By Rev. John Broussard, C.P.M.
It has been a long-standing tradition in the Church that during the Fridays of Lent Catholics all over the world abstain from eating flesh meat products. Somewhat less well known is the fact that before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics also gave up meat every Friday of the year, not just during Lent. A common question that gets asked is, “do I still need to give up meat on Fridays every day of the year or did that change after the Second Vatican Council?” The answer to this question is: yes and no.
In the current Code of Canon Law (the official “rule book” of the Church) it states: Can. 1250 “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.” The Church has always seen every Friday of the year (not just during lent) as a penitential day. Furthermore, Canon Law also states: 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.” Canon 1253 further expands the competence of the national conference 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 USCCB, in 1966, released a document on this issue of Friday penance. Norm 3 in this document states: “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 was terminated. The question becomes: What obligation, if any, did the bishops decide to replace it with?
This document goes on to explain that although giving up meat on Fridays of the year is no longer legally binding, one is still urged to do some form of penance. Friday is the day on which our Lord suffered and died for us, thus we remember this day throughout the year by being mindful of our penitential practices. This being said, urged is not required. The norms now established by the USCCB are for the purpose of allowing an individual to govern what would be the most effective means of penance without the legal requirement under the pain of sin. As practicing Catholics, we are most convicted when we respond out of love than out of mere obligation. Thus, the removal of strict requirements is not a “get out of jail free card” but rather an encouragement to live one’s faith with greater love and devotion.