The Disaster of "Optional" Friday Abstinence


I wrote an article recently about the disaster of the US Bishops’ decision to remove the Friday abstinence obligation. What is most interesting, and what the articles focuses on, is reading the document that removed the obligation with forty years of hindsight. It is startling how wrong of a decision this was. I’d appreciate any feedback, but I think it is high time we ask our Bishops to correct this pastoral mistake.

Deo Gratias!


I’m pressed for time, so I haven’t read your article.

But I grew up during the ‘abstinence’ years, and I always felt it was unfair and a little stupid: made sense in the ancient mediteranean basin, has nothing to do with modern American life.

Because we were a ranching family, our beef was essentially free, but fish cost money. Beef was our staple food, fish was a rare luxury, the complete opposite of the situation as it existed when the ‘Friday fish’ rule was put in place.

It did great things for the fishing industry, and literally took food from my family’s mouths.

The concept of a day of discipline and atonement was great, but one should have been found that effected people a little more equally.


Thanks for your feedback. If you get time, please take a look. An economic analysis of the fishing industry was really beyond the scope. The importance of Friday in the modern Church has been greatly diminished by the decision of our bishops in 1966. And that is terrible.


Have countries where the Friday abstinance is still obligatory faired better than the USA in the ways you mention?


The requirement was to abstain from meat; not to eat fish. Eating vegetables from your garden or pantry would have been just as inexpensive as your beef during the rest of the week - you were never required to go out and buy fish.

The current discipline in Canada is that we may substitute abstinence from meat with some other form of penance; it has never been allowed to just not do penance on Fridays - but there is a huge amount of confusion on the issue, here. Most people I talk to are under the impression that there is no Friday penance rule, or that penance itself (as opposed to choosing which penance one might wish to do) is optional.


Personally, while vegetables make up a large portion of my diet, I simply feel weak if I don’t consume meat or fish daily - and fish is not always easy to come by, as Sam Maloney pointed out. I think that the modification of the Friday abstinence was a good thing, but somewhere it got lost in translation. In the USA, like Canada, the average Catholic now thinks that there is NO requirement to practice penance on Friday. That is the problem, not the modification of the rule itself.


As a recent convert (2005), I tried the “optional Friday penance,” and it just didn’t work. So I went to doing things the old way. Non-meat soup for lunch, and since I am the chief cook in our household, mac’n’cheese or tuna helper for dinner.



So what do you do during Lent when meat abstinence IS required on Fridays?


I think that it is hard to find a penance which adaquately replaces abstinance from meat on Fridays. It has been my experience that even with the best of intentions, “replacement penances,” tend to be less severe or fade over time. My wife and I have decided to stick with the tried and true no meat on Friday rule.


Not having ever lived before the current situation, the only things I can say are speculative.

But, perhaps it is a witness to the quality of penance done before the change that so few do it now. If Catholics were truly getting something spiritually beneficial, they would have kept doing it, required or not.

And penance without any intent of actually doing penance, just following rules, is useless. Its like they say about fasting. Fasting without prayer is just dieting. At that point it does not help us.

So perhaps getting rid of it was not the answer, proper catechesis was, or in my opinion, the combination of the two. Make people aware of how to properly do penance and the benefits and reasons for it, but also do not require them to do it. People do things better when they are not forced to do it.

So in conclusion, is it sad that nobody does it any more? yes. But that does not mean that it should be made mandatory again


I think that’s the problem, also.

I’m a convert, and didn’t learn about the Friday penance (outside of Lent) until I started googling other things Catholic on the internet.

I’ve met plenty of good, devout Catholics who are/were as surprised as I was that there’s a Friday penance. It’s pretty much glossed over in the Catechism (only one very small blurb that specifies “Lent and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord” CCC 1438); I’ve never seen it mentioned in a Church bulletin (not even my TLM bulletin); and I’ve never seen a reminder from the Bishops.

Most Catholics that I know, even the semi-practicing ones, generally follow the Friday penance during Lent and on Ash Wednesday.

I think that past 40 or so years have been very poor when it comes to catechesis. But I think we all agree about that. :cool:


Parents are largely to blame. After a child’s Confirmation the main faith education is the responsibility of the parents.


Because of the Bishop’s decesion several generations of Catholics no longer have a appreciation for Fish Sticks. :mad:


SenorSalsa says–<So perhaps getting rid of it was not the answer, proper catechesis was, or in my opinion, the combination of the two. Make people aware of how to properly do penance and the benefits and reasons for it, but also do not require them to do it. People do things better when they are not forced to do it.>

This is ridiculous. Catechesis IS important but the Church, in Her wisdom, has given us many rules to follow for the benefit of our souls.

Many of us don’t speed or run red lights because of laws designed to keep us safe. Many of us sometimes need the prompting of rules just to keep following the faith when we might not be so full of spiritual zeal. How many of us continue to follow any kind of Friday penance?


I agree wih what you have said here. I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. We always followed the rules regarding abstinence and fasting but to me they made very little sense, especially meatless Fridays. Since I wasn’t all that fond of meat in the first place, I actually looked forward to Fridays. It wasn’t a penance for me or for many of my other siblings. More like a change in the routine, And I always used to wonder why vegetarians appeared to have got off Scott-free. Mind you, that’s how I viewed the rules back then. Although we had been taught in school some of the reasons for this rule, it was like so many other teachings that went in one ear and out the other, The only thing that stuck in our minds was that it was just another Catholic rule saying “no”.
I feel that the current rules make more sense. Penance ought to be an act that causes the individual some degree of self denial or maybe even discomfort. I still don’t eat meat on Fridays, more as a habit than anything else but I do give up my morning coffee and orange juice.
To not stop at the closest Tim Horton’s for a coffee right after morning Mass is penance. :blush:


Quite aware of that, thank you.

But when you do heavy physical labor and are used to a protien based diet a can of stringbeens-- not free, by the way-- wasn’t much of a substitute.

For us, it was a genuine hardship, whereas for the average New Englander, it was no penance at all. It had no impact on the lives of many, but a big one on ours. The burden was not universally shared, and so not appropriate for the Universal Church.


I appreciate the flexibility of being able to substitute another penance on Friday as circumstances require. The norm in my house is still meatless, but it’s helpful to have another option…



A morning without my XL double-double?! Penance indeed!


I don’t understand what there is to be upset about or call a disaster?

This isn’t like a change in mass or tearing out communion rails.

Nobody is forcing you to do or not do anything. If meatless Fridays are that important to you, then go meatless on Friday!

Nothing to get worked up about. Nobody took your fish away.

Why do people keep looking for things to complain about?


And yet the U.S. bishops have several times “recommended” the traditional Friday abstinence.

Another helpful link:

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