Want to feel old? Talk to anyone under the age of 50 about meatless Fridays. Odds are, they will have no memory of it. They will have no knowledge of why Catholics were called “mackerel snappers,” nor will they laugh at tired George Carlin routines about going to hell for eating a hot dog.
And they sure as heck won’t know why many restaurant chains still have their fish specials on Fridays.
But for all you youngsters, you might get ready: Friday abstinence may be coming back.
Once upon a time, children, Catholics abstained from meat on Fridays as a small act of penance. Not just Fridays during Lent, but all Fridays. Friday was the day of the Lord’s death on the cross, and throughout the year, not just on Good Friday, Catholics would commemorate that day in a special way. One still finds this practice in religious communities like monasteries, and the British bishops restored the practice last year.
In general, however, meatless Fridays disappeared after the Second Vatican Council, despite the fact that canon law (Canon 1251) still asks us to abstain from meat or other food on Fridays subject to the requirements of the local conference of bishops.
The irony is that of all the many changes when the Church windows were opened to the fresh wind of aggiornamento, this one may have been one of the more significant. It was a small act of penance that was thoroughly integrated into everyone’s lives.
Of course, not everyone did it with full consciousness of what it was intended to commemorate. For many, it just became a rule, and junior theologians like young George Carlin loved to debate whether eating a hot dog on Friday led one straight down the brimstone path to hell.
Yet when Friday abstinence was done away with, it had a rather oversized impact on Catholic identity. It turned out it was a significant public acknowledgement of one’s faith, like ashes on the forehead. The bishops hadn’t meant for such small acts of penance to go away. They had intended to open up other options for sacrifice. But, of course, they weren’t.
And all those junior theologians? They wondered why one day you could go to hell for eating meat on Friday and the next week it was no big deal. Ultimately, this was a case when punishments became more important than catechesis, and what had a historic and pastoral value became instead a rule for a rule’s sake. Then, over-emphasizing the penalties was compensated for by abandoning the practice all together, and neither response was right.
However, the Church may get a chance to try again. In his speech to his fellow bishops Nov. 13, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested that it might be time to return to the practice of Friday abstinence.
“The work of our Conference during the coming year,” he said, “includes reflection on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible reinstitution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.”
Now to be fair, he did not specifically mention giving up meat. And, of course, one could give up television screens, or dessert, or a hundred other little pleasures we all enjoy. But I hope we do go back to those meatless Fridays. There is something to be said for Catholics knowing they are all in it together. This time, maybe we will not put the focus on the threats or the punishments, but use this as a teaching moment and a positive reinforcement of our Catholic identity.
My real hope is that we will also keep in mind why we are doing it: To remember Someone who gave up a lot more for us.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.