A meaty debate over Friday abstinence

Some readers thought there was something fishy about my Nov. 25 column on Friday abstinence, while others had a beef with me for promoting its return.  

To recap, I had reported on a speech made by Cardinal Timothy Dolan to an assembly of U.S. bishops earlier in the month, when he suggested that they might consider a return to the Friday abstinence. This news inspired comments. Lots of comments. 

Those most opposed to the idea of any return to meatless Friday were clearly scarred by the hot dogs of their youth and assumed that such a return would come with the penalty of mortal sin if one ignored the prohibition. Unhelpfully, one of the pro-abstinence people mocked such concerns as effeminate, suggesting that more manly Church leaders would be willing to consign people to hell for violating the prohibition.  

On the other hand, a number of readers said that they’ve never stopped the practice of Friday abstinence, which suggests the power of this small sacrifice in memory of something much greater — namely, the passion and death of the Lord on Good Friday. I was heartened by their testimonies. Younger Catholics also seemed intrigued by the return of an ancient discipline they had only heard about from their parents or grandparents.  

All this feedback led me to two reflections and an aside. 

First, the notion of coercing adherence to a pious practice is something that I am glad we are done with, and I hope it does not return. It would diminish both the value of the practice and the significance of sin. Should a Catholic intentionally eat meat on Friday because he hates the Church and what the practice stands for, then in the words of George Carlin, “save your bus fare.” He’s already sinned, and the eating meat part is the least of his problems. For the rest of us, it appears that a lot of tender consciences were terrorized for no good reason.  

Threats are unnecessary. What needs to be emphasized instead, should such a practice return, is the awareness of why we do some small act of mortification on Friday. Not only would this be spiritually valuable, but it also binds us with generations upon generations of our fellow Catholics who followed this same practice. 

Second, what is also fascinating is how often our emphasis is on the giving up. The other part of the equation is doing something special on Sunday to commemorate the Resurrection. When I was young, Sunday was the day of dessert. Because my mother was an advocate of healthy eating, we only had dessert once a week. Because she was a Catholic, dessert night was on Sundays. In our Catholic tradition, every Sunday is a little Easter and a day of rest. In 21st-century America, of course, closing stores or shunning work on Sunday is nonproductive and nonefficient. It might help us all if the Church could get agitated about how to keep Sunday holy and special. Perhaps the bishops could make a lack of dessert on Sunday a sin! 

Finally, the aside: In the past 50 years, we have wandered far away from an awareness of what constitutes grave or mortal sin. This is not good. We casually ruin marriages or reputations, hold vile bigotries and terminate lives, envy our neighbors and unleash tirades on others, yet we seem oblivious that such acts have consequences in this life and the next. On the other hand, when grave penalties are wielded simply to enforce conformity, they inevitably produce a backlash that weakens an overall sense of what constitutes grave sin. Abstaining from a small pleasure out of fear is surely no pleasing gift to him whom it is meant to please. Perhaps, along with revitalizing the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Church leaders could teach a more profound understanding of what sin really is. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.

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