The meaning of abstinence and power-shunning

Peppercorn Beef Shoulder Filet Steak
Photo credit: Mike Johnson -

The Bishops' Conference of England and Wales met last week in Leeds; here is a link to the Plenary Resolutions. The one which has attracted most comment re-establishes the practice of abstinence from meat on Fridays.

This resolution has been widely welcomed and I find it very encouraging. The reasons given by the Bishops are set out clearly:
The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.
I was interested to look up in some old catechetical books the sort of reasons that used to be given for Friday abstinence. A good, succinct summary is given in the Catechismus Catholicus of Cardinal Gasparri. I have the 8th edition which was published in 1932. This is divided into three principal parts: a catechism for children preparing for Holy Communion (a delightful summary in 25 questions), a catechism for older children, and a catechism for adults. In the adult section, question 257 runs as follows:
Curnam Ecclesia praescribit ieiunium et abstinentiam?
Ecclesia praescribit ieiunium et abstinentiam, ut fideles paenitentiam agant de peccatis commissis, praecaveant a futuris, atque ita efficacius vacent orationi.

So why does the Church prescribe fasting and abstinence?
The Church prescribes fasting and abstinence so that the faithful should do penance for sins committed, guard against future sins, and thus be more efficaciously free for prayer.
Both of these aspects of penance are important and can be integrated into a well-rounded spiritual life. I agree with the Bishops that the distinctive mark of Catholic identity and the common witness are important. Especially at public occasions, it is good for Catholics to stand out in a small way by politely refusing meat on religious grounds. Some papers have referred to the new instruction as applying to "practising Catholics." Obviously it applies to all Catholics - those who have lapsed will now have one more mark of identity, a relatively easy one to fulfil, which can help them on the road back to the Church.

The older justification for abstinence is also one that we do well to remember. Essentially, any form of penance should be related to our need to repent from sin and to be converted to a deeper spiritual life. The point about being more open to prayer is one that was often emphasised by the Fathers and other great spiritual writers.

Some of the press coverage has said that the relaxation of Friday abstinence goes back to 1984. This refers to a provision made in response to the publication of the new Code of Canon Law where the general law requires Friday abstinence (Can 1251), though it may be fulfilled in other ways if the Bishops' conference decides. I well remember in my childhood that the law of Friday abstinence was mitigated. People used to quote a Bishop from the Third World who said "My people never even see meat." Somehow it was meant to follow from this that in richer countries, we should not worry about eating meat on Fridays. It never made sense to me.

Many Catholics have already returned to Friday abstinence voluntarily for some years: to have this once again a part of Catholic life generally is a welcome affirmation of their commitment to the faith.

One opportunity that I foresee relates to Catholic schools. Since schools are not open on Good Friday, Ash Wednesday is currently the only day when any dietary provision needs to be made - and it is easily forgotten. Although the law of abstinence applies only to those who have completed their fourteenth year (Canon 1252) it would certainly make sense for Catholic school kitchens not to serve meat on Fridays. Schools nowadays have plenty of Health Advice posters and class projects on healthy eating, so this should not be a problem.

The press coverage of such announcements is always worth looking at. After all, we are Christians, and Catholics at that, so there is no need to be terribly respectful of our particular World Religion. Many articles have a "Bearded Lady" approach - the underlying message is that pointy-hatted potentates have a new rule  telling the faithful to do something silly.

The headline which I enjoyed most was Reuters: UK Catholics urged to shun meat on Fridays. It is not so much that it is factually wrong (hint: "Bishops of England and Wales"). Factual sloppiness is to be expected when it is only that Cafflick stuff (see also the Telegraph's mistaken reference to "red meat.") What I really liked was the word "shun." Maybe we could do with a bit of active and determined shunning. My idea would be to get the Lunch Club team to cook some sausages for after Mass on Friday and then have a guest Sergeant Major bawl out
"SHUN! - No you dozy bunch of brainless layabouts, I don't mean stand to attention, I mean SHUN THOSE SAUSAGES or I'll rip your arms off and beat you round the head with the soggy ends."
That would be a dramatic bit of shunning.

Here is my favourite picture of shunning.

It is the statue of St Bruno in St Peter's Basilica. He is in fact shunning a Bishop's mitre but I have photoshopped it appropriately to illustrate his relative expertise in the meat-shun. In fact, he not only shunned meat on Fridays but on every other day of the week as well. A sort of power-shunner. [That's enough shunning - ED.]

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