. . . 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.