23 June 2009

Calling Out UCLX-- Friday Abstinence or Other Penance Still Required for Catholics

While waiting for Unknown Canon Lawyer X to post that promised follow-up on the veiling article, I thought I would again delve into the wonders of Canon Law and yet another disregarded but still obligatory traditional Catholic practice--

--abstaining from meat on Friday.

Like with the head covering law, this disciplinary practice has fallen into disuse, and the great majority of Catholics (at least in the US) believe it is no longer required. Jimmy Akin also
takes the position (like on the head covering issue) that no abstinence or other penance is strictly required on non-Lenten Fridays. I respectfully submit that as on the other issue, he is wrong on this one. Due to changes in the law, the Bishops' Conferences can allow some other penance instead, but some penance is still obligatory.

Now, UCLX would undoubtedly have something to say on this issue, and UCLX has expressed to me a certain amusement at my attempts to construct a syllogism, but let UCLX speak for UCLX's self. I'd like to plunge ahead.

So, let's take this one step at a time. First, what do the relevant Canons in the Code have to say? Remember that the first codified Code of Canon Law dates from 1917, and the current Code was published in 1983. So,
from the 1983 Code:

Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays
, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Can. 1253 The Episcopal Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed.
In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

This seems very straightforward. The 1983 Code continues the law that Friday penance is required of the faithful. Canon 1251 does list abstinence from meat as the penance to be observed OR some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference. Canon 1253 goes still further to allow the Episcopal Conference to substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance.

Now, of course, dating from the end of the Second Vatican Council there have been some events that have caused confusion to the faithful, and which beg for clarification. The 1917 Code, as usual, is wonderfully clear on the subject:

Canon 1252 (CIC 1917). 1. The law of abstinence... must be observed every Friday.

Why cite the 1917 Code at all? Because the 1917 Code was in force when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops came out with norms "On Fast and Abstinence", which contains the following paragraph:

3. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law. (emphasis added).

Now, Jimmy Akin points to this document, and primarily to the paragraph immediately above, to support his contention that although the USCCB continues to urge abstinence and other penance on Fridays, it has lawfully dispensed with any obligatory prescription of abstinence or other penance, pursuant to its lawful authority under Canon 1253.

This position is erroneous for several reasons:

1. The US Bishops' document was published in 1966, seventeen years before Canon Law gave the Conferences the right to change the fast and abstinence rules in their territories. Such a document was not legally sufficient to alter the abstinence requirements of the 1917 Code, and if read to amend the canonical prescriptions was ultra vires-- in other words, beyond the power of the Conference. Even if the document is viewed as a dispensation, the language of the Code was unchanged and the law was in force, whether or not it was applied by the Conference.

2. Akin argues that the 1983 Code's permission for Conferences to specify the abstinence regulations stands as a recognition, tacit or otherwise, of the USCCB's decision. This is a not highly likely reading of the act of the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law. However, even if Akin's premise were correct, the very terms of the new Canon 1253 disallow the type of alteration made in the "On Fasting and Abstinence" document.

Canon 1251 states the Episcopal Conference can name some other food instead of meat for the abstinence requirement. Canon 1253 allows the Episcopal Conference to substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance for the abstinence requirement. Nothing in either Canon allows the Episcopal Conference to substitute nothing in place of abstinence from meat on Fridays. Therefore, even if we adopt the Sherman-and-Peabody Way Back Machine approach to canon law, the 1966 NCCB document is not effective to alter the canonical obligation for Friday abstinence.

3. Now, the USCCB
promulgated a memorandum in 1983 to all Diocesan Bishops reaffirming the 1966 document. This document claims that the 1966 norms "continue in force since they are law and are not contrary to the code (canon 6)." However, with all due respect, this is demonstrably incorrect. To the extent that the 1966 norms make the requirement of Friday penance completely voluntary, it is certainly contrary to the 1983 Code, which we have already established only allows the Episcopal Conferences to substitute other forms of penance for abstinence. It does not give the power to nullify the requirement.

In order to give the 1966 norms any weight, we would have to take the position that the 1983 memorandum was in and of itself a further specification of the penitential requirements of Canon 1251 pursuant to Canon 1253. But even assuming it is, what could this 1983 memorandum lawfully prescribe but some form of penance at the very least, as Canon 1253 clearly specifies?

Giving the 1983 Code and the USCCB 1966 and 1983 documents their most liberal joint reading in favor of relaxation of the traditional abstinence rule, one can only conclude that at least some form of penance must be substituted for abstinence from meat on all Fridays of the year except those upon which a Solemnity falls. If the USCCB documents cannot sustain this reading, then they are ultra vires and leave Canon 1251's prescriptions unaltered. Take your pick.

4. The final argument against the abrogation of the abstinence or other penance requirement comes from immemorial custom. As you may recall from the veiling article, this is a complicated area to explain. Because the first three reasons above are sufficient for purposes of my position, I won't delve into all the details here, but rather cite the general rule that an immemorial custom obtains the force of law and cannot be abrogated by a generic revocation.

And, there you have it in a nutshell. UCLX can correct me as UCLX likes. In the meantime, feel free to discuss. My goal in posting on this is not to place a burden on other people's shoulders, nor to judge the piety or practice of other Catholics. Certainly since 1966 there is enough confusion out there to cause most of us to sincerely believe there is no penitential practice of any kind required on Fridays.

My goal is simply to try to ascertain whether abstinence (or some other penance) is still required for Catholics on Fridays of the year. Canon Law certainly seems to indicate that it is.


Anonymous said...

My understanding also is that the "change" in discipline is that if we are not going to abstain from meat on Fridays, outside of Lent, then we are to do something penitential on Fridays.

This discipline is not advertised much, needless to say.

Latinmassgirl said...

Excellent posting!

We only became aware of this rule of fasting or other penance on Fridays after we started attending the Latin Mass. We have been living this life of penance on Fridays for about four years now, and it is so good for my families' souls.

It is nice to remember what happened to Jesus on Good Friday and to offer our own small sacrifice for Him by abstaining from meat.

I urge all Catholics to make your Fridays into more than just another day of the week.

Methodist Jim said...

Editor . . . my kingdom for an editor.

Mary S. said...

The fish don't seem to be biting, Timman.

Perhaps you should write a post about fishing poles. You know, the real ones. ;)

thetimman said...

Methodist Jim. Methodist Jim. So nice to hear from you. Your criticism is very welcome, as usual.

Mary S., I quite agree, but I am not a fishing expert.