It is generally accepted among American Catholics (lay and cleric alike) that abstinence from meat on Fridays outside of lent is optional so long as you “substitute something else” in its place (or some variation of this). In reality, though, the law surrounding abstinence from meat in the United States is muddled, with quite a few theories as to what you have to do (or not have to do as the case may be). So, what is the law? Is there a law? Do you have to abstain from meat or from anything on Fridays outside of Lent?
There are a few canonical concepts that need to be established before tackling these questions. The first is “universal law.” Universal law is the law that binds the whole Church, throughout the whole world. It is normally expressed in the Code of Canon Law, though it can be promulgated in several ways outside the Code, as we will see below. The Pope (the universal legislator for the Church) is free to promulgate universal law whenever and however he likes, though there are regular ways this is done for consistency’s sake.
The second concept is “particular law,” which, unlikely universal law, is a law created for a particular purpose or for a particular territory or group of people. Bishops can create particular law for their dioceses, and episcopal conferences can create particular law for the whole territory of the conference. For example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) can create a particular law for the whole United States. Sometimes a particular law is called a “complementary norm” (as it is with the USCCB). These complementary norms often fill in gaps in the universal law, so that the local custom can be integrated into the law. Sometimes though these complementary norms can provide alternatives or substitutions to the universal law, as we will see below.
There are two caveats here: (1) particular law cannot contradict universal law when the particular law is issued from a lower legislator, and (2) legislators can only create particular law insofar as they are empowered to do so. So, for example, a bishop or episcopal conference could not create particular law that says priests can marry, as the law binding Latin priests to celibacy (c. 277) is universal law from a higher legislator (i.e., the Pope), and the higher universal legislator has not given bishops or conferences the faculty or power to modify or define this law in any way. And moreover, such a particular law would contradict the higher universal law. Therefore, if these lower legislators did try to create such a law, it would be null and void.
In general, bishops are free to create particular law for their territories, as they know them best, but there are only a few cases in the law where a conference of bishops can create particular law, specifically regarding issues that should be consistent across diocesan boundaries. You can actually see all the complementary norms (particular law) the USCCB has created here.
Let us use canon 284 for illustrative purposes. Canon 284 states that “clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by the Episcopal Conference and legitimate local custom.” You will note that the canon is vague on what “suitable ecclesiastical dress” is and instead explicitly empowers the conference to establish norms for this meaning. And looking at the complementary norms, the Conference did exactly this. It notes:
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in accord with the prescriptions of canon 284, hereby decrees that without prejudice to the provisions of canon 288, clerics are to dress in conformity with their sacred calling.
In liturgical rites, clerics shall wear the vesture prescribed in the proper liturgical books. Outside liturgical functions, a black suit and Roman collar are the usual attire for priests. The use of the cassock is at the discretion of the cleric.
In the case of religious clerics, the determinations of their proper institutes or societies are to be observed with regard to wearing the religious habit.
So, this is the law that applies to all clerics in the United States. In other words, this particular law provides the norm for putting canon 284 into practice in the conference territory. “Suitable ecclesiastical dress” in the United States is thus a black suit and Roman collar for a priest or a cassock (at the discretion of the cleric).
As you might be expecting, today a similar canon exists for abstinence on Fridays, wherein conferences are empowered to define the terms of abstinence. But before we get to that, there is some needed (and somewhat complex) history concerning the law of abstinence from meat in the Church.
The venerable practice of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays is one of the oldest traditions in the Church, extending all the way back into the first century, recognizing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The relevant law for our discussion, though, begins with the 1917 Code of Canon law. There, in canon 1250, abstinence is defined as follows:
The law of abstinence prohibits meat and soups made of meat but not of eggs, milks, and other condiments, even if taken from animals.
Importantly, the 1917 Code goes on to say:
Canon 1252: §1. The law of abstinence only must be observed every Friday [literally on “each sixth day of the week” in Latin].
There was no general exception to this rule, and as it was a command from the Pontiff (through the law), it was seen as sinful to disobey it. The definition of abstinence provided by the 1917 Code is also quite a bit clearer and more instructive than the 1983 Code definition, but more on that later.
