A few days ago I got into a discussion with a well-meaning parishioner about (surprise!) all things traditional. It was a great chat...we talked about the "good ole days" and how she's glad that the Church is really doing its part to recover some of its lost patrimony and traditions. I was pleased as punch...I even broke into Peter Allen's fantastic song, Everything Old is New Again. It's always a real pleasure to speak with someone who actually cares that the 2,000 years of history and tradition prior to the Second Vatican Council are still relevant in our lives. As the conversation continued, however, we went down the road concerning Friday abstinence from meat. She said: "I have to say Father, I'm glad that we can eat meat on Fridays now! That was one of the good things they changed!" I chuckled, put my arm on her shoulder, and said, "Well, I've got some good news and some bad news..."
There's a lot of misunderstanding about Friday abstinence...many people think that Vatican II threw open the windows, let all the stale air out of the Church, and put Big Mac's on everyone's plate. It's really a bit more nuanced than that...
After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI took on the task of rearticulating the role of penance in the life of the Church. In 1966, he promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Poenitemini, effectively establishing new laws concerning both fasting and abstinence. He decreed that all Fridays of the year (expect on days of precept, e.g. Holy Day of Obligation), are still to be observed by abstinence from meat/meat products. However, in the same breath, he extended to the Bishop's Conferences the faculty to replace this abstinence with another kind of penitential practice, such as works of charity or other pious exercises.
So, on November 18, 1966, the United States bishops issued a Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. In this document, they took Pope Paul VI up on his offer...they lifted the obligation to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, allowing the faithful themselves to decide how they will observe the penitential nature of Fridays. BUT, in doing so, the bishops were clear to state that abstinence from meat is still the preferred act of penance on Fridays and they hoped the faithful would STILL ordinarily and freely choose to abstain from meat.
Now, it's 2015...nearly 50 years have passed since all of this has occurred. We might ask ourselves, "What has been the fruit of this decision?" I think the answer is pretty clear...the majority of the faithful interpreted all of this as "letting up on the rules" and giving blanket permission for everyone to eat as much meat as they want on Fridays. For those not abstaining from meat on Fridays, are they engaging in an explicit and intentional act of penance in order to make every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ (USCCB, Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, 23) or are they letting Friday slip by without any thought to penance or the Lord's passion?
In our world today, as secularism/materialism/individualism beats up against our homes, our minds, and our hearts more and more, we Catholics are going to have to take strident steps to root ourselves in our Catholic culture and tradition lest we get swept up in the things of this world. From the days of the early Church, Sunday has always been a day of great celebration, rejoicing, and feasting in order to commemorate the Lord's resurrection, whereas Friday is a day of penance, prayer, and fasting in order to commemorate His passion. I'm afraid to say that, without a concrete and definite plan of action, Fridays will become increasingly more and more non-penitential in our lives. We'll continue to treat it as the first day of the weekend, turning it into a day of partying and over-indulgence. Perhaps, now more than ever, we need to make a full-fledged return to meatless Fridays.
The long and short of it folks: you may eat meat on Fridays of the year (except during Lent, mind you!), but if you're going to eat that steak or pepperoni pizza you must be doing some other explicit act of penance. The time to get serious about these things has come...the world has changed A LOT since 1966, and not, I must say, for the better. Only strong Catholic culture can properly equip us to withstand the increasing allurements of the secular world.
So who's with me? Let's return to the traditional and perennial practice of abstaining from meat/meat products on every Friday of the year. It'll be a bit of a sacrifice, as it's supposed to be, but hopefully it'll help to make us more intentional and strong in our faith!