March 28, 2011

A holy canonical reminder

I write this knowing that we are in the middle of a great penitential season, when on such Fridays we are obligated to abstain from meat without question. Having said this, what is about to follow may not be relevant now, but after we witness the glory of our Lord’s Resurrection on Easter, we will want to keep this in mind throughout the rest of the year.

It is little known in the Church today that we are still obligated to offer some sort of spiritual sacrifice on each and every Friday throughout the liturgical year (with one notable exception, which will be explained below). I first learned of this through a sort of public service announcement through EWTN several years ago presenting two men in a restaurant ordering dinner. One chose to have a hamburger, while the other requested a fish dish. The narrator explained that even outside of Lent we are to abstain from meat or, if we choose to eat it, offer another kind of sacrifice in its place. However, I was left wondering why: the PSA didn’t cite any source. It made no mention of conciliar teaching, canon law, or even the Catechism.

Because a PSA cannot fit everything into 30 seconds, many important details naturally had to go missing from it, so I dug deeper. Indeed, the directive is derived from an interpretation of several canons within the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC). Here are the important ones, with my emphases:
(c. 1249) All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law....[P]enitential days are prescribed in which the Christian faithful in a special way pray, exercise works of piety and charity, and deny themselves... especially by observing fast and abstinence according to the norm of the following canons.
(c. 1250) All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.

(c. 1251) Abstinence from eating to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless (nisi) they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is not readily apparent from the canons themselves that we are allowed to substitute abstinence from meat with another spiritual sacrifice of our own. These canons, however, uphold abstinence from meat on every Friday as the traditional requirement, which some Catholics who are aware exercise as their penance anyway. Even though the US bishops have not elaborated further on canon 1249 as to what the “works of piety and charity” entail, the universal law still dictates that we are to offer a penitential sacrifice nonetheless. In the same way, the tradition of “giving up something” for Lent does not describe anything in particular -- we are to determine our penance in this case as well.

In my case, if I find myself eating meat on a non-Lenten Friday, I would pray at least the Sorrowful Mysteries...once I remember to do it, that is. This and other forms of prayer can serve as legitimate and efficacious substitutes for abstinence, as long as one remembers to do them in good conscience.

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