Abstinence

Okay, so I have a few questions about the Australians considering a restoration of year-round Friday abstinence from meat.

  • Why do we need bishops to tell us when not to eat meat?
  • The US bishops have advocated abstinence and fasting for peace since 1983. Anybody doing it?
  • How many clergy, and especially bishops, themselves continue to abstain from meat?

Speaking for myself, I observed a Friday abstinence for many years because of the peace pastoral letter. It wasn’t a very big effort, as I had largely given up red meat around the same time. No chicken on Fridays? Fasting seemed to make more sense to me. After I got married, it rather faded into going along. My wife wasn’t raised a Catholic and never had an experience outside of Lent.

I never quite viewed it as a penitential practice, as the Australian bishops are talking about it. I also wondered about the possibility of abstaining from alcohol or sweets. From what do Catholic vegetarians abstain?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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16 Responses to Abstinence

  1. Hillary says:

    I think they give up tofu! Actually, eating it would be a penance to most people. Thankfully I’ve never taken that on. :)

  2. Liam says:

    One question is whether those bishops would revive the obligation at a preceptual level (so that intentional non-obversance would normally be considered grave matter that could amount to mortal sin) or not. My reading of the tradition in the West was that it was made brittle and less resilient because of that approach (the Eastern traditions did not take that juridical tack, and were more resilient for it*). IIRC, the bishops of England & Wales expressly avoided reviving the obligation in way that would reprise this problem.

    The Jovial One (Abp Dolan) seemed eager to pursue this idea but, with the election of Pope Francis, the air seems to have been let out of that balloon.

    * The abstinence traditions of the Eastern Churches are much more severe than those of the Roman church: four fasting seasons, including 7 weeks of Great Lent, plus Wednesdays and Fridays during the rest of the year outside Eastertide and Christmastide. No flesh of vertebrate animals (invertebrates are OK, though), no eggs, no dairy products, no wine, no oil. And that’s just the food aspects…. The Western church had similar traditions, but they were largely riddled via indults (consider the “butter tower” of Rouen cathedral, the money for which came from tithing to pay for an indult to consume butter during Lent – it is Normany, after all!). If you read some of the manualists on the Eucharistic fast, you’ll find that confessors would often oblige people to also abstain from marital relations not merely from midnight through reception of Holy Communion, but for 3 days before and after receiving, as well as on fast days (Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the Western tradition).

  3. Todd says:

    I think the bishops can say “not to abstain is a sin,” but very few lay people would pay attention. And then again, maybe they lack the power to make it so. What I read from Australia is they are looking at the British option.

  4. Devin says:

    I would support abstinence from meat throughout the year and a return to one full meal during lent (and perhaps Advent as well), perhaps as encouragement and not under edict of sin (mortal or venial). It would help encourage those who are able to go the extra mile, and should free up some funds for alms. And if you looks at the impact it would have on one’s personal health and the environment (think of the meatless monday movement), it seems like a win-win-win all around. Something that perhaps both “liberals” and “conservatives” could get behind.

    But for something like this to return, it would need encourgagement from both the clergy and the grassroots level. I don’t see to many people having a stomache for this though.

    • Liam says:

      I would just strongly resist the urge to connect our abstinence traditions with health and the environment. (As a practical matter, avoiding meat as such is not necessarily healthier or even better for the environment; you’d have to put other filters into the mix to get to those things.) There is a lot of formerly religious energy that is now diverted into food politics, and I’d hate to see that bilge spill back over the other direction, as it will have been even more attenuated.

      Abstinence is not about health or even alms (alms are their own positive action). It is aseticism, which has its own reason for being: discipline to irritate us into greater awareness of how we try not to depend on God. We need to keep the focus laser-like on that, and not muddy it with derivative desiderata, which often betrays discomfort with asceticism, and that is a problem in and of itself.

      • Devin says:

        Fair points. I am all in favor of aseticism, but I don’t see it excluding other dimensions of fasting. I believe Leo the Great linked fasting and almsgiving together (I will have to check), so in my mind, charity towards our own bodies and to the environment could be a natural extension (provided that it actually does help in terms of the environement and health as you mentioned).

        But I didn’t think about your concern about food politics, but I am not sure it is an insurmountable obstacle? And perhaps the Church should be involved in food politics a little more as well?

