Starting today, Catholic bishops in England and Wales have restored the centuries-old tradition of asking believers to abstain from meat and offer prayers on Fridays as an act of common penance. The bishops argue that abstaining and praying in a communal way will encourage penitence and solidarity with the suffering and also serve as a mark of Catholic identity in the wider society. The bishops’ explanation of the new policy, first announced last spring, is here.
There are many angles to this story – theological, sociological, even political – but CLR Forum readers will likely find the legal aspects most interesting. As a legal matter, the bishops’ reasoning goes like this. The canon law of the Catholic Church provides that, for Latin-Rite Catholics, “[a]ll Fridays through the year … are penitential days … throughout the entire Church” (Canon 1250). Particular forms of Friday penance are prescribed by local bishops (Canon 1251). For centuries, the bishops had prescribed meatless Fridays as the form penance should take, but in 1985 they decided to allow Catholics to substitute other forms of penance. The bishops’ new decision, which that takes effect today, restores the earlier practice. – MLM