Since Tomorrow Is Friday . . .

by Jimmy Akin

in Law

. . . I thought I would get around to blogging something that I’ve been meaning to do for a while: discuss what is and is not required by Catholics in observance of Friday.

First, let’s start with the universal law of the Latin church, as found in the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 1251 Abstinence from eating meat or some other food according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops 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.

Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.

The universal law in the Latin church, therefore, is that Catholics are to abstain from meat on all Fridays except solemnities and on Ash Wednesday. However, canon 1251 allows national conferences of bishops to substitute some other food for meat as the object of abstinence, and canon 1253 allows the national conference to go even further in regulating the practice of abstinence. This means that we, in the U.S., need to look at what the particular law is for the United States and how it may differ from universal law.

The U.S. norms are found in a document titled On Penance and Abstinence, dated Nov. 18, 1966, which despite the revision of the Code of Canon Law remains in force. Before we look at the norms provided by that document, a word about it is in order: Like virtually everything a national conference produces, it’s a compromise document and reflects tensions between different parties in the bishops’ conference in 1966. Some bishops undoubtedly didn’t want to make the changes the document provides, while others may have wanted to go even farther. One thing the bishops were united in, however, was a desire not to be perceived as gutting the Church’s penitential practice. When one reads the whole document, it is clear that the bishops are bending over backwards to avoid conveying this impression.

The effect of the considerations is that one must read the document carefully. One must do that with any law, but particularly with controversial compromise texts like this one, a person trying to determine what the law is must pay very careful attention to the language being used by the document and what it says regarding the faithful’s obligations under law. In this document, it is particularly necessary to distinguish between the language of law and the language of exhortation. The former pertains to the legal change the bishops were making, and the latter pertains to the pastoral “spin” the bishops want put on the situation. As we’ll see, they remove legal obligations while going on to exhort people to do things freely that were formally obligatory. In this way they seek to avoid the impression that they are gutting the Church’s penitential practice.

Now, here are the norms the document provides:

1. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified;

2. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ;

3. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We 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. Our expectation is based on the following considerations;

a. We shall thus freely and out of love for Christ Crucified show our solidarity with the generations of believers to whom this practice frequently became, especially in times of persecution and of great poverty, no mean evidence of fidelity in Christ and his Church.

b. We shall thus also remind ourselves that as Christians, although immersed in the world and sharing its life, we must preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world. Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.

The big legal change comes in norm #3, where the bishops state that “we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday.” So the obligation to abstain from meat is terminated. The question becomes: What obligation, if any, have the bishops put in its place?

The clause “as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday” is consistent with the idea that they did establish another obligation or a mandate to do penance in some form on Friday, but it also is consistent with the idea that they did not establish a new obligation. If the latter is the case then the remark is simply noting that previously abstinence had been the only prescribed way of observing Friday. Other acts of penance could be performed on Friday, but they had to be in addition to abstinece.

To find out what other obligation there may be, one must look at the surrounding text of the norms. When one does this, one discovers several things.

The first, per norm #3, is that the bishops “especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday . . . we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.” This is an exhortation and as such does not establish a legal obligation. So abstinence continued to be a recommended practice for the observance of Friday, but not a legally binding one.

The next thing, per norm #1, is that Friday continues to be a day of penance. The norm clarifies the sense in which this is to be understood by explaining that it is “a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.” This qualification strongly suggests that, though Friday is a day of penance, it is not one on which all of the faithful are legally bound or bound under pain of sin to do penance. Instead, “those who seek perfection” will do penance on the day. If the bishops intended all to be bound to do penance on Friday, they would not have used such restrictive language.

This interpretation is confirmed by norm #2, which states that “Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.” Again, the language of exhortation is used (“we urge”) rather than the language of mandate. Thus no obligation is created. If the bishops intended to create an obligation then they would have used other language, such as “all are required to prepare for that weekly Easter.”

The norms–the part of the document that would create a legal obligation if there was one–thus fails to do so. As a result, there is no obligation in the United States to practice penance on Friday, but Friday remains a day of penance which the bishops have urged all to do penance and, in particular, recommended the continued practice of abstience.