      • Liam says:

        Food politics is a minefield of Right-Thinking People(TM) with myriad conflicting sets of assumptions, beliefs, goals (which require triaging – perhaps the most difficult part of all) – and partial facts. The more specific the Church as such tries to be about it, the less effective it would be. Laity are free to get involved; they just shouldn’t try to invoke the authority of God or the Church as such for particular desiderata. The Church has, historically, particularly cared that there was enough food to feed people. And it has also cared about the dignity of labor and social solidarity. But what I find interesting is our discomfort with the idea that fasting might just be what we need to find out how we keep God at a remove, and that it’s easier to embrace fasting for secondary motives, while keeping a primary motive at a distance. We live in an age where self-realization is understood as self-fulfillment, not self-sacrifice (unless it’s melodramatically and grandiosely heroic).

  5. As I watch church fish fry dinners grow more elaborate (“now featuring gluten free mac ‘n cheese, baked or fried haddock, fries, coleslaw and fresh bread”) often with the best of intentions, I wonder about the sanctity of fish on Fridays. And how many people go out to a restaurant – and again, with good intentions, eat shrimp scampi, lobster, or seared ahi. (In full disclosure, I ate seared ahi this past Friday when I was out of town on a business trip. *sigh*)

    If it were up to me,I would seek fasting as a church practice on Fridays, in Lent at least, if not other times. Not enforced, not under the mantle of sin!

    One of the best homilies that I ever heard talked about how eating less could result in giving more. It was done in a powerful way – and from that point on, something in me changed. I cannot and do not always observe as I might like (see ahi reference above) but I am grateful for the awareness – and for the invitation.

    • Jim McCrea says:

      Repeat after me as I repeat after you: “Not enforced, not under the mantle of sin!”

      The days of sheep blindly following whatever the clergy dictates are long gone. Make a good theological case for the voluntary practice and it will take hold in many people.

      Otherwise …. how’s the prohibition of contraception and abortion going? How’s the fulminating against marriage equality going?

      • FrMichael says:

        “How’s the fulminating against marriage equality going?” Pretty good actually, with the large majority of states of the Union banning same-sex marriage in their state constitutions. Unfortunately, perverts in the judiciary defy both God and citizenry by ruling protection of true marriage “unconstitutional.”

      • Oh Fr. Michael, what a charitable touch you offer us this Lent with the name calling. Please tell more about these “perverts.” Who exactly are they? I should resist commenting, out of my own charity, but your comments, mean spirited at they are, exhaust and annoy me. And then later, I feel pity for you. I’d be careful, whether you are ontologically different or not, from talking about who defies God. Frankly, at some level, we all do. That’s why it is best not to cast stones, no?

        And Jimmy Mac, I hear you, I hear you. I would rather see a focus on what my pastor said when he preached about food and fasting.

        He said… “Lent is a time for fasting but not a gloomy fasting that lowers one’s spirit. It is meant to be a way of lifting one’s soul and growing in love and communion with God and neighbor. Like Teresa, we must see it for what it is; part of a discipline, an attitude of love not a harsh rule to be endured! Consider this Lent how fasting might help you to be more loving and community oriented.

        One way is to focus on the connectedness of compassion. My prayer this Lent is this: As we eat our simple meals, may we consider what many of our sisters and brothers around the world are eating, often through no choice of their own.”

  6. Todd says:

    We might also be looking at two similar-looking, but very different practices. Hierarchs, as part of the aristocracy, got their meat, even in times and places of poverty. The Australian bishops I read in the linked article cited abstinence as connected to sin. So the tone of a few comments seemed to be directed at “you sinners” rather than at “us, the entire Church.” Not only is such an approach doomed to catch on, but it is a theological failure.

    On the other hand, if we approached this as a means of cooperating with grace, of seeking and embracing holiness, and we heard those homilies–maybe from lay people too–then I think we might find a way of fruitfulness in this renewal.

  7. FrMichael says:

    Fran– Well, in California’s case a judge who was known to the legal community to be in a homosexual relationship didn’t bother to recuse himself from the case and nullified our state constitution. So I meant “pervert” in a sexual sense there as well as a legal sense.

    But in general I mean the word in a non-sexual way, as I don’t know nor care to know the sexual predilections of the judges who have been making these rulings. Many judges have a perverted sense of justice where their personal opinions about public issues become equivalent to the US Constitution. It is ludicrous to think that any of the Founding Fathers would have thought that the federal constitution and the Bill of Rights would be used to further the cause of same-sex marriage. Only in the fevered minds of lawyers could such an argument hold sway and overturn the expressed will of the people.

  8. Pingback: Fasting as an act of love | There Will Be Bread

  9. Pingback: Fish on Friday? Fast on Friday? | The Parish Blog of St. Edward the Confessor

  10. Jen says:

    What does abstinence look like, when a significant portion of the population is working 2-3 jobs, not making enough to feed their families, let alone have the time/energy to fast? For some, Lenten abstinence is year-round.

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