Monday, November 09, 2009

Friday as a Required Day of Penance (Not Necessarily Abstinence from Meat) in the United States: a Clarification

By Dave Armstrong (11-9-09)

From the discussion on the CHNI forum.

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What is the current rule about meat on Fridays and is it Dogma?

The rule is explained by Colin B. Donovan, STL, in his article, Fast and Abstinence: hosted by EWTN.

It is a binding discipline, to practice penance on Fridays. Disciplines are practices (usually devotional or contemplative in nature) recommended or required by the Church, as opposed to doctrines and dogmas that have to do with theological belief. If one doesn't abstain from meat (which is not required, at least not in the US) it is required that they practice some form of penance. I myself abstain from meat, since it is easy to remember, and was the traditional abstinence requirement.

Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers (a fine and trustworthy apologist) is of the opinion, based on bishops' statements, that there is no longer (in America) a binding obligation or discipline of penance of any sort on Fridays; only that it is highly urged. See:

Is Friday Penance Required? (article in This Rock, January 2005)

See also a "Quick Questions" section from This Rock: (unlisted date), and the following articles on Akin's blog (accompanied by vigorous discussion):

Since Tomorrow Is Friday . . . (1 July 2004)

Changing the Law of Abstinence (6 March 2005)

I can't find anyone other than Jimmy Akin who takes his position. He is contending that there was an exception to the universal norm made in America by our bishops. But even his position is confusing, though, because in the July/August 1997 issue of This Rock, he stated differently:

Thus the law of abstinence from meat is still binding unless one’s national bishops’ conference has provided for alternate forms of penance. In the United States, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has obtained permission from the Vatican for such substitution. Catholics are obliged to do some form of penance on Fridays and keep the day as per canon 1249, but now they can choose the form of penance they wish to do.

That has been my understanding (some form of binding penance on Fridays). Any Catholic is also free, of course (generally speaking), to practice any additional penitential practice that he or she wishes.

Canonist Cathy Caridi disagrees with Jimmy Akin and believes that some form of Friday penance is binding:

Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday? (Catholic Exchange, 5 March 2009)

I tried to find the opinion of canonist Ed Peters on his site, but he has no index that I could find. My friend, canonist Peter Vere (Surprised by Canon Law) appears to think that the rule is still binding, too.

David W. Emery, my co-worker at CHNI, helpfully clarified:

Akin’s opinion is based on the 1966 decree by the USCCB, which is indeed ambiguous in wording, if not in intent. It does not take into account the clarification issued by the same body in 2000. The EWTN wording shows that they too accept Friday penance (abstinence during Lent) as obligatory in the United States. The “not under pain of sin” point is specifically stated in the 1966 document. Previously, by canon law, it was under pain of sin. But this does not, in itself, remove the obligation, since they are separate issues under canon law. A discipline can be obligatory without being additionally under pain of sin.

I'm wondering why -- whoever the folks are who oversee This Rock (including some bishops) -- they would let that be printed there if it is a controversial or minority opinion? I find This Rock to be very reliable in doctrinal (and disciplinary) matters, so this is a bit strange to me, if indeed the opinion is in error, as it appears to be.

Here’s my understanding: Akin’s argument is that the 1966 document is ambiguous, and he is right. But the intent was explained orally afterwards by several bishops and canonists, and this is what EWTN based its understanding on in its ongoing (pre-2000) campaign for observance of Friday penance throughout the year. Then, in 2000, the USCCB clarified the rules, showing that it is indeed obligatory. So Akin’s argument is a bit of a dead letter.

Here is a link to the 2000 pastoral instruction. The relevant phrase for our discussion seems to be:

    Fridays Throughout the Year — In memory of Christ's suffering and death, the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year a penitential day. All of us are urged to prepare appropriately for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday.

The key word there is "prescribe." That means that it is obligatory to practice some penance, but it doesn't have to be abstinence from meat.

We can, then, be rightly critical of the 1966 document as ambiguous, and a bit unclear in terminology. But as my friend David stated, the intent was later explained.

It's unfortunate that the Catholic Answers staff (for whom I have immense respect) seemed to have erred on this, so that folks are further confused. But the American bishops were unclear in their 1966 document, and that was what Jimmy Akin based his opinion on.

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