The great debate raged in towns and villages across the land this year: what to do about St. Patrick's Day? It was generally referred to as the "Corned Beef and Cabbage Wars."
As it does roughly every seven years, St. Patrick's Day fell on an otherwise meatless Lenten Friday. Dioceses everywhere in these United States were deluged with dispensation requests. Some bishops dealt with it on a case-by-case basis; others granted a general dispensation under various conditions; still others allowed virtually no dispensations.
Which made for a meaty media stew, pun fully intended.
In those dioceses where abstinence from corned beef was not generally lifted on St. Patrick's Day, media went into a feeding frenzy. Newspapers and television stations had a field day dredging up various Catholics opining on whether or not they would indulge in the forbidden.
The old curmudgeon generation snuffed and snorted and pulled out the when-I-was-young stories: "When I was young, we abstained from meat every Friday of the year. And we walked two miles to church for daily Mass -- on our knees!"
The Corned Beef and Cabbage Wars was a reminder of the grand old days of the great Catholic dietary debates. I am not surprised that there are now five Catholic Supreme Court justices. They are of the age to have been nurtured in rip-roaring legalistic nitpicking over Lenten regulations and Friday fasts. They were adequately prepared for law school.
In our house growing up, the great debate raged over pizza. My culturally Irish mother believed that what qualified for meatless depended on extended degrees of separation. She insisted that pizza was ruled out on Fridays because it was made with tomato sauce, tomato sauce was served over spaghetti and spaghetti was served with meatballs.
And so it went this year, as the great question wrestled in the conscience of many Catholics was whether they could have their corned beef and eat it too.
Adopting the age-old canonical understanding that law is where your feet rest, some Catholics from nondispensational dioceses slipped over to Irish bars in neighboring dispensational dioceses; others latched on to the issue of "greater harm," refusing to insult hosts that would be serving the traditional Irish fare; still others argued from personal moral freedom: If I am convinced of the necessity of eating corned beef on St. Patrick's Day, I can do so with a clear conscience.
And there were the souls who simply shrugged their shoulders and maintained the Friday fast because that's what a Catholic does during Lent, follow the rules, dispensational or nondispensational diocese. Bless their meatless hearts.
But somewhere a voice of reason might have prevailed with the simple advice to, well, grow up.
Approaching Lenten fast and abstinence practices like an overly scrupulous litigator looking for loopholes squeezes the spiritual life out of them. It also makes the Catholic community look like a collection of idiots to a media always interested in helping us do just that.
Don't fast and abstain because it is the "rule" or ignore it because it is only a rule. The Lenten practices of fast and abstinence are meant to pull us out of our day-to-day concerns in order to spiritually prepare for Holy Week and Easter. If a person fasts and abstains for that reason, all the questions of when, what, where, if and how become pretty silly.
Of course, who am I to offer anything of value in that great debate? I don't like corned beef anyway.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.