When I talk to Catholics “of a certain age” who have either left the Church or wish to return to the Church of their childhood, the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays—or more accurately the Church’s decision to abandon the practice—comes up with an interesting regularity as to one source of their dissatisfaction. (For those unfamiliar, Catholics used to abstain from meat every Friday of the year, not just during Lent, and it became a strong social marker of one’s identity as a Catholic as it brought us together for fish-frys and separated us from Protestants who did not follow the practice.) Longing for the days of old and disillusioned that the Church could just change what was considered a sin depending on how it felt, this devotional practice remains a point of contention for them.
Frankly, I find the issue to be very complicated and absolutely fascinating.
This week, I’d like to start with the video itself and expand on it. If you haven’t had a chance to watch this week’s Catholicism in Focus, placed above, take a minute to catch up on that before continuing. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Okay, great. What’d you think? Actually, no, nevermind. Moving on.
As I showed in the video, the Church did not abandon the practice, as some think, but actually sought to grow deeper in its penitential acts on Fridays by—get this—treating us like adults and letting us make decisions for ourselves! Instead of just “obeying the law of the Church,” Pope Paul VI wanted us to obey the law of our hearts, prayerfully listening to the Word of God and putting our faith into practice in a personal way. For a world that wants to personalize everything and only do things that we’re passionate about, he was ahead of his time.
There is also a sense that no matter what he did, all that was being changed was a discipline of the Church, the lowest level of Church teaching. To leave the Church because of or spend too much time complaining about a changed discipline suggests to me that many did not quite understand the teaching of the Church. This was not a radical move in which everything was now on the table and it was only a matter of days before Jesus was going to be declared “only human” or the Eucharist “just a symbol”; unlike Dogmas that cannot change and Doctrines that develop slowly over time, disciplines can and should change as our Church and world changes, ever reflecting the faith of the people in a current situation. In this case, the overall spirit of the Church remained the same, in continuity with the whole history of the Church. Only the specific practice changed.
Unfortunately, what resulted from this decision was not what he intended. For the most part, people just abandoned the practice altogether. As a result, there is definitely a sense that something has been lost in the process. While on paper it was both “fitting and right” to change the law, something the Pope had the authority to do and in the best interest of the faithful to help us grow deeper in Christ, one has to wonder if it was ultimately the right decision: although not free to choose the practice, at least people were doing something before, and in doing so, we formed a valuable corporate identity in the process. For better or for worse, there was an ethos to being Catholic prior to 1966, a common sense of identity through uniform practice. Sure, it may not have meant much to many people, just a law to be arbitrarily followed without much understanding of the reason, but it was something we did together. Through mutual submission to a common action, it formed something greater than oneself and brought people together.
Ultimately, this is what our Sunday worship is supposed to do, so it is not as if we no longer have a corporate identity at all. And doing something that is meaningless or even detrimental to one’s faith in the name of community is not spiritually beneficial. But it does raise an interesting question: might we have lost something in the process worth recapturing? In the search for more personal meaning, might we have sacrificed the equally important sense of togetherness? I’m not suggesting that we return to the practices of 1965 or that we arbitrarily impose new rules on the faithful just so we can do something together. I’ve been through novitiate… I know that that doesn’t always go well. But I am suggesting that we take this issue seriously. Let’s recognize that something truly was lost in 1966, and make sure that it was not lost in vain. Our practice may have changed, but the Tradition that guides it has not. Maybe this Friday will be the week that we take up our crosses again. Maybe we’ll even come together with a friend or in groups to do something together.