Q. As a child growing up before the Second Vatican Council, I was taught that eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin. I obeyed the rule. After Vatican II, the rule changed. The rule did not change for Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. I’ve learned that we still are not to eat meat on Fridays unless we do some kind of penance. Please explain.
— Mary Louise
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
Many U.S. Catholics grew up eating no meat on Fridays, but this was not the Church’s universal custom. When Pope Paul VI issued the apostolic constitution Paenitemini in 1966, he did not so much relax rules on Friday abstinence as expand them, to invite each Catholic to embrace Friday as a penitential day.
The Church’s Code of Canon Law states, “All members of the Christian faithful … are bound to do penance … [and] that all may be joined in a common observance … penitential days are prescribed” (Canon 1249). The next canon states, “All Fridays throughout the year and the time of Lent are penitential days … throughout the universal Church.” The following canon observes, “Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conferences of bishops is to be observed on Fridays … unless they are solemnities.”
Thus far the law is quite clear, but a commentary observes that conferences of bishops may substitute “another penance to be observed on Fridays in place of abstinence from meat.” This has caused some to conclude, “Wow! We can eat meat on Friday!” Although this is (partially) true, most Fridays are days of penance, and our food choices should reflect the day’s penitential character.