Over the recent Christmas season I’ve been asked a few times whether it’s OK for Catholics to eat meat on Fridays “because it’s Christmas”. There isn’t one simple cut and dried answer to that question. How you resolve it depends on the approach to Friday abstinence that you adopt for yourself and your family. Ultimately it depends on where you choose to place the authority for determining your course of action – solely with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, with other people who you are called to evangelise, or with yourself as head of your domestic church.
You can choose to obey the rubrics of the Catholic Church rigidly. The Canon Law applicable to Western (Latin Rite) Catholics states:
Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.Canon 1251
The Bishops of England and Wales reinstated this as binding on Catholics in England and Wales in 2011, after a period of some years when Catholics had been free to choose their own Friday penance. Abstinence from meat is binding on all Catholics from their 14th birthday (Canon 1252), unless there is a medical reason why this would be unwise. Younger Catholics are not obliged to abstain but their parents should encourage the spirit of Friday abstinence in an age-appropriate way.
Solemnities are days of the highest rank in the Church’s calendar. Christmas Day and the 1 January celebration of Mary, Mother of God, rank as solemnities, as do all Holy Days of Obligation. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a solemnity which always falls on a Friday. Other saints’ days which are solemnities, such as the Birthday of St John the Baptist (24 June) or St Joseph’s Day (19 March) can fall on a Friday. Each diocese has its own liturgical calendar which might include some local solemnities, and the observance of the patron saint and the anniversary of dedication of an individual church could be solemnities in that parish, unless moved to the nearest Sunday.
The days between 26 and 31 December inclusive are celebrated with the rank of Feast, an important day with a Gloria at Mass – but not as high ranking as a solemnity. (The exact ranking is given at the end of the General Norms on the Liturgical Year.) The Friday of Easter Week (seven days after Good Friday) does, however, rank as a solemnity.
The Rigid Approach
It would be perfectly reasonable to choose to live rigidly according to the rubrics of the Church. Except in rare medical cases (e.g. anaemia, pregnancy), avoiding meat is not harmful or burdensome. Society generally respects those religions that avoid a particular meat absolutely (Muslims and Jews don’t eat pork, Hindus won’t eat beef). You can choose to live your life by declaring “I’m a Catholic and because of my religion, I don’t eat meat on Fridays except those days that the Church has waived.” If you are invited out on a Friday, there would be a strong moral obligation on you to make it clear to your hosts well in advance that this is the case, in order to avoid embarrassment.
The Responsive Approach
When Jesus sent his apostles out to preach, he told them to “eat what is set before them” (Luke 10:8) – though since they were sent to Jewish territory they could expect to be served kosher food. We are all called, by our baptism, to be missionary disciples – and that means building trust with people we want to share faith with. So it would be perfectly reasonable for a Catholic who chooses to practice strict Friday abstinence, when presented with circumstances beyond their control, to respond flexibly. If someone else has chosen to serve you meat, and refusing would give offence, it is quite reasonable to accept it with good grace.
Now here, we must recognise that two principles are in tension with one another. “Eating what is set before you” is as authentically Catholic as “obeying the law of the Church”. One Catholic might choose the witness of accepting hospitality while another might decide, in the context of a particular relationship, that it was more important to witness to keeping the discipline of the Church. This applies with less awkwardness when accepting a Friday night invitation in advance, allowing plenty of time to ask the host to avoid meat. There are sound moral principles behind both courses of action, and Catholics should avoid judging their co-religionists for reaching the opposite conclusion in a particular circumstance.
The Responsible Approach
When the Bishops of England and Wales restored Friday abstinence in 2011, the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference wrote a pastoral FAQ. That document is no longer available on the Bishops’ Conference website (but is preserved within this page at Birmingham’s cathedral); it included the following advice:
- There is no requirement for us to eat fish instead of meat on a Friday. Our act of abstinence does not mean that we have to eat another particular type of food as the regular substitute for meat on a Friday.
- If we are invited out for a meal on a Friday, then we should make the most of an opportunity to witness to our Catholic faith. If our friends and colleagues value us they will not be offended or upset if we tell them, ahead of time, that we do not eat meat on Fridays.
- Our Bishops wish us to focus on the importance of observing penance as a regular and necessary part of our spiritual lives as a whole. If we make it our practice to do penance during the prescribed penitential days and seasons of the Church’s year, then failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin.
