Friday, September 16, 2011


For the first 18 years of my life, one of the most distinguishing marks of Catholic life was abstinence from meat on Fridays. The Catholic calendars that parishes distributed every December (paid for, typically, by the local funeral home) usually had a fish superimposed on the numeral each Friday of the year (apart from the occasional holyday) and on certain other days (e.g., Christmas Eve) as well. There were also several “partial abstinence” days (suitably marked with a half fish). The fish still reappear in contemporary Catholic calendars during Lent, but basically the long-standing custom of Friday abstinence (along with the more onerous requirement of Lenten fast) just disappeared in the late 1960s, along with so many other good and worthwhile things.
The theory behind the change seemed to be that Friday abstinence was hardly all that burdensome anyway and that Catholics could choose other more personally appropriate forms of penance. The idea was that the obligation to practice penance in one’s life remained, and that the Church expected Friday to continue to be kept as a weekly day of penance and Lent to continue to be kept as an annual season of penance, but that people would be free to substitute their own appropriate acts of penance in place of abstinence. That may have been the theory, and I am willing to stipulate to the sincerity of those who promoted it. The reality, of course, as Catholics actually experienced the change, was something quite different. Coming right in the middle of a period of unprecedented liturgical experimentation and wholesale ferment in both Church and society, this seemed like just one more change chipping away at any idea that the Church somehow transcended the immediate spirit of the age. Whatever the theoretical mandate to practice penance and asceticism in one’s life, the signal sent seemed to be that self-denial (even in so modest and easily accessible a form as Friday abstinence) was obsolete. It coincided perfectly with the prevailing culture’s move in an increasingly narcissistic direction. Lastly, it abolished a clear marker of Catholic identity – precisely at a time when the Church seemed to be losing confidence in its competition with contemporary culture and the Catholic faithful so desperately needed an affirmation (rather than a negation) of their distinctive Catholic identity. While that argument may be dismissed by some as a largely “cultural” concern, the fact remains that some sort of distinctly identifiable Catholic culture is essential for a vibrant internal Catholic community life and for any effective outward evangelizing mission.
Growing up in New York, I was well aware of the importance of keeping kosher for Jewish identity, how it intruded religion into the otherwise secular day-to-day. More recently, we have all become aware of how the practice of Ramadan is to Muslim life. Such practices remind their practitioners of who they are and how that requires them to be different from the rest of the world. Even the liberal commentator Father Andrew Greeley seemed to see in the abandonment of Friday abstinence a loss to Catholic identity. Then add to that the loss of any distinctly ascetical dimension to contemporary Catholic life, thanks the loss of our Catholic tradition of periodic penitential practices!
As of today, the Bishops of England and Wales have reintroduced the practice of Friday abstinence into the even more secular society of the United Kingdom - an apparent recognition that its abandonment only added to the difficulties of maintaining a lively Catholic identity in modern Britain. There are many challenges facing the Church in today's world, and this is only one small move, but the English and Welsh Bishops are to applauded for making it.

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