The reign of Pope Benedict XVI may well come to be known as the Age of Restoration in the post-conciliar Church. To the delight of some, and the scorn of others, practices that had fallen by the wayside have been dusted off and given new prominence in this papacy. While much of this restoration centers around matters liturgical, Benedict's steady if cautious program of reform occasions a more encompassing look at the current state of the Church.
From the outset, one ought to be clear what the Benedictine restoration is not. It is not an effort to "turn back the clock." Rather, Benedict has restored prominence to norms that had, over time, become dulled by exceptions, permissions, and general neglect or confusion. Examples abound, but the most famous must surely be this striking line in Summorum Pontificum, Benedict's 2007 motu proprio: "It is, therefore, permissible to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal promulgated by Bl. John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated, as an extraordinary form of the Liturgy of the Church" (emphasis added).
Masterfully avoiding any volley in the liturgical wars of the past decades, Benedict has changed the entire scope of the debate by claiming precedence or rightful prominence for norms and practices that had never been abrogated in the first place. In so doing, he has claimed the status-quo position and removed the burden of change from those championing the hermeneutics of continuity. Such leadership has undoubtedly opened windows in the Church, allowing for discussions and developments that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. This is a most uniquely Benedictine aggiornamento.
One area of the Church that has perhaps suffered more than its share of neglect is the penitential nature of Fridays. Not just Lenten Fridays, but all Fridays of the year. And not just penance in general, but specifically abstinence from meat. What might seem like a rather remote and insignificant corner of the contemporary Church becomes, on closer inspection, a trove of spiritual riches of which the faithful have largely deprived themselves. A victim of confusion, poor catechesis, and general disregard, penitential Fridays can play a significant role in the renewal of our times.
The first question to arise in considering this subject would be, Why abstinence? Granting the natural-law obligation to do penance for sin (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 84, 7, ad 1), abstinence presents itself as a time-honored means of fulfilling this obligation. (For clarity, fasting generally refers to quantity, limiting the amount of food one eats; abstinence to quality, restricting the type of food). By forgoing certain foods and drink, one makes an offering to God, a sacrifice of repentance, while emphasizing one's total dependence on God alone. The physical hunger and deprivation underscore our spiritual hunger for the heavenly banquet, which alone can nourish and satisfy. Certainly the practice of abstinence dates at least as far back as the Levitical laws of the Old Testament, and was present even in Eden (Gen. 2:16-17). Following Our Lord's own counsel (Mt. 6:16-18, 16:24) and His example in the desert (Mt. 4:2), the Apostles continued to recognize the importance of abstinence, most notably at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:29). St. Paul repeatedly exhorts his readers to fasting and abstinence (2 Cor. 6:5, 11:27) as a sure means of imitating Christ.
So Christians continue a time-honored penitential practice when they abstain. But still we must ask, Why Fridays? This is the easiest of our questions to answer, for Friday of course marks the day on which Our Lord offered His life in supreme atonement for the sins of all men. Each Friday, by uniting us to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, prepares us properly to celebrate the weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, we ask, Why meat? I say most critically, because it is on this point, more than any other, where confusion reigns. Very few will object to the practice of penance in general, or on Fridays in particular, but the entire notion of meatless Fridays has fallen much out of favor. For many, it harks back to a rigid legalism that put the letter of the law over the spirit. But when evaluating the efficacy of meatless Fridays, one ought first to have an understanding of both its history and significance in the tradition of the Church.
References to fasting on Fridays occur as early as the first-century Didache (8:2); meatless Fridays are mentioned by St. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, and quickly became a widespread custom in the Church. But why? A proscription on meat may strike one as rather arbitrary. One with no preference for meat would not find the restriction very penitential; shouldn't one decide freely to forgo those foods one prefers? Certainly, one is encouraged to make particular sacrifices -- one does not preclude the other. But it nonetheless remains fitting for the Church to encourage abstinence from meat, always a historical luxury, as a penitential norm. In the first place, the refusal to consume flesh is symbolically appropriate. When we forgo animal flesh, we call to mind that day on which Christ offered His flesh for the life of the world. We recall that unless we eat His flesh we shall not have life (Jn. 6:54, 56). We join His sacrifice of the flesh, in a small but important way, by sacrificing flesh ourselves.