Reading the remainder of the document confirms the interpretation outlined above. As a compromise document and a controversial one, the stress that is placed on the recommendation to continue to do penance and to abstain is great, and with an inattentive reading the strength of the recommendation might lead one to think that there is an obligation to do penance on Friday. But a careful reading of the text shows that the language being used in the text never strays from the language of exhortation to the language of legal mandate.

There also is a dog that didn’t bark in this text.

The bishops were so concerned to avoid the impression that they were gutting the practice of penance that if they were creating an alternative obligation then they could not have failed to underscore this point. It would have been the most crushing rejoinder to their potential critics if they had said something like, “Though we have terminated the obligation to abstain, the faithful are nevertheless bound to perform a penance of their choice on Fridays and thus the Catholic practice of Friday penance remains in place even though the form the penance takes is now left to the determination of the individual.” The fact that the bishops nowhere say this or anything like it strongly indicates that it was not the bishops’ intent to create an alternative obligation. Calling attention to the alternative obligation by frankly stating it would have utterly invalidated the criticism the bishops were most concerned to avoid.

But the fact that the bishops nowhere state an alternative obligation indicates that one does not exist. Legal obligations do not exist that are not legislated.

Thus we conclude that the American bishops have exercised their competence, later acknowledged by canon 1253 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, to determine more particularly the manner of abstinence by restricting it to a few days a year (Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent, and Good Friday–the last being part of Triduum rather than Lent) and by recommending the continued practice of abstinence on other Fridays. Rome confirmed this document, and thus it is the law for Latin Catholics in the United States.

This also is the understanding indicated in the Canon Law Society of America’s New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law. The commentary on canon 1253 summarizes the obligations and recommendations without indicating that a legal obligation to do penance continues to exist on typical Fridays of the year.

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!


What is the Secret Information Club?I value your email privacy

{ 19 comments }

Vincent July 1, 2004 at 5:20 am

A Big Thank You, Jimmy!

Susan Schudt July 1, 2004 at 5:48 am

Dear Jimmy,
Is there any exception for the Fridays that fall in the 50 days of Easter season? Is this just the Eastern Church? All this is very confusing and none is, of course, preached at the pulpit!
May God Bless you!

Brian Knotts July 1, 2004 at 7:02 am

If I may, I think I can answer that:
There is one exception in the United States: the Friday after Thanksgiving.
And, no…this is for the Western (Latin) Church.
Please correct me if I’m wrong, Jimmy. :-)

Brian Knotts July 1, 2004 at 7:06 am

Oops. I misread your first question.
So, I think the answer is, no there are no exceptions in that season, as far as I know.
During Lent, however, some bishops have been known to offer a local dispensation for St. Patrick’s Day, when it falls on a Friday.

Esquire July 1, 2004 at 9:11 am

Jimmy:
Do you happen to have a citation to Rome’s confirmation of the USCCB’s 1966 document?
I’m curious because neither Canon 1251 no 1253 seem, on their faces, to permit conferences of bishops to do away with the requirement of abstinence, merely to “more precisely determine the observation” and “substitute other foods” or “other forms of penance”.
From the standpoint of Canon Law statutory interpretation, am I wrong about that?

Sergei Timenovich July 1, 2004 at 9:14 am

Wow. I didn’t know that, Jimmy. I also had absorbed the common idea that some form of abstinence was obligatory, with the specifics up to the individual faithful to determine for themselves.
Question: Could we say that we have, if not a legal obligation to abstain or to observe some other sort of Friday penance, at any rate a filial obligation to take to heart the bishops’ express desire “that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law”?

tparr July 1, 2004 at 10:12 am

‘Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.’
So if read in the negative… Our deliberate, lack of personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of the lack of inward spiritual values that we should cherish. ???

Brandon July 1, 2004 at 11:51 am

Very informative!
Thanks, Jimmy. It always helps with topics like this to go straight to the source and really see what it said. Despite efforts not to, because of time I all too often go on what someone I trust has said without looking at the document myself.
Hats off to you!

Eric Giunta July 1, 2004 at 12:24 pm

Okay, I’m confused about:
“we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday”
Are we still bound, under pain of sin, to observe some sort of dicipline on Fridays? Or does this sentence just mean that we don’t, under pain of sin, have to necessarily give up meat? But we still have to DO something, under pain of sin?
???
And more importantly, what was the freakin’ point of this whole change in the first place? What fruits has it borne? Are Catholics more asceitic in the practice of their faith? More fervent in their mortifications?
I want to know what our bishops were thinking, of if they were thinking at all . . .

