Last week we took a look at the fourth precept: “Abstain from eating meat and observe the days of fasting established by the Church.” We considered in particular the church’s guidance and norms regarding fasting; we noted that it is recommended as a spiritual practice throughout the entire year, not just on the days it is prescribed (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday).
In addition to fasting, the fourth precept speaks to us about abstaining. This refers to the practice of not eating meat as a particular form of self-denial. Since it is well known that Catholics can eat fish, even on days of abstinence, there are perennial questions and debates about what, in fact, constitutes meat. In broad strokes, if it is land dwelling and warm blooded it is something from which we are to abstain on the prescribed days (i.e. beef, pork, chicken, turkey, etc.). If it is cold blooded and lives in the water, we can continue to eat it. There are all sorts of seemingly strange exceptions that have been made at different points in history. For example, in the 17th century a bishop from Quebec decided that it was OK to eat beavers on days of abstinence. Here in our own country, as recently as 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans decided that alligator was also fair game.
As interesting as some of these historical anomalies or oddities might be, if we begin fretting about what, exactly, we can and can’t eat, we are missing the point. This is a practice of prayerful self-denial, not of clever exploitation of loopholes. So as a spiritual principle, when it comes to fasting, when in doubt, leave it out (of the diet for the day).
So, now that we know what fasting is, to whom does it pertain? All Catholics over the age of 14 are called upon to abstain on the prescribed days. That is clear enough. This leads to the final question: when do we abstain?
To this question, most people will immediately respond: “All Fridays during Lent.” But, let’s take a look at the official ‘rule book’ of the Catholic Church, the Code of Canon Law. In the Code, we read the following: “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. Abstinence from meat […] is to be observed on all Fridays” (Can. 1250-1251).
There is a common misconception among Catholics that the Church changed her spiritual practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays sometime after the Second Vatican Council. As you can see, however, that is not true. What has changed is that, in 1966, the US bishops indicated that the faithful would not be sinning if they freely chose some other, more fitting, form of penance on a particular Friday. This did not remove the normative practice of abstaining, but allowed for some different form of penance to be embraced from time to time.
The Church, following the ancient wisdom of the Sacred Scriptures, the saints, and mystics, calls us to embrace a penitential spirit year round. We do this, not just as individuals, but as the entire body of Christ united throughout the world. One of the ways we do this is by abstaining from meat on every Friday throughout the year.
Our bishop has set an example of re-embracing this spiritual practice by asking that all diocesan functions respect this norm. I, and the other priests in Walla Walla, warmly invite all Catholics in our community to rediscover and live this spiritual practice. Together we can abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year as a small token of our love for the One who once, on a Friday, gave himself up as a sacrifice for love of us.
Praised be His name, now and forever!