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Common Penance: Why Not Restore Meatless Fridays for the US Church?

August 30, 2018


For Catholics, the summer of 2018 has been something of a tempus horribilis, full of calls to fasting and penance in reparation of (and for the restoration of) a Church roiled by sin and scandal.

I’ve been wondering if this might not be a good time for the laity and the leadership to talk about one penitential practice in which we all may collectively engage on a weekly basis: the return of meatless Fridays.

Within a culture as poorly catechized as our own, most Catholics are not even aware that they are still expected to sacrifice something on a Friday. I was a grown woman before a priest told me that the lifting of the specific Friday ban on meat was not—as I had come to think of it—the equivalent of a doctrinal tooth extraction that replaced something with nothing.

Untrue. It seems we have always been expected to engage in some sort of penitential behavior in remembrance of Good Friday, even after the Second Vatican Council. The Council’s intent was never to abandon the penance; it simply permitted the faithful to choose their own, more personally meaningful, sacrifice. So, if one knew she would be eating meat on a Friday, she was free to offer penance in another way—perhaps give up a meal, or take stairs instead of the elevator, or turn off the radio and pray a Rosary while driving to work.

The move, I think, was meant to make the Friday sacrifice more personally evocative to a culture that had detached from any historical idea, and was keeping meatless Fridays thoughtlessly, almost by rote. 

And too, it treated the faithful like adults whose consciences were well-formed enough to determine what sort of sacrifice to make within their lives.

Unfortunately, like many of the ideas that came out of the Council, the thinking somehow got lost in translation, or delivery, while the documents simply went unread. Did you know, for instance, that in Sacrosanctum Conciliumthe Council, while urging the inclusion of more modern music in the liturgy, also argued that pipe organs and chant must still play a formidable part of our worship? No, neither did I.

Admittedly, some did know at least about the Friday sacrifice, as I learned in 2011 when the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales announced the restoration of meatless Fridays:

Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord . . . The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat.

When it was announced, reactions on social media were passionate, both pro and con. Some sneered that meatless Fridays would make a poor sacrifice because people would “eat lobster and shrimp” instead of steak, while others looked forward to “carbing-out” with macaroni and cheese. Others decried a move to “re-infantilize” the faithful. One friend of mine emailed with flat incredulity, “We’re just supposed to obey?”

Because obedience—what a concept!

I actually loved the idea. As a child, I had been all-in on the practice of a “shared penance” among the Catholic community; my mother was such a dreadful cook that our Fridays entailed real suffering, and I wanted the world to suffer with me.

In truth, my mother’s kitchen mishaps were so routine that our Fridays, with or without meat, were as penitential as any other day of the week, but I had always liked the cultural commonality that set Fridays apart and made them feel oddly, wonderfully, safe and homey. In our working-class neighborhood the Sunday dinners might vary widely from roast chicken to braciola, but on Fridays we were all taking cozily meatless meals. If my mother was heating up cans of tuna and cream of mushroom soup to slop over toast, my neighbors were having home-made pizza or scrambled eggs.

There was something comforting about these less-than-formal suppers, where the modesty of the meal meant that food became incidental to the companionship and conversation, which was brought to the fore. If company was coming, all the better—the sense of unity was broadened as our guest, with great humility and courtesy, dug into the same simple fare as the rest of us.

Obedience is not a popular word in our postmodern culture, and right now tensions between Catholic laity and leadership might cause some to bristle at the notion of a meatless penance assigned to the American Church by her bishops. But I wonder if that might play differently, and the proposal would become more acceptable, if the laity initiated the change and asked the bishops to officially reinstate meatless Fridays, so that the whole of us—bishops, priests, religious, laity, children, teens and adults—can regularly make a common penance, offering up a shared sacrifice on the same day, every week.

We would need for it to become a long-standing, entrenched sacrifice, as it was before, because the trials we face as a Church are going to be long-lasting and difficult. This sort of communal effort might, over time, help to restore a sense of unity and joined purpose that is badly needed right now.

Perhaps we need to reclaim the whole notion of “obedience” from the heap of cast-aside cultural virtues, poorly understood. After all, it’s not like we don’t “obey” in the secular world. We pause at a stop sign—even on a deserted road at four in the morning—because it is the law, but also because it is the right thing to do within our community; it is a sacrifice of our own observational abilities, made to a common good, and we obey without complaint.

Forty years after the quasi-autonomy of “do your own thing,” we are flung far from our spiritual origins, many of us languishing in unintended isolation. Perhaps a renewed acquaintance with a “common obedience” may help rekindle in Catholics the shared sense of identity that has become fractured thanks to the culture wars, or the liturgy wars, or the simple reality that the parish in one town stands throughout Holy Communion and projects the readings and music onto a wall, while the parish in the next town ends Mass with the Prayer to St. Michael, and the parish two towns over has a band instead of a choir.

Unity aside, perhaps the modesty and simplicity of a meatless Friday can initiate a trend toward a more voluntary simplification of our lives, and a less materialistic mindset to boot.

Back in 2011, when the UK Bishops issued their statement, William Oddie, writing in the Catholic Herald, applauded the move, noting that it is not personal choice but “obedience that holds us together as a people.” It is also, he argued, the formulator of a healthy Catholic conscience.

It is the formulator of humility, too, which—especially in these challenging Catholic times—the whole Church could stand to cultivate. 

It would be a strange thing for the laity to request a Church-wide discipline from the leadership, but by virtue of our own baptismal priesthoods we have standing to do so, and to encourage each other—as obedientiaries in common pursuit of healing and holiness—to share the penitential meal with others, including our clergy, in our homes and in parish halls. In such small and simple ways can this broken Body of Christ become restored.