Are Catholics still required to do penance and abstinence on Fridays outside of Lent?
Throughout the history of Christianity the Catholic faithful and the Church as a whole have always treated Fridays as penitential days. The Church and Catholics as a whole would often do special acts of penance including prayers such as the Stations of the Cross. This also included alms giving and other works of Charity. Traditionally this also included abstaining from meat on Fridays which is the main subject of this article. All of these things were done in remembrance of Christ who was crucified and died on Good Friday. On the opposite end this is similarly the case why Catholics celebrate the day of the Lord on each Sunday of the year. Each Sunday is like a little Easter and in accordance with the spirit of the Liturgical Calendar it makes sense to rejoice in such days.
Based on the penitential nature of Fridays in commemorating the death and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ the Church has always recommended various penitential acts to be done as stated above. This included above all other things the requirement of abstaining from meat under pain of sin. This has been the case throughout the history of the Catholic Church and can be seen for example in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Recently however many well intentioned Catholics have been under the impression that this is a requirement that the Church has changed ever since the promulgation of the most recent 1983 Code of Canon Law. These Catholics argue that not only does the Church no longer require the Catholic faithful to not abstain from meat on Fridays outside of Lent anymore; but they furthermore argue that penance in general is no longer required to be done on Fridays. As we will see this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law states:
Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.
Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, 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. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
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. (Code of Canon Law 1249-1253)
As you can see the 1983 Code of Canon Law clearly states that Catholics are bound to observe the penitential aspects of each and every Friday including those which are outside of Lent. That means that every Friday throughout the year that does not fall within a major feast day of any sort requires each of the faithful to do penance. Traditionally and in accordance with the 1983 Code of Canon Law this includes the requirement of abstaining from meat or at least some other specific food on Fridays.
Now it is true that Catholics here in the United States are up to the present moment not required to specifically abstain from meat on Fridays. This is in accordance with a statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that was released on 1966. As we will see this statement created some confusion amongst American Catholics.
Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
This said, we emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that no scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience, confessions, or personal decisions on this point.
Friday, please God, will acquire among us other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat.1
Many American Catholics falsely believed that through this statement by the USCCB, that not only was the obligation to abstain from meat under pain of sin done away; they furthermore argued that the Church did not require any penitential aspect to be done in general. Obviously this is completely untrue as the 1983 Code of Canon Law specifically states that Catholics are under obligation of sin to do penitential acts on Friday. So while American Catholics were no longer required to specifically give up meat on Fridays; the requirement of penitential acts in Friday was and is still in force. It can also be seen that the intent of the US Bishops was actually to encourage and allow Catholics in the United States to feel free to take up whatever penitential act was best suited to the penitent. This includes an extra Rosary, service in the hospitals, corporal and spiritual acts of charity, or to abstain from whatever food was most conductive to the penitent at hand. So rather than dismiss the requirement of penance such action by the USSB actually meant to encourage it.
The same statement made by the USCCB stated:
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.
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.
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 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.2
So there you have it. The Catholic bishops are saying that although the Catholic faithful are no longer bound under the pain of sin to abstain from meat on Friday; Friday itself remains a day of penance. So in other words Catholics are still bound under the pain of sin to treat Fridays as penitential days and thus to do some specific penitential act or work of any sort. This also includes abstaining from some sort of food in general. The US Bishops furthermore mention that they still strongly encourage the American Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays as it is deeply traditional and historical.
It also helps to consider the following. We know that Catholics throughout the world are bound to do some sort of penance on Fridays throughout the year. In regards to U.S Catholics, while it may be true that up to the present moment we are not required to specifically abstain from meat on Fridays under pain of sin, we are nevertheless still required to take upon ourselves a specific penitential act including the abstinence of some sort of food in general under the pain of sin. This raises two questions. How many Catholics are actually fulfilling this requirement? Namely how many Catholics are actually taking upon themselves the necessity of doing a specific penitential act on Fridays and furthermore how many Catholics are actually choosing to abstain from any sort of food including meat or any other food in general? Furthermore if it is true that we are to do some sort of penance on each Friday would it not be true to say that abstaining from meat is perhaps the easiest penitential act to do in contrast to a variety of other things? I mean unless you are visiting the sick in hospitals each Friday, feeding the homeless, ministering to the incarcerated, praying an extra Rosary, or for that matter flagellating; I would argue that abstaining from meat is actually the easiest of these things to do.
- USCCB Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence 1966