These basic rules were eventually modified in 1966 by Pope Paul VI in a document entitled Paenitemini. The document was intended to actually bolster penitence and abstinence by giving it a broader understanding beyond just the foregoing of meat. Pope Paul VI emphasized works of charity and piety, and, in cases where it was opportune, permitted conferences of bishops to substitute the form of abstinence in line with these views. He notes:
Therefore, the Church, while preserving—where it can be more readily observed—the custom (observed for many centuries with canonical norms) of practicing penitence also through abstinence from meat and fasting, intends to ratify with its prescriptions other forms of penitence as well, provided that it seems opportune to episcopal conferences to replace the observance of fast and abstinence with exercises of prayer and works of charity.
As a result of this desire, he identified and created the following relevant norms (emphasis mine):
I. 1. By divine law all the faithful are required to do penance.
II. 1. The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of “Grande Quaresima” (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely.
III. 1. The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat.
VI. 1. In accordance with the conciliar decree Christus Dominus regarding the pastoral office of bishops, number 38,4, it is the task of episcopal conferences to:
B. Substitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and the exercises of piety.
To summarize: (1) all the faithful are required generally to do some sort of penance. As this is divine law, no power on earth can dispense it; (2) the days of penitence are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday and observation on these days bind gravely; (3) the law of abstinence forbids the use of meat; (4) conferences can substitute the general form of abstinence (meat) with other forms of penitence, especially works of charity and piety.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops responded to this with its own document in 1966, exercising (in theory) the authority that the Pope had given them to make decisions concerning abstinence. This is what we would call a particular law, noted above. That document was entitled “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence.” The relevant portions are as follows (emphasis mine):
23. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.
24. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.
25. Every Catholic Christian understands that the fast and abstinence regulations admit of change, unlike the commandments and precepts of that unchanging divine moral law which the Church must today and always defend as immutable. This said, we emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that no scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience, confessions, or personal decisions on this point.
While especially pastoral, this is a difficult document to read as a matter of legal command. One might notice that the Conference does not seem substitute another form of penitence, but instead appears to have simply “terminated” the traditional law of abstinence while urging Catholics to consider self-denial by “freely” abstaining from meat (first choice) or something else. The point being made by the Conference seems to be that there is no obligation to do penance. Any penance. But that people are encouraged or urged to do so.
Now, one might try to read this document in line with Paenitemini, which is certainly reasonable. Namely, that the Conference was intending to basically do what Paenitemini suggested: to substitute and so make mandatory another obligation. This, unfortunately, is difficult to find in the text, and many (if not most) canonists do not read it in this way. If an obligation were being created, language like “we require” or “we mandate” instead of “we urge” and “freely” and “voluntary” would be utilized. As a general rule, unless an obligation is clearly stated in the law, you do not have that obligation. So, many people’s conclusion from 1966’s action is that the USCCB eliminated any legal obligation for penance on Fridays outside of Lent (though sincerely urged all to participate in some form of penance on this day). And for the most part, this is what happened to the practice of Friday penance outside of Lent in the United States.
But were they able to do this, to completely eliminate the obligation? Let us continue on before we answer that question.
All of the above law was replaced by the 1983 Code of Canon law, which supersedes any prior legislation (including Paenitemini and whatever it is the norm the United States Conference created in 1966). Canon 6 of the 1983 Code notes: §1 When this Code comes into force, the following are abrogated: other laws, whether universal or particular, which are contrary to the provisions of this Code, unless it is otherwise expressly provided in respect of particular laws.
