Fish Fridays are back for the Catholics of England and Wales, or at least they will be come September. The bishops conference of those countries announced last week that Friday abstinence from meat will once again become obligatory for their flock starting September 16, the first anniversary of Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.K.
Some sociologists have argued that dropping meatless Fridays in the 1960s was a pastoral error on the Church’s part. Meatless Fridays, so the thinking goes, were a significant marker of Catholic identity, and the rapid disappearance of so many such markers contributed to the disastrous erosion of Catholic life and practice which began in the late 1960s.
Still, even if one accepts that suddenly dropping an ancient practice such as meatless Fridays was a mistake, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the practice should be revived today. Nonetheless, it seems to me there are significant theological reasons to praise the bishops of England and Wales for their gutsy decision. Perhaps we might even learn something from them on this side of the pond.
The first reason I think meatless Fridays are a good idea is that the practice makes Sunday mean more. Every Sunday we celebrate a little Easter, but Easter can never be separated from Good Friday, so it’s fitting that the remembrance of both days should find expression in our weekly life. Friday abstinence, in fact, can be seen as a preparation for Sunday’s feast, just as a one-hour fast is preparation for receiving communion.
Our faith involves a whole sacramental economy, not just a 55-minute errand on Sunday morning. Living a sacramental life means cultivating a way of looking at every aspect of our world as conveying an unseen, divine significance. Sunday Mass should be the pivot point of our week, and its influence should radiate outward in all the mundane decisions we make throughout our lives, even decisions about what to eat.
My second reason for praising the English and Welsh bishops is that meatless Fridays serve not just to remind us that we are Catholics (giving us a sociological marker of Catholic identity). They also remind us that doing penance is part of what being Catholic means. Penance is an act of justice, a way of making right what has been made wrong by our sins.
Of course, not all penance makes the world a better place in a direct or easily quantifiable way, as, say, returning stolen property might do. But this is because not everything can be made right within the limits of our finite world. I followed with interest the discussion of Osama bin Laden’s death in Paddy’s post a few weeks ago and the debate about whether or not killing bin Laden could be considered an act of justice. To my mind, killing bin Laden is almost certainly morally justified, but that’s not quite the same thing as saying it has restored justice. By even the crudest measure, the scales of justice are still unbalanced: bin Laden would have to die several thousand deaths before he could be said to “pay for” the evil he has done—and even this would not re-establish justice, would not make right what is wrong, would not bring the innocent back to life.
Justice always remains beyond our human powers to achieve, but that does not make it beyond God’s power to give. Doing penance, even in as simple a thing as refraining from meat once a week, is a way of reminding ourselves that for true justice we are totally dependent on Christ’s redeeming work on the cross. Only Jesus can make all things new. Remembering that is worth doing at least every Friday.
Of course, I know that some will object that giving up meat seems rather arbitrary, that some people actually like fish more than meat, that some will subvert the obligation by ordering fine lobster dinners instead of fish sticks. It’s always possible for individuals to subvert the spirit of a law while remaining technically within the bounds of the letter, but that’s no reason the rest of us shouldn’t try to remain faithful to both the spirit and the letter. If the choice of meat seems a bit arbitrary, perhaps that’s because of the necessity of choosing a penance in which everyone can participate. Since a great part of the value of meatless Fridays is the sense of doing penance together as a Church, the bishops can’t mandate anything so difficult many Catholics wouldn’t be able to do it. (And besides, one can always give up something more if one wants.)
One final note to skeptics: I am sure the British bishops have heard some complaints about “turning back the clock,” complaints as predictable as, well, clockwork. To critics I would argue that this particular practice—refraining from meat once a week—caries a particularly contemporary relevance. Concerns about the environment, which one hopes are more than a passing trend, have made all of us more conscious of the consequences of unbridled consumption, self-gratification, and unrestrained impulsiveness. A simple reminder once a week that we should refrain from something good—and tasty!—for the sake of a higher good is a form of Christian witness our world could use quite a bit right now.
So bravo—or, I guess, jolly good!—to our British brethren.