Meatless Fridays, a tradition for millions of American Catholics that fell into disuse after church reforms in the late 1960s, could return under a proposal put forth this week by America’s Catholic bishops.
The bishops, here for the annual fall meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, approved a study to consider a return to the practice of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays, this time as penitence for a “culture of death” - abortion, euthanasia, violence, drugs and other “attacks against human life and human dignity.”
The proposal by the bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, headed by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, would reinstate a practice that once made fish a staple of Friday dinners. While some bishops quipped that they favored the proposal because fishing was an industry in their dioceses, the proposal is a serious effort to focus attention on the dignity of human life and to connect Catholics to Christ’s suffering.
“I think sacrifice on Fridays is a very Catholic thing, uniting us with the Lord on the day he died on the cross,” said Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y. “A lot of people want to return to fasting and sacrifice. I think it’s a need to be human, to be more in control of ourselves.”
Auxiliary Bishop John Dunne of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., said restoring the tradition isn’t enough. “I’m not so sure that the penitential practice is going to be answered just by saying to people, ‘Abstain from meat,”’ he said.
Sister Julia Upton, professor of theology at St. John’s University, said the tradition had become “mindless.” “Just enforcing it as a law again won’t return it to a pentitential practice,” she said. “You have to develop a spirituality behind the discipline.”
Giving up meat on Fridays had been a Catholic practice for centuries, and failure to do so was considered a sin. Once it became optional, in the 1960s, the practice “went out the window,” Upton said.
In another proposal that could alter Catholic tradition, the bishops debated whether to transfer the Feast of the Ascension from its traditional Thursday, 40 days after Easter, to the following Sunday so that more working Catholics can participate in its observance.