 6.2 would have done away with the American rule? I guess the Pope made specific provision for the American rule? Where can we read this?


  6. Mary Jane says:

    MichaelJ, I think what mamajen meant (and found troubling) was that someone told another person they should confess such-and-such in the confessional. A person’s conscience is between them and God…certainly we should watch out for our neighbor and in charity help them if they are doing wrong, but to tell them to confess something…tsk tsk. I too found that part of the quaeritur troubling.

  7. jhayes says:

    Looks as if the USCCB website is mixed up.

    The link in the post goes to a document on the USCCB site that is dated at the top as November 18, 1966 but says 1983 at the bottom. It discusses only Advent and Lent, not ordinary Fridays.

    I can’t find the original 1966 document on the USCCB website. I did find this 2010 quote from it by Googling

    This allowed the USCCB, on 18 November of the same year [1966], to issue On Penance and Abstinence, in which the bishops ‘hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin’ but ‘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’. Further, they say, ‘We emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that “no” scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience, confessions, or personal decisions on this point.’


    It’s interesting that they made the point about avoiding scrupulosity.

    Is that quote accurate and is that the current USCCB position? Does anyone have a link to the official USCCB document?

  8. MichaelJ says:

    Sorry, still not getting it Mary Jane. Are you suggesting that we should help our neighbor identify acts that are sinful but refrain from uging them to confess if they commit them? Is our role relegated to only a general exhotation to “go to Confession”.
    Would I be crossing the line so to speak if I explained to a friend that if they missed Mass without sufficient reason (not knowing if they had or not) they should confess this fact?

  9. Supertradmum says:

    Mary Jane, instruct the ignorant is one of the spiritual works of mercy in the Church. We absolutely, if we know our stuff and are not talking out of ignorance or opinion ourselves, must help each other towards salvation. Sorry, look at CCC 2447

    “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.”

  10. Blaise says:

    More troubling might be the fact that the friend told Fr Z’s correspondent what was discussed in the confessional – the fact that she confessed something specific and the reaction of the confessor. To my mind this would seem to be breaking the seal of confession which I understood to bind the penitent as well as the priest. Maybe if it is not a sin it does not count?

  11. Supertradmum says:

    Lay people are not under an oath regarding the seal of confession, only the priest is. Having said that, what is said in confession is somewhat sacred.

  12. mamajen says:

    I think in general it is a bad idea for friends to tell friends whether they have sinned or not (unless the person specifically asks for that opinion). A person needs to form their own conscience and understand how to determine whether or not they have sinned. Simply being told that they need to confess something, particularly when they haven’t actually sinned, is not helpful. I’m not saying that occurred in this case–it’s hard to tell from the question. A friend without all the facts paired with a scrupulous person could create a real mess. Better to stick with what you know. Yes, I know most of the rules and discuss them sometimes, but I don’t presume to know whether my friends have sinned (and to what degree) if they haven’t followed them.

  13. Mary Jane says:

    Woah, all. Please don’t put words in my mouth. I am not saying (and have not said) that we should not help our neighbor towards obtaining their salvation. I am saying that we should not tell our neighbor “You committed a sin – you need to go to confession.”

    MichaelJ, you asked, “Would I be crossing the line so to speak if I explained to a friend that if they missed Mass without sufficient reason (not knowing if they had or not) they should confess this fact?”

    I think what should be said instead is something like, “Missing mass without a sufficient reason is a mortal sin. Mortal sins must be confessed in order for them to be forgiven.” Then let the friend put 2 and 2 together and go to confession (if he needs to – if he has in fact missed Sunday mass without sufficient reason).

  14. Mary Jane says:

    Mamajen, agree totally.

  15. catholicmidwest says:

    Ah, the whole Catholic I’ma-gonna-make-ya thing shows up in full force. I always find this puzzling. This is not evangelism. I don’t know what it is.

  16. catholicmidwest says:

    I mean, the bishops can absolutely set up the norms of practice, as directed by the Holy See. No problem there. They can offer them as the norms of behavior even under the pain of sin, as disciplines that the whole Catholic community should follow, for their good and the good of the Church. No problem there. It’s the vocation of the bishops to lead those who are willing to follow.

    But laypeople chasing each other around saying, “tsk, tsk?” Not sure about that. I think it becomes busybody behavior or worse at some point, and that point is reached very quickly, I think.

