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Fasting and abstinence on Fridays
Question from John on 10/19/2012:

It's my understanding that Vatican II did not do away with abstaining from meat, or something else, on Fridays; although, unfortunately everyone seemed to believe that along with other things. Please confirm this.

Answer by Catholic Answers on 10/24/2012:

John--

Canon law for the Latin Catholic church (canons 1249-1250) states that penance on prescribed days is a matter of divine law for Catholics.. (Eastern Catholic penitential disciplines may vary according to the East's own canon law.) Regarding appropriate penances, Latin canon law states:

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 (canon 1249, emphasis added).

Abstinence from meat is one of the penances described for Fridays. Canon law provides that determining prescriptions for abstinence may be left to the national bishops' conferences:

Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the [national] episcopal conference[s], 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).

In reading through this, it appears to me that there is a distinction that can be made. Latin Catholics are expected to do appropriate penances on the days the Church mandates they do so. Canon law gives suggestions on penances that can be done (e.g., "devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves"). Abstinence seems to be a subset of this prescription, to be done on Fridays in accord with the discipline adopted by the bishops' conference in one's country of origin. In the U.S., required abstinence on Fridays is limited to the Fridays of Lent; in England and Wales, it is required throughout the year.

There is a confusion I think in that recent readings of the law have seemed to interpret these canons as "abstain from meat on Fridays or do some other penitential act." From what I can tell, the law seems to me to say "penance is expected of Catholics on days the Church mandates; abstain from meat on Fridays according to your national bishops' conference's approved discipline."

Disclaimer: I am not a canon lawyer. If you want a more authoritative interpretation of the law, please consult with a canon lawyer.

Michelle Arnold
Catholic Answers


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