Moreover, abstinence from flesh ought to turn one's mind to man's pre-fallen condition. In his state of original justice, man abstained from eating animals (Gen. 1:29); it was only after the cleansing flood that God gave man permission to eat animal flesh (Gen. 9:3). A harmony existed among creation that we strive to reclaim (Is. 11:1-10). When we abstain from meat, we not only respect that sixth day on which all animals (and man) were created, but we unite that sixth day to Calvary, to the New Adam -- the cross alone can restore man's fallen state and lead us to Paradise.
Fittingly, ecclesiastical law has, from antiquity, proscribed meat on Fridays as a binding means of fulfilling the penitential norms to which all are bound. This absolute prohibition changed in 1966, when Pope Paul VI issued Paenitemini, his apostolic constitution on penance. Among the many fruits of this document is a call to greater interior penance, a cultivation of the spirit of the law over the letter. Pope Paul gives a fine synopsis of penance throughout salvation history, and writes of its spiritual benefits and necessity. Importantly, Paul recognizes that "true penitence, however, cannot ever prescind from physical asceticism." He goes on to note that the Church "has always observed in a special way abstinence from meat and fasting," and that "it is necessary to inculcate some special form of penitence in preference to others." In other words, not all forms of penance are created equal, and proper weight must be given to the time-honored tradition of the Church vis-à-vis meatless Fridays. Paul nevertheless proceeds to modify the binding law of the Church; he writes that "abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation," while also leaving it to the episcopal conferences to transfer the day of penance or to "substitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and the exercises of piety." These modifications were incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The relevant canons read as follows:
1250 All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the UniversalOne is duty-bound to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, unless the conference of bishops designates some other food, or another form of penance altogether, as an approved substitute. Precisely what, if anything, are the binding norms for Friday observance in the U.S.? A conscientious Catholic has to do a bit of investigative work on this matter.
1251 Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
1253 It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decreed in its "Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence" (1966) that "abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole." Nevertheless, although "Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year…. we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday." Even though the bishops "give first place to abstinence from flesh meat" as a commendable means of penance, this remains only a recommendation, a "hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law."
These hopes were echoed in 2000, when the U.S. bishops issued a complementary document, "Penitential Practices for Today's Catholics." While "the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year a penitential day," the document states somewhat ambiguously that "all of us are urged to prepare appropriately" for Sunday. So, while the language of prescription seems to imply a binding duty of some sort, that implication is followed with an exhortation toward what can easily be interpreted as a voluntary and supererogatory form of penance. No mention is made either of the preferential nature of meatless Fridays or of binding observance at all. Friday is called a day of penance, but it is highly debatable whether a Catholic in America today actually has to do anything or fulfill any specific obligation in this regard. Rather than reinvigorate the penitential nature of Friday, the current norms seem to have had the opposite effect. Ironically, a modification that sought to restore the spirit has witnessed a reduction to a minimalist letter: Lacking an explicit and clear requirement, Catholics have abstained from the penitential call altogether. Catechesis on this subject has been woefully lacking; many Catholics do not recognize Fridays outside of Lent as a day of penance at all, and certainly do not observe them in any meaningful way.
What to do about this current state? Perhaps, somewhere along the way, the spirit of the law has been thrown out with the letter. We need a renewed emphasis on penance, and abstention from meat on Fridays carries both a normative and an objective value.
Latin-rite Catholics as a whole have lost sight of how much meatless Fridays have pride of place in the penitential tradition of the Church. The post-conciliar documents continue to affirm this primacy: Paenitemini and the Code of Canon Law cite abstinence as the normative and binding practice unless a substitution is approved by the national episcopal conference. Forgoing meat on Fridays should never be reduced to a de gustibus penance, a matter of mere taste; its symbolic value and its ancient custom preclude any relegation to just one option among many. The Eastern Churches stand as an important reminder; they have never lost this emphasis. Mercifully free from Occidental legalism, their continued and deeply ingrained abstinence offers a model of precisely that voluntary spirit to which Pope Paul and the U.S. bishops aspired. (One Eastern-rite priest told me that "the practice of fasting and abstinence is not so much a matter of law in the Byzantine Churches as it is an art, wedded as it is to the art of prayer and the moral life.") With so many ecumenical gestures toward the East coming out of Benedict's papacy, a renewed focus on this oft-forgotten part of our heritage can only bring Orthodoxy and Catholicism even closer together. Importantly, this would not change or adapt any part of Western belief or practice; it is simply uncovering and re-valuing what has always been the norm of the Latin Church.
