No legal obligation to do penance on Friday?

Is this true?

According to this, there is no legal obligation to do penance on Friday for those who live in the United States. I am curious if the argumentation Jimmy Akin makes is valid.

I feel that Akin erred on this one because if he is right, then the Bishops would have just said in norm 3

“we hereby terminate the traditional law of ***Penance ***as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday.”

instead of

“we hereby terminate the traditional law of ***abstinence ***as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday.”

The fact that they did not, suggests that Akin is reading what he wants in to the Canon i.e. that legal obligation for penance was abolished.

Any thoughts?

I do not have time to find the link now, but I know the obligation stands. You are correct that the change was to allow alternative penances besides abstinence, not to abolish the obligation. Also, if I recall, Catholics are not allowed to make an alternative penance on Good Friday.

  1. In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. Rather, let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God’s people.

Yes, even that seems to somewhat suggest that legal obligation for penance was never abolished.

“… In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. …”

But Akin seems to argue that the above suggests that there is no legal obligation. So his claim seems to be Friday would be an ideal day to do penance if you wanted to do penance but its not legally binding. I admit by the quoted passage alone, it is somewhat ambiguous.

BUT, if Akin is right, then Norm 3 should have said ***Penance ***instead of Abstinence which it doesn’t. Akin insists that unless something is legislated then its not binding. In that same token, since the Bishops never repudiated the legal obligation and only worded it as “abstinence”, then the legal obligation itself should still be binding. At least that is how I am seeing it to the best of my ability…

It would appear that Mr. Akin has misinterpreted the intent of the USCCB.


  1. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.

I have no idea, this is about as complicated as determining whether attending Mass tomorrow night satisfies both the Immaculate Conception and Sunday obligations! :slight_smile:

Hmm… if I recall correctly, though, there was no “traditional law of penance”; rather, there was a “traditional law of abstinence”. So, they abrogated that which existed.

Akin is reading what he wants in to the Canon i.e. that legal obligation for penance was abolished.

Note that there isn’t a corresponding dictate “under pain of sin”. Inasmuch as this is the case, I would say that Akin has it right.

Of course, we wouldn’t want to use this analysis to conclude that our bishops are telling us not to do anything – rather, they’ve removed one discipline and replaced it with another … as is their right!

So I am not quiet sure I understand. There is no legal obligation to do penance but there is a legal obligation to abstain? Seems highly unlikely, no? I would assume there was a law to do penance by abstaining rather than just abstain?

But according to Akin this is not the case. The Bishops have removed the need for any legal obligation for any discipline and merely made it words of encouragement to the faithful to practice penance.

In other words, its like saying you don’t HAVE to go church on Sunday but its good if you can go.

I’d say that despite Jimmy Akin’s standing as an apologist, he can make mistakes and be confused also.

My reading is that Catholics in the US are bound to do some form of penance on Fridays year round. On Fridays during Lent (including Good Friday) we need to abstain.

We can choose to abstain as our form of penance year round. We can choose to do additional penance as well as abstain during Lent.

The legal obligation is present and defined by the Code of Canon Law. The fact that it might or might not be under the penalty of sin is a different story.

Absolutely no question there – one needs to go to 2 Mass-s to fulfill the 2 obligations.

I am sorry to see that some are not reading Jimmy Akin’s article as he intended it.

The big legal change comes in norm 3, where the bishops state that “we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday.” So the obligation to abstain from meat was terminated.** The question becomes**: What obligation, if any, did the bishops put in its place to replace it?

The clause “as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday” is consistent with the idea that they did establish another obligation or a mandate to do penance in some form on Friday, but it also indicates that they did not create a new obligation.

The next thing is that Friday continues to be a day of penance (norm 1).
This qualification strongly suggests that, though Friday is a day of penance, it is not one on which all of the faithful are legally bound or bound under pain of sin to do penance; nevertheless, “those who seek perfection” will do penance on the day.