The deep question here, therefore, for each Catholic as an individual or as a leader in their domestic church, is how penance fits into the rhythm of their weekly life. Abstaining from meat was never meant to be a mere badge of identity (“We’re Catholics, that’s what we do on Fridays.”) Rather, each Catholic individual and family should pause on Friday and remember how Christ sacrificed his life for our salvation. The choice to abstain is a choice to experience a small hardship in solidarity and gratitude for Christ’s saving death. The very fact that a Catholic is asking ‘Do I have to abstain today?’ is a sign that the penance is noticeable. It should make a small but significant inconvenience to our daily life for it to be what it is meant to be.
The pastoral guidance says that “failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin”. For unplanned failures (absent-mindedly making a ham sandwich on Friday) this means that a careless Catholic should be reassured that they don’t have to rush to confession on Saturday; this lack of perfection is of the kind where an “Oops! Sorry Lord!” in one’s personal prayer is quite adequate rather than a sin requiring absolution. Does this, however, give Catholics latitude to plan to fail on the occasional Friday?
What is not negotiable is the need to observe Friday penance. The pastoral guidance was based on a clarification from the Vatican that missing an individual penitential act is not a grave sin, but failing to practice penance in the course of one’s Catholic life is.
As long as Friday penance is observed in some way, then the spirit of the law is being kept. Personally, I would view it as quite reasonable for a family celebrating some special occasion (wedding anniversary, birthday, patron saint’s day) on a particular Friday night to choose to have a simple ‘abstinence meal’ on Thursday night and keep their penance that week from dusk on Thursday until dusk on Friday – this would also be in keeping with the ancient tradition of ‘fasting before feasting’. Alternatively, a family which didn’t feel comfortable taking this decision on their own authority could ask their parish priest for a dispensation from the rule of abstinence on that occasion. But care must be taken so that a ‘special occasion’ doesn’t become ‘any occasion’. The place of Friday night at the start of the Western weekend makes it a prime time for social gatherings; too casual an approach to excusing oneself from the Friday discipline would be against the spirit of the law.
The Fridays after Christmas
In 2014, Boxing Day fell on a Friday. An unnamed spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales was asked whether Catholics could eat meat that day, and said that it was “contrary to the mentality of what an octave is to consider one of its days as penitential”.
Strictly speaking, the spokesman was misinterpreting liturgical law. In the current Liturgical Calendar, there are two octaves (special periods of eight days). The Easter Octave does indeed have the rank of a solemnity and its Friday cannot be considered penitential. The Christmas Octave, however is assigned a relatively low rank – below saints’ days which are mid-ranking ‘feasts’. (Loosely the word ‘feast’ can indicate any saint’s day but in technical church language a ‘feast’ is an observance ranking below a solemnity and above a memorial.) Friday penance is not waived on feasts, only on solemnities – so it is clearly not the intention of those who drafted that current liturgical calendar to designate the Christmas Octave as a day free from penance. On the contrary Canon 1250 designates ‘every Friday of the year’ as penitential, and that surely includes Fridays in Eastertide as well as the Christmas season.
In the pre-Vatican II liturgical calendars, Friday abstinence also applied during the Christmas octave – though in 1952 and 1958, explicit exemptions were granted by the Holy See when Boxing Day fell on a Friday.
It could be argued, however, that in popular understanding, most Catholics regard the days after Christmas as a season of celebration and aren’t aware of these liturgical niceties. There is also the practical problem of using up Christmas leftovers – Pope Francis has warned against a casual approach to throwing out waste food, both at personal and corporate levels. So I think it would be fair to say that a Catholic who generally practiced Friday penance but relaxed their discipline in the holiday season after Christmas wasn’t doing anything concerning. However, a Catholic concerned enough to have read this article as far as this point will probably want to plan their Christmas season to avoid meat, insofar as it’s under their own control, on Fridays which do not fall on 25 December or 1 January.
Abstinence as a lifestyle
Finally, we should acknowledge that for many Catholics, abstinence is more than a penitential discipline. Some Catholics, out of concern for cruelty to animals or the limited resources of the global ecosystem, have chosen not to eat meat at all. The Bishops of England & Wales have asked such Catholics to choose another suitable penitential act on Fridays. More recently, in promoting awareness of Pope Francis’ ecological teaching in Laudato Si, the bishops have asked the Catholics of England & Wales to consider reducing, if not eliminating, their consumption of meat (especially red meat) altogether. This, of course, is about how we choose an ethical lifestyle rather than observing a penitential discipline. But while we’re thinking about how eating meat interacts with our faith, it’s good to remember it here. Bon appetit!