Friday, January 13, 2006

Meatless Fridays

An ancient tradition of the Church is to abstain from meat on Fridays, and this is still the normative law for the Latin Church. Here is the Code of Canon Law:
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.

This is law only for the Latin Rite; Eastern Churches have their own laws regarding this. And as typical, the United States Conference of Bishops has made numerous exceptions (and exceptions of exceptions) in the Spirit of American Exceptionalism!

The American exception is that instead of abstinence from meat on ordinary Fridays, a Catholic can do "a penitential, or even a charitable, practice of their own choosing" gutting the tradition of any meaning whatsoever. But this is typical; we Americans tend not to want to do any penance at all, which is defined as "a voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward repentance for having done wrong" (Oxford American Dictionary). We feel as if we don't do any wrong; instead we hope we don't get caught; and we only deserve punishment if we are stupid enough to hire a bad lawyer. The underlying Enlightenment philosophy of the United States has an anthropology that claims that people are morally good and that only society makes us bad; under this system penance and even sin is unthinkable. The substitution of a charitable act is also not useful, since we are to be charitable always, while we are to be penitential only sometimes. So it seems that most American Catholics nowadays typically end up doing nothing on Fridays.

Abstention is an easy penance to remember and it helps bind the community together. But it's surprisingly difficult to do sometimes! I may get up early and have a craving for eggs and bacon (instead of just some bread and juice) but then I realized that it is Friday, and cannot. The same is true if I go out to dinner Friday night: I have to actually think a bit when looking over the menu. Fish is not considered meat, and I used to despise fish, but I've learned to be thankful for even that, and even developed a taste for it, sort of.

During Lent we still have fish fries, and on these days church basements are packed; this is excellent for binding the community together.

Not eating meat is a simple penitential act for most of us. It is a little self-denial that requires a bit of thought and planning to carry out. While denying good things for ourselves is spiritually helpful, it is also a material reminder that some people cannot afford a good diet for themselves. Abstinence is one of many penitential practices that were refined by the desert monastics of the early centuries of the Church, but it just happens to be an easy one to do and remember, especially in community.

Many religions have dietary laws, and many modern philosophies have dietary restrictions that even far exceed the dietary laws of the Old Covenant: think of holistic environmentally- and socially-conscious Vegans, for example.

But Our Lord tells us that what goes in the mouth does not harm our soul, but what comes out of it instead. The Friday Abstinence law is man-made: it is only a custom of men and can be changed by authorities at any time. It is a good custom, a helpful custom, a crucial custom, a symbolic custom, but it is only a changeable discipline and not divine law.

Consider this dilemma: you are a good Catholic who follows the discipline of the Church and follow the general norms of abstaining from meat on Fridays. On a Friday, a very good friend calls you up at the last minute and invites you to dinner party. Your friend has spent a great deal of effort putting this party together, greatly desires your attendance, and has prepared a magnificent meal. You sit down to dinner and in front of you is placed a thick, juicy, prime cut of steak—obviously your friend doesn't remember that you abstain on Fridays. What do you do?

You eat it.

Charity is divine law. It would be exceedingly uncharitable to say that you can't eat the steak that your friend prepared with much difficulty—a meal itself prepared with charity in mind. Even mentioning that you normally observe Fridays as a day of abstinence—and that you are making an exception—could be uncharitable when the party host has obviously put in much effort for your benefit.

If you are hosting a Friday dinner, then by all means serve fish, and even exclusively fish. Proudly uphold the Catholic discipline. But charity is always of highest importance: don't even think of inviting an Orthodox Jew to a party unless he explicitly knows that you are using a caterer who keeps a Kosher kitchen. Dealing with 'political' vegetarians is problematic; if you think that they will chastise other guests for eating meat, prudence would probably say that they shouldn't be invited in the first place, otherwise by all means serve a vegetable entrée just for them. While you must always be charitable, you don't need to be heroically charitable in all cases, especially when this leads to a burden on others.

Dealing with children who become vegetarians can be problematic. Well-meaning young girls, sensitive and loving animals, will often become vegetarians. If you are the parent, then you should lay down the law, but this must be done with prudence. This can be a moment of catechesis: the universal law of sacrifice, my life for yours, Christ on the Cross for us, also holds when eating meat. The animal gives up its life for us, and we should be very thankful to God for giving us this great gift, which we acknowledge by saying Grace. And she can look forward to meatless Fridays.

Always rejecting a bland uniformity, Catholicism recognizes Feast days on the calendar as days of actual feasting, which includes meat, even on Friday.

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