The whole issue is whether or not we incur sin if there is no alternate form of penance adopted to replace abstinence from meat. I myself have confessed this, since I was not aware of there being an obligation. My confessor said there was NO SIN, but that penance is *encouraged but not legally binding under pain of sin. *Anyone who ate meat prior to the lifting of abstinence, and did so with deliberation, did commit sin.

This is the only issue that I find in Jimmy Akin’s article, whether or not there is the incurring of sin if one does not do penance. He says “no.”

Can. 1249 All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which the following canons prescribe.

Can. 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

The USCCB has no authority to dispense from these canons, and so they are still in force, and Akin’s interpretation is clearly faulty.

But is there a difference between “legally binding” and “legally binding under pain of sin”?

I would assume breaking Church law would amounts to disobeying authority and hence is always a sin?

It also just seems to me like that Akin is honestly reading in his position to the evidence. Because he quotes elsewhere regarding the same article from Pope Paul VI’s Paenitemini

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:
A. Transfer for just cause the days of penitence, always taking into account the Lenten season;
B. Substitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and the exercises of piety.
2. By way of information, episcopal conferences should communicate to the Apostolic See what they have decided on the matter"

then he himself agrees that the particular document does not give any special authority to abolish penance on Friday. BUT, he then argues such authority may exist. He also states that Rome did not “bark” when the 1966 document was sent to them. He also agrees that one could consider the 1966 document as ambiguous.

But if that were the case, then it seems more sensible to think that Rome approved the document as pertaining to the changes it allowed in the Paenitemini. So the ambiguous document was read as application of the powers suggested in that document rather than an abolishing of penance altogether. Hence Rome agreed.

Now Akin sees this issue. He states that the Bishops might have been given implicit authority by Rome’s acceptance (or lack of complaint) of the 1966 document. BUT, if the 1966 document is ambiguous, it is more likely that Rome interpreted it in light of the permission it had given.

So I honestly feel Akin has really blundered this one.

No. The Vigil Mass on Saturday fulfills the Sunday obligation only. It will be for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, not the Immaculate Conception. You can attend a Vigil tonight for tomorrow or go tomorrow during the day.

I think the issue is that it seems to give some form of room for the Bishops in Canon 1251 and 1253.

Akin wants to interpret Canon 1253

**Canon 1253 ** It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

as giving permission to change the penance obligation itself. But to me, the phrase “determine more precisely the observance of fast” seems to suggest HOW the fast should happen because of the subsequent mention of substitutes in the same sentence.

So it would seem that the only authority the Bishops conference had was to define how to validly carry out the fast (half meals etc) and abstinence (what foods) and recommend substitutes. I don’t think the authority was ever given to completely waive the legal obligation.

If such a right was given, then it should have been reflected in Paenitemini. But it doesn’t.

Rather than quibble over Mr. Akin’s interpretation, which I do not believe will be solved in this forum, why not submit a question to AAA? Or else ask your Confessor in the sacramnt of Penance? If AAA’s apologist priests confirm Mr. Akin’s words, will people accept it? Or continue to quibble?

I really do not enjoy seeing one of our apologists being put in an unfavorable light when he was sincerely trying to help us.

Okay folks. I know you traditionalists listen to Fr. Z. Will you believe him if I tell you he said the same thing as Jimmy Akin?


The bishops urged Catholics to continue to do penance by abstaining from eating meat, or to substitute some other form of penance, but they did not legislate any penance, under pain of sin.

These norms still have the approval of the Holy See. Until the law is changed, Catholics these United States are not bound, under pain of sin, to do anything penitential on Fridays. We are merely “strongly urged” to do so!

We are still obligated to do some sort of penance on Fridays.
HOWEVER, this is no longer on pain of mortal sin.
Maybe that is what the article was confused by?

No, not only is it NOT a mortal sin, but NO SIN at all.

We are ENCOURAGED to do penance, which is truly what Jesus advised in the gospels, so that is nothing new. But the obligation to do so on Fridays under pain of any kind of sin is removed.

If Fr. Z and Jimmy Akin are not sufficient, here’s more from EWTN:

Other Fridays are penitential days and the faithful are encouraged to do acts of penance, but this is not strictly obligatory in the United States.

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