In other words, if any law prior to the 1983 Code contradicts the 1983 Code, the 1983 Code’s law replaces the former law. Therefore, we need to look at the 1983 Code’s law on abstinence. The relevant portions of the 1983 Code of Canon Law concerning abstinence are as follows:
Canon 1251. Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the
Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good
Canon 1252. The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
Canon 1253. The Episcopal Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
You will note that a lot of this language looks very similar to Paenitemini. In fact, much of it is nearly identical. Put another way, the universal law promulgated in Paenitemini was included in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, creating new universal law. This is precisely what the USCCB noted as well in the complementary norm they created to canon 1253. The Conference promulgated the following in 1983:
Complementary Norm: Norms II and IV of Paenitemini (February 17, 1966) are almost identical to the canons cited. The November 18, 1966 norms (the “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence” noted above) of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on penitential observance for the Liturgical Year continue in force since they are law and are not contrary to the Code (canon 6).
The USCCB’s argument following the new 1983 Code is that because the new law is basically identical to Paenitemini, the norms they issued in 1966 remain in force since they are not contradicted by the new law. This is why they cite canon 6 about contradicting laws being abrogated. And even if they were in conflict somehow, the issuance of a new complementary norm in 1983 would repromulgate the norm in line with the 1983 Code.
That all appears to be correct, and if it is correct, we have to read the complementary norm both in line with Paenitemini (since that is the starting point) and with the 1983 Code. But there remains the core problem. Could the USCCB do what it did?
Certainly, it had the authority to substitute and define the obligations of abstinence. But the issue is that the 1966 pastoral statement, as noted, likely terminated the Friday abstinence obligation entirely. One would be hard-pressed to find a canonist (or bishop) who argues that American Catholics violate canon law by not practicing Friday abstinence outside of Lent (whether by abstaining from meat or by doing or not doing something else). Most would simply say that they are free to do a penance or not do a penance, but that they should do a penance (because of the spiritual benefit, etc.). Few, if any, would say they are obligated to do a penance.
But reading the canon (and Paenitemini), it is clear that the substitution is never about substituting an obligation for no obligation, but instead substitution of one type of obligation (abstinence from meat) for some other obligation (another penance). This of course follows the logic that the obligation for penance is a matter of divine law and the notion that all Fridays maintain their special character.
The divine law obligation should not be read too strictly, of course. The obligation is general and follows from our state as sinful human beings. It is not specific and does not require a particular form of penance at a specific time, as Paenitemini notes in providing various types of penance. The point being made is that a total termination of any obligation for penance throughout the whole year does not follow the general obligation to do penance.
And this is no small problem either, as if the USCCB did not have the power to substitute a positive obligation with no obligation, then, as noted above, the particular law (the complementary norm) would be contrary to both the principles that a particular law cannot contradict a universal law and that legislators can only make particular law that they are empowered to make. As a result, such a norm would be null and void, and the obligation would return to the universal law. That is, the law that appears in canon 1251: that abstinence from meat is to be observed on all Fridays, even outside of Lent.
So, is this the case? Does the obligation to abstain from meat on all Fridays remain? I think that it is entirely possible, and there are strong arguments to that end, though, it can be just as easily argued that because the law is unclear (and the faithful generally believe that there is no obligation to abstain from meat on every Friday) there really is no legally binding obligation that would carry any legal or moral consequence. You cannot be obliged to do something you do not know and cannot know you are obliged to do. The responsibility that flows from our obligations (moral, legal or otherwise) is necessarily tied to our ability to intellectually comprehend what those obligations actually are.
Some might argue that the legal concept of “custom” could address the issue. In the law, unlike the particular law of lower legislators, custom (the consistent and continued practice of the faithful) has the power to supersede universal (but never divine) law under certain circumstances, which may apply here. That is, a different custom (based on the USCCB’s urging) has taken the place of abstaining from meat on Friday. But one has to ask: what actually is the custom of the United States on this issue? Is it that there is no requirement to do anything on Fridays outside of Lent? That you are not required to abstain from meat, but you should do something else in place of not eating meat? That you are not required to abstain from meat, but you are required to do something else in place of not eating meat? The confusion in the 1966 USCCB document (and the following unclear practices and teachings) itself undermines the custom.
All that said, the purpose of this article is not to make the argument one way or another as to what the obligation is. It is simply to show that the law is unclear on this matter and to implore the USCCB to act in clarifying this very important issue.
