Re-proposing fish friday

In What Makes us Catholic, Thomas Groome recounts a Jewish friend’s simple, direct, and satisfying explanation of his adherence to kosher rules: “It reminds me to bring my faith into every aspect of my life, even decisions about what to eat.” I would say the same about “fish friday”: Choosing fish—or pineapple pizza, or pasta and sauce, or anything else from the meat-free menu—for one day a week isn’t a heroic sacrifice, but in a small, manageable way, cabining one’s food choices discharges the obligation of Friday penance in a traditional way that focusses our attention on the need to put God at the center of even the routine trivia of our lives. I do it, and, in the spirit of reproposing tradition, if you don’t,  please consider joining me.

Now, some Catholics think that “Vatican II” did away with all that kind of stuff, and some younger Catholics are unaware that fridays are penitential days at all, let alone that abstinence from meat is the normative method of discharging that obligation. 1 If that’s you, please read on—this post is for you.

The colloquialism “Fish Friday” is actually a misnomer; tradition didn’t encourage fish on Friday so much as it proscribed meat. No one seems to know when Catholics began to abstain from meat on fridays, 2 but whenever its precise origin, when Vatican II ended, abstinence from meat was still the traditional Friday penance required by law and custom, as it had been for centuries, and the council fathers never dreamed of changing that.

Pope Paul VI, however, was a dreamer. In his February 1966 Apostolic Constitution on Fast and Abstinence, he authorized episcopal conferences to substitute alternative forms of penance in lieu of abstinence from eating meat except during lent, and the US bishops responded a few months later in their November 1966 Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. The latter is particularly worth your time, especially its  introduction and paragraphs 18 through 28; I won’t quote it all, but here’s a flavor:

Changing circumstances … have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. … [S]ince the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential. …

[F]ar from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by  the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, … [we] urge our Catholic people … [to remember that] Friday … remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year … [and] 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.

Our bishops intended to create flexibility in the manner of penance: If your pleasure is a martini at the end of the day rather than a steak, abstaining from the latter on Fridays may be a suboptimal penance, and if you’re a vegetarian, it may be no penance at all! 3 The problem is that when things become optional in theory they often end up undone in practice, and in the postconciliar chaos, Friday abstention came to be seen as optional; a generation later, it’s rarely seen at all.

Against this backdrop, I want to underline three points that must weigh on our consciences today:

(1) The Code of Canon Law still obliges Friday penance, throughout the year. “Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities.” 1983 CIC 1251.

(2) The 1966 Pastoral Statement didn’t make Friday penance optional, it merely allowed  diversity of form—to substitute more personally penitential alternatives to abstinence from meat.

(3) Abstaining from meat remains the default Friday penitential practice, even in the United States. The Pastoral Statement says:

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.

Although there’s much to say about the nexus between Fish Friday and Catholic Identity, this post won’t explore the wisdom of the decisions that made abstinence optional; we’ll get into that another day. No, here’s the major point that I want to convey to you today:

Abstinence from meat is the time-honored, traditional, and default expression of a Friday penance that is mandatory for Catholics.

If you take nothing else away from this entry, take that.

Apropos, the blog Te Deum Laudamus reported today that Fr. Eduard Perrone has challenged his parishioners “to do one act of penance every week during the year 2012–an act in addition to any penitential acts which may already be one’s practice or which the season (viz., Lent) may dictate.” Fr. Perrone likely assumes that his audience is already observing a Friday penance; he means one more. But if you aren’t, may I ask you to consider Perrone’s challenge as a personal challenge to do so? And may I furthermore propose—assuming that you’re not a vegetarian—that you do so by abstaining from meat? Abstention is, as we’ve seen, the traditional and normative Friday penance in the Latin Church, and there are other good reasons too, not least in that it builds a sense of identity, provides opportunities for witness, and that it supplies a weekly echo of the formal penances of Lent and of Good Friday. 4

Abstention is a practice that has been partially forgotten for a few years, but was the praiseworthy practice of our forerunners in faith. May we, therefore, like Groome’s friend, go and bring our faith into every aspect of our life, even our decisions about what to eat.


  1. The latter’s a direct result of the former, but enough of that for today.
  2. Some say that it goes all the way back to the apostles and cite what strike me as inconclusive passages from Church Fathers like Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria; others think it a mediaeval accretion. I suggest that its obscure origins are a credential not a weakness: In Blackstone’s felicitous phrase, “the goodness of a custom depends upon it’s having been used time out of mind; or, in the solemnity of our legal phrase, time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary. This it is that gives it it’s weight and authority….” 1 William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 67 (1769).
  3. At the opposite extreme, a pious abstention from meat may endanger the health of certain faithful, especially those under the physical duress of pregnancy and illness.
  4. The Pastoral Statement expressly makes this connection, by the way.

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