Abstention from meat also carries an important objectivity to it, as it presents a clear standard by which one can faithfully observe the penitential call. This is not to diminish the importance of, for example, acts of charity; again, the two are not mutually exclusive. And there is some deep value in an objective norm. The "sample expressions of penance" in "Penitential Practices for Today's Catholics" include tears of repentance, efforts at reconciliation with a family member, defense of justice, mutual correction, and endurance of persecution for the sake of God's Kingdom.
Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these practices. They are all highly commendable. But they are also highly impractical for the average Catholic to put into weekly practice. It is simply unrealistic to expect Catholics, striving to observe the penitential custom, to shed tears of repentance or to contact some estranged family member (assuming they have one) to reconcile on any given Friday. Nor is the typical Catholic in America faced with persecution for the sake of God's Kingdom which he can penitentially endure one day a week. An objective norm, on the other hand, offers clarity and more universal applicability. Even if I am not particularly inclined to eat a meat dish on a Friday, merely knowing the value of abstinence instills an awareness of sacrifice to which I interiorly respond. From this small step, an atmosphere of self-denial arises, and will hopefully lead me not only to call to mind Our Lord's Passion, but spur me on to other opportunities for prayer, acts of charity, etc. I am uniting my observance with Catholics throughout the world and throughout history, and giving eloquent expression to the Church's universality. Abstinence is by no means the last word in the discussion of Friday penance; it has long been, however, the first word and, as our own tradition teaches, not at all a bad place to start.
The ramifications for a renewed emphasis on meatless Fridays could be great indeed. Like the mustard seed in the Gospel (Mk. 4:30-32), its impact would likely spread far wider than may at first be apparent. Exteriorly, it gives a powerful witness to the world at large, reinforcing the very Catholic notion of a people set apart. Our true home is not in this world (Jn. 15:19), and a simple gesture like forgoing meat once a week emphasizes that we have been called out of the world. Even lapsed Catholics cling to these badges of identity. One merely has to stand at any church on Ash Wednesday to see the streams of Catholics queued up for their smudge of ashes. Now, it is fair to say that many of these are not regular churchgoers: their practice and maybe even their faith has waned. But they are holding on to this distinguishing identity. What some may deride as hypocrisy ought to be viewed as a sign of hope, that tiny seed waiting to spring forth. Therein lies a powerful lesson: Catholics long for these hallmarks of belief, these simple outward signs that let the world know and recognize a living faith. Ash Wednesdays, meatless Fridays, Palm Sundays -- these are the tangible, earthy signs which, for most of the world, are the closest they will ever come into contact with the Catholic Church. Why would we deprive them of even that much?
In short, abstinence forms an important part of Catholic identity -- theologically and historically. Yes, one ought always to bear in mind the spirit of the practice and avoid external legalism. Yes, exceptions and other possibilities exist and should be prudently exercised. But when we disregard our heritage completely, when the average Catholic takes no note of the penitential norm at all, something has gone seriously wrong. In this Age of Restoration, then, it would be most fitting not to impose but to propose anew this time-honored practice. Abstinence is not good because it is ancient, it is ancient because it is good, because it taps into that longing, that natural need, to atone for sin. May I propose, in the spirit of renewal, that meatless Fridays be re-introduced for the specific intention of purity. In a world marked by sexual indulgence, perversity, and gratification of every kind, a manifest self-denial can serve not only as a powerful antidote, but as a great means of grace for conversion and reparation. And the symbolic value of flesh gains added significance when we offer that up for the sins of the flesh that so wound the Mystical Body of Christ. Along with so many other signs of the times, a restoration of this custom, which has never been abrogated, can assist in regenerating a truly Catholic identity, a unity with Our Lord's Passion, and a conduit of grace to hasten that new springtime which the Church so eagerly awaits.
Brian A. Graebe is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of New York, studying at St. Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie. A summa cum laude graduate of New York University in philosophy, he pursued graduate studies in classics at the American Academy in Rome. His foregoing article, "An Examination of Friday Penance," was originally published in New Oxford Review (July-August 2009), pp. 26-29, and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.