Susan July 1, 2004 at 1:32 pm

In the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar the following is stated:
II. Easter Season
22. The fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost are celebrated in joyful exultation as one feast day, or better as one “great Sunday.”[12]
These above all others are the days for the singing of the Alleluia.
…23…
24. The first eight days of the Easter season make up the octave of Easter and are celebrated as solemnities of the Lord.
…25-26…
(I have taken out the ones that don’t seem to apply to the question.)
If the 50 days are to be considered as one feast day, does this mean abstinence is not required?
Since the first 8 days are considered solemnities of the Lord, abstinence would not be required on the first Friday of the Easter season?
Sorry if I am confusing the issue, but I sincerely want to know! I have heard that Easter season as a whole is supposed to be celebratory, and therefore abstinence on Fridays is not required.
God Bless!

Fructus Ventris July 1, 2004 at 6:41 pm

for the string of google searchers

asking about meat on friday. Since Tomorrow Is Friday . . . from DEFENSOR FIDEI: Jimmy Akin’s Blog…

Jay July 2, 2004 at 6:21 am

Great article. As a convert I didn’t realize we ever had an obligation to observe Friday’s outside of Lent.
God bless,
Jay

Esquire July 2, 2004 at 11:17 am

Eric:
No one other than the Bishops at the time can speak to their motivation, but perhaps one of the issues was the perception that “giving up meat” on Friday (or anyday for that matter) wasn’t such a big deal anymore and had become a sort of banal legalistic devoid of spiritual significance.
After all, what’s so penitential about a lobster dinner or Veggie Lover’s Pizza?
The ability to substitute something that actually constitutes a sacrifice (no TV or internet [excuse the anachronism], etc.) makes sense.
That’s why I questioned whether the USCCB had the authority to go beyond substituting either other foods or other forms of penitence and do away with the requirement altogether.

Breier July 9, 2004 at 7:28 pm

Pious wishes aside, it’s clear the practical effect of this change has been to indeed abolish Friday as a day of penance, most especially under Mr. Akin’s reading.
This is in part why I see Mr. Akin’s reading as difficult to maintain, especially in the light of statements like:
“1. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified; ”
This clause seems to imply that Friday remains a day that brings special obligations upon us.
Mr. Akin’s explanation of the following is extremely obscure:
“Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We 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.”…
Mr.Akins has difficulty enunciating the import of the clause “as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday.” Prima facie, the clause could mean that there is no long one sole means of observing Friday; but that Friday must still be observed.
It could also be read in Mr. Akin’s direction, that previously Friday could be observed solely an obligation binding under pain of sin, namely abstinence, but now Friday can be observed by actings not done under obligation. This reading seems a bit strange though, inasmuch as the talk of “observing Friday” strongly implies an obligation to observe.
This shows that the language of the text is ambiguous, and I fail to see how we can cut from that to Mr. Akin’s ultimate conclusion, especially given the clear language of canon law, which does not seem to imply a right to dispense entirely from the weekly Friday obligation of abstinence. At the least, this issue needs to be more thoroughly discussed.
The lack of a “crushing rejoinder” is hardly an argument in Mr. Akin’s favor, if it be assumed that the objection has already been answered by a clear reading of canon law and the text.
Further, the presence of ambiguity and lack of cohesiveness testifies to compilatory and committee-based composition of the text, nothing more.
Mr Akin’s claims that legal obligations do not exist that are not legislated. This ignores the clear legislation of canon law, and the prima facie reading of the bishop’s document which can plausibly be read to do justice to canon law, and preserve the Friday obligation.
Further, the law of charity, and fidelity and loyalty to successors of the apostles, may compel a more harmonious reading than that suggested. Of course, all this could be settled by the bishop’s conference issuing a document settling this question, so that the blogosphere wouldn’t be forced to adjudicate it.
As for this still being a disputed fact; I have heard priests say the obligation for Friday penance still exists; I have even heard it rumored that Pope has spoken to this topic, though I have no cite available. Given this, to claim that this question is irrefutably closed seems quite premature.

