Practicing Catholics will today have kept six meatless Fridays (well, five this year if you indulged on the Solemnity of the Annunciation). If we count Good Friday next week and Ash Wednesday five weeks ago, we’re practically “done” with all the officially designated days of abstinence in 2022 in the United States. Just one more Friday to get through…

…or maybe not?

Having learned something of the traditional Catholic discipline of abstinence over these past six Fridays, let me propose something: we keep to it! We honor the discipline in our heart and try to keep it all the year.

Not that long ago (at least in the life of the Church), Friday abstinence was a normal thing for Catholics. Catholics “giving up” meat on Fridays was the norm, not the exception.

Then came 1966.

In 1966, the Catholic bishops of the United States abrogated the formal obligation of abstinence on Fridays outside of Lent. Their “pastoral statement“ reminded Catholics that Friday, the day that commemorates the Lord’s Passion, remained a day of penitential observance (no. 18). The bishops wrote that Catholics should deepen their spirit of renunciation and penance and, though other penitential acts could substitute for abstinence from meat, the latter did retain pride of place (no. 24).

Unfortunately, what most Catholics in the United States heard was “pass the hamburgers!” Lou Groen’s 1963 experiment that got Filet-o-Fish onto the McDonald’s menu would soon be undercut.

The logic of the bishops was that mature adult Catholics would understand and recognize the need for penance as a permanent feature in the Christian life and adapt the form that was their “most effective means of practicing penance” (no. 19).  However laudatory in principle that idea might have been, retrospect strongly suggests it was, at best, naïve. Instead of letting “a thousand penitential flowers bloom,” penance withered away.

(If you doubt that, think back to the confessional lines on a typical Saturday afternoon and evening—yes, Virginia, many parishes had an hour of Saturday night confessions years before there were Saturday night vigil Masses—and compare them to today.)

After 56 years, the results are in and, if “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20), the bishops’ 1966 penitential tree hasn’t borne much. Like the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9), there seems to be good reason to cut it down and clear the ground.

The Bishops of England and Wales have already done that. Unlike their American brothers, they attempted, in 1985, to reemphasize the need for real Friday penance. When that admonition of “do some kind of penance or abstain from meat” also withered on the vine, the English and Welsh bishops decided to act. As of September 2011, mandatory abstinence was restored as the norm for all Fridays.

Not being sanguine about the willingness of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to act collectively in a way that some might imagine questioning a “post-Vatican II development”—regardless of the evidence for the alleged “development’s” failure—there is an alternative: individual bishops, or at least the bishops of ecclesiastical provinces, might reinstate mandatory Friday abstinence….

The above comes from an April 8 posting in Crisis Magazine.