  17. wolfeken says:

    Ah, the perfect example of what happens when the Vatican, the pope or the USCCB makes something optional. From Gregorian chant at Mass, to the use of the organ, to the use of Latin, to the communion fast, to Friday abstinence, we see what happens when an ideal is stated followed by permission to do just about anything. I am still waiting for Pope Benedict XVI or Cardinal Dolan to implement — under pain of mortal sin — even a fifth of what they have written about (numerous times!) over the years. Still waiting…

  18. MichaelJ says:

    mamajen and Mary Jane, I understand now and agree to a point. Generally, we should not be accusing others of sin. That’s not what happened here though, is it? In the spirit
    of “not putting words in peoples mouths”, the original statement referenced by Father Z was:

    “I advised a friend that Catholics are either to abstain from meat on Fridays or to substitute another form of prayer, good work, or abstinence; and that she should confess if she failed to do this.”

    Nowhere in this is even a hint that the reader accused anyone of anything. There is not even any indication that this person knew one way or another that his friend had failed to perfom some kind of penance on Friday. So I understand now what everybody finds so troubling, but this also requires reading between the lines don’t you think?

  19. catholicmidwest says:

    Catholics need to learn to stop “ragging on each other.” It’s not helpful.

    The Church leads; those who are actually in the Church follow. They rest have a decision to make; maybe they’ve already made it and that’s why they don’t follow. It’s not my job to be like a border collie, round them all up and punish them.

    You can’t make people do religious things. RELIGION 101.

  20. catholicmidwest says:

    This is exactly why the New Evangelism starts INSIDE the Church. We can’t be a channel until we are a reservoir. This means actually learning what Christianity is about and learning to be disciples in a sustained, legitimate, Catholic, gospel-driven manner.

    Being a ranting menacing mess isn’t being a reservoir.

  21. AnnAsher says:

    How about shopping on Sunday? Finishing up laundry or cutting the grass ? Mortal sins against the worship due to God?

  22. Crucesignata says:

    Sheesh! How on earth are we supposed to be soldiers of Christ when our drill sergeants make it too easy? We will all wind up spineless weaklings at this rate!

    Oremus pro campidoctoribus nobis!

  23. fatherpalka says:

    It is my understanding that the term “under pain of sin” is used to mean by implication “mortal sin.” If that is correct then we are still to either abstain from eating meat on all Fridays or, outside of Lent, we can choose a different penance. Failure to do so would no longer be considered a mortal sin but would still be a venial sin. During Lent mortal there is no choice allowed and purposefully, knowingly, willfully eating meat on those days of abstinence (Ash Wednesday and Fridays) would still constitute mortal sin even if another penance were performed.

    Unfortunately, the USCCB has removed their own document from their website and replaced it with excerpts.

  24. Mark Ingoglio says:

    I need clarification. If the 1966 document that prefers meat but leaves it up to the individual to substitute some other food OR work of charity OR prayer is the most recent decree, then the most recently published CIC, which, ostensibly, was aware of the 1966 US Bishop’s legislation, is on point. Canon 1251’s call to abstain from meat “or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference” must yet oblige, if even from a grammatical viewpoint. The bishops of our country have declined to mention another food item, and this canon does not leave the matter to the conscience of the individual. Hence, in the absence of the bishops’ decreeing another specific food, abstinence from meat is the fallback position. I don’t mean to be contrary. Please help.

  25. Mark Ingoglio says:

    RE: Wolfeken’s “…we see what happens when an ideal is stated followed by permission to do just about anything…”

    If what many are finally recognizing is true – namely, that we Catholics are poorly catechized, that the trend of our married lives imitate in many significant ways the Culture of Death, et cetera – then widening options does little to help the problem, pedagogically.

    Students in need of instruction or remediation can be guided methodically through the subject matter with specific activities that are time-tested in reinforcing the lesson taught. Only after this is accomplished do we move on to show the students how one lesson fits into another. Ultimately, the student puts the unit of lessons into practice and offers independent input, but that input proceeds organically from what has come before.

    Following another model, the student is placed into a classroom where all sorts of lessons and activities are open to him, and he chooses which he will engage in and when, with little help, if any, from anyone. The hope is that he will, of his own accord, eventually choose to engage in and reach the goal set forth in each lesson. This model occasionally works – with a student who is independent and talented.

    Still another model insists that students must learn from their peers. This model occasionally works – with a group of students who are intrinsically motivated, confident, and well socialized.

    The first model helps all students to achieve the goal. Methods two and three are fundamentally flawed, and fail more often than not.

  26. catholicmidwest says:


    I agree with you, but the problem unfortunately is more complicated than this. It makes my head hurt just to think about it, and I suspect that I’m not the only one. I suspect that’s also why we’re so miserably behind on some of these pedagogical methods which do work but which we do not generally apply effectively.

    I’m still reeling from yesterday. I’m taking a bible class and needed a nice comprehensive bible commentary for my project. I went to the biggest Catholic bookstore in town and they didn’t have one single one. Not one. They didn’t even know what I was talking about. Sigh. Catholics still don’t do Scripture. Not really.

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