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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 27 May 2002

Church teaching about not eating meat on Friday QUESTION from Joan Davis April 12, 1999 After VaticanII when the Church changed its' teaching about not eating meat on Friday this was very confusing to many people. My understanding is that this was an area of Church disciplin and not doctrine but my question is this: How can something like not eating meat on Friday be such a serious offense as to have the punishment of eternal damnation attached to it if broken, one day and the next day it's perfectly OK. Why does the magesterium of the Church set up all kinds of rules such as the above mentioned, instead of appealing to people's hearts to show our love for Jesus and our Heavenly Father above all things by living out the truth of Scripture by the choices we make every day to put truth first, even when, as it so often is, the hard thing to do? Did not our Lord tell us to give Him mercy and not sacrifice? If a person loves Jesus with their whole heart, mind and soul and they prove this by giving up all things in their lives that they feel will hinder their relationship with Him, then what is the point in giving up candy or some other minor thing for Lent. It seems to me that rules like this do more harm than good by causing people to think that they are really doing something by giving up some minor pleasure when in fact living as a true Christian involves crucifying the flesh every day of our lives. As a Catholic I see evidence of the the harm that this kind of teaching does, every day in the Church. I just don't get it. Please inlighten me.
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius on April 15, 1999 Dear Miss Davis:
There is MUCH confusion about this subject. You are correct that this is a matter of Church discipline. It is not doctrine or dogma. Thus the Church can change the discipline whenever she chooses.
Universal law in the Latin Rite is that we are to observe EVERY Friday of the year as a Penitential Day, with abstaining from meat to be a primary consideration. But Canon Law does allow National Conferences of Bishops to modify what we do on the Fridays of the year.
In the United States, we are to abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent and on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On the other Fridays of the year we MUST either abstain from meat or do some other act of penance – such as giving alms, offering prayers, doing works of charity. But we MUST do something on EVERY Friday of the year.
As for the issue of mortal sin, failing to abstain from meat on Friday, in-and-of-itself, is not now nor has it ever been a mortal sin. I realize that many nuns and priests use to scare the dickens out of children by telling them they would go to hell if they ate meat on Friday. But they were wrong. I think the reason they did that was to ensure the kids would indeed follow the rule (by a scare technique).
However, deliberate refusal to abstain from meat or to do any other act of discipline directed by the Church is, in most cases, an act of rebellion. Rebellion is a much more serious sin, and in some cases, might lead to mortal sin.
But the primary sin of failure to abstain is rebellion.
As for trivial mortifications during lent, the purpose of the practice is to make a point to bring the mind of the penitent to reflection of their lives. This can be done in small ways or in big ways. For some people abstaining from a candy bar may be sufficient. It is an act of self-discipline. Some people may indeed take this in a causal and trivial way. But we cannot know what is sufficient for another person – we cannot be the judges.
The question is: What is sufficient for us? What do we need to do to offer ourselves to God in mortification? What do we need to do to reflect upon our sinfulness and Christ’s love for us to die for our sins? Whatever that is, that you must do.
We also must remember that the Church is not a Church of Minimum Standards. Mortification during Lent is a mere minimum standard. We should be mortifying ourselves year-round.
By the way, I have an artcile on the related topic of fasting that you might be interested in. It is called How to Think Properly About Fasting.
God Bless.
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