At this point, I think it would be helpful to look at how other conferences have managed these requirements. They provide a helpful starting place for exploring how the United States might remedy this problem.
The Canadian Conference states:
In accordance with the prescriptions of canon 1253, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops decrees that the days of fast and abstinence in Canada are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fridays are days of abstinence, but Catholics can substitute special acts of charity or piety on this day.
It is clear from the Canadian law that all Fridays are days to abstain from meat (this is what “abstinence” means according to canon 1251), but you are permitted to substitute other acts of charity or piety in place of abstinence. Put another way, you are obliged to abstain from meat or, if you choose not to do this, you are obliged to do some other act of charity or piety. This is surely in line with the Code and Paenitemini, as it is substituting one obligation with another obligation (even if you have a choice as to what that other obligation is).
The Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops is another good example. There:
On all other Fridays of the year including the Fridays of Lent, the law of the common practice of penance is fulfilled by performing any one of the following:
(a) prayer – for example, Mass attendance; family prayer; a visit to a church or chapel; reading the Bible; making the Stations of the Cross; praying the Rosary.
(b) self-denial – for example, not eating meat; not eating sweets or dessert; giving up entertainment to spend time with the family; limiting food and drink so as to give to the poor of one’s own country.
(c) helping others – for example, special attention to someone who is poor, sick, elderly, lonely or overburdened.
It is clear that you are obliged to do one of the three things above. This is surely in line with the Code and Paenitemini. I consider this instruction much more helpful than even the Canadian one, as it provides a list of options to the faithful, instead of placing the onus on them to determine what an appropriate act of charity or piety is.
This brings us to the next point. There is a great deal of pastoral care provided by clarity on these issues. The faithful want (and are obliged!) to follow the law (whether divine, universal, or particular), and not clearly identifying what that law is does not help them, but instead serves as a kind of stumbling block. There are very few frustrations more disheartening than not knowing if you have failed in a duty or, worse, not knowing what you should be trying to accomplish in the first place. An unclear law helps no one, no matter the pastoral emphasis.
One has to wonder if the antinomian trend that is common in the Western, especially American, Church is present here. There is a general desire today to avoid concepts like “obligation” with religious practice. Even the phrase “holy day of obligation” can make people uncomfortable. We tend to emphasize free expressions of religious practice as genuine, while seeing mandated ones as somehow inferior or even bad. But I believe this is wrongheaded. Duty and obedience are often (though of course not always) what sanctify us. Shirking responsibilities, finding ways of avoiding what we are called to do rarely help us grow spiritually. When we look at our spiritual ancestors and our saints, obedience usually comes first.
I would like to turn finally to another conference example. In 2011, The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales explicitly re-established abstinence from meat on all Fridays:
The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake. This is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.
While this is surely another example of a conference creating a particular law in line with the Code and Paenitemini, it is helpful in other ways. The Conference of England and Wales’ requirement to abstain from meat in particular is important here and should perhaps serve as an example for the United States Conference if it were to revisit these norms.
There are a number of reasons why abstinence from meat is an appropriate obligation on all Fridays. For one, such an obligation aligns with the universal law and the long tradition of the worldwide Church, both of which should be seen as a source of deep spiritual value. Additionally, Americans consume a very large amount of meat; we are in fact some of the largest meat eaters in the world. Requiring abstinence from meat on every Friday would provide a consistent, important, and spiritually challenging (and so spiritually edifying) reminder to Catholics in the United States. Finally, there are also environmental arguments (perhaps in line with the calls of Laudato Si’) that should be considered, especially by those with expertise on the topic.
American Catholics have lived many years under unclear law. The law should serve as a teacher to us, not as a source of confusion or frustration. The faithful have a genuine desire for guidance. The 1966 USCCB norms and their reissuance in 1983 were helpful for those times and certainly provide a strong pastoral starting place, but today there is a real need to clarify and define the law for the good of all the faithful in the United States.
 It is not clear we really believe in this much anymore in practice. When was the last time you heard someone calling a violation of canon law “sinful?”