Breier July 9, 2004 at 9:34 pm

Reading over the canons again, my view may have moderated somewhat. If Canon 1253 can be read as altering the obligatory force of 1251, the argument about no Friday obligation becomes more plausible.
Yet if that obligation were abrogated by the bishops conference, then shouldn’t it have been done explicitly, rather than in a form that can certainly be read as retaining the plain-sense meaning of canon law, that there exists some basic canonical obligation for penance on Friday?
On the other side, plenty of sources say there’s no obligation. However some more “conservative” sources, like EWTN, lean towards the obligation of some penance.
Mr. Akins seems to be arguing that since the Friday abstinence was abolished, and the bishops did explictly and clearly put anything in its place binding under pain of sin; that therefore there is no obligation for any Friday penance.
But this argument assumes that bishop’s conference is the source for the obligation of Friday penance, rather than canon law.
Could it not be argued that, in absence of expressly setting aside canon law, the obligation imposed by canon law would still be operative?
Since Canon Law presupposes that Friday abstinence from meat will be replaced by some other form of binding abstinence or sacrifice; what are our grounds for assuming an exceptional circumstance here? To look at ambiguous language in the bishop’s document is a tenuous argument at best. If it’s unclear that the bishops explicitly altered the obligations of canon law, why should we presume this?
Could it not be equally plausible that, in accordance with canon law, the bishops replaced Friday abstincen with an obligation to just do some kind of penance, of our own chosing?
That itself, allowing us to chose any penance to satisfy our obligation, would come under 1253, would it not? It’s more general than specifying a substitute food or particular activity, for instance. With this reading, 1253 and 1251 could agree with each other, rather than be seen as clashing.
With regard to the law of charity remark, that wasn’t intended as a swipe, and was somewhat sarcastic. Still, if we can read this document in a way that does justice to text and intent of the canons, and in a way that justify’s the document’s claim that they’re not doing away with Friday, why shouldn’t we do so?
Breier

Keith July 16, 2004 at 9:01 pm

Mr Akin,
I don’t think that your synopsis of the situation takes into full account the imports of Canons 1249 and 1250.
Can. 1249 All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which the following canons prescribe.
Can. 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
The latter is the law which imposes a moral obligation to Penance on each and every Friday. The USCCB did not promulgate complimentary norms to Canon 1250 (nor is the conference of bishops given the power to do so), therefore the moral obligation of penance on Friday’s exists in law for every Catholic.

Kevin January 28, 2005 at 9:19 am

There is a quote from Penitential Practices
for Today’s Catholics by the Committee on Pastoral PracticesNational Conference of Catholic Bishops
* Fridays Throughout the Year—In memory of Christ’s suffering and death, the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year a penitential day. All of us are urged to prepare appropriately for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday.
Does the word “prescribes” indicate anything different?

Carlos February 21, 2006 at 4:15 pm

An analogy to free Jimmy’s block.
A father tells his toddler son that “Mom and Dad’s rule, for leaving the dinner table before eating most of his meal, has been too strict”.
The rule has been that “you will not leave the table untill your plate is clean, if you do leave the table without eating what we serve you, then you will get a spanking (and/or time out)”.
Daddy tells toddler, “Now, daddy is going to relax the rule a bit, and allow you to pick your own foods from the bounty that God provides us. In the past we have chosen the amounts and types of food to go on your plate, but now Mommy will give you a slightly bigger assortment to choose from.”
Daddy tells his little todder that “he should pick the best foods he can, and finish all his plate because daddy and mommy love him very much.”
Now. What do you think happens to the little boy when he comes to dinner the next day, and picks out a huge helping of Ice Cream, hardly makes a dent in the ice cream (doesnt finish it all), and starts heading towards the TV room with a mustach full of chocolate ice cream around his mouth?!
Does he get a spanking or not?
Was there an implied rule or not?
That is the question. Though we are not toddlers, and no analogy is perfect…. this shows an anological way of understnding an “intent” and a possible way of reading the leagal documents and the exortations as one in the same, without sacrificing common sense.
Respectfully,
Carlos

Matt January 20, 2007 at 8:52 pm

I personally think, that Friday Penance should be reinstated with full force, and to that end, I’ll struggle towards its traditional observe, from now on, due to the fact that I’ve been more aware of it.
sincerly,
Matt

Previous post:

Next post: