Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?

Q: Are we Catholics still supposed to be abstaining from meat on Fridays? Or has this definitely been done away with?  –Vince

A: Lent has just begun, and we Catholics are well aware of the obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays until the Easter season. Vince’s question, however, doesn’t specifically address Lenten abstinence, but rather the traditional requirement that Catholics refrain from eating meat on Fridays year-round. As we all know, few Catholics actually follow this practice any more. But is that because we are no longer required to do so, or because the majority of Catholics are actually ignoring church law?

Canon 1250 states that the days and times of penance for the whole Church are the Fridays of the entire year, and the season of Lent. And canon 1251 gives further details on just how Catholics are to make these days penitential: Unless a solemnity falls on a Friday, abstinence from meat, or some other food as determined by the Bishops’ Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays; while Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of both abstinence and fasting. There is quite a lot of information in this latter canon, so let’s unpack it.

First of all, if a solemn holy day happens to fall on a Friday, Catholics are not expected to follow the ordinary rules of abstinence. Engaging in penitential practices on days of celebration, like Christmas or New Year’s Day, goes against the very notion of what a “feast” day really is. Similarly, if a wedding happens to take place on a Friday, abstinence at the wedding reception would be incongruous with true celebration. This is why traditionally bishops have announced that when an important feast-day within the diocese falls on a Friday, Catholics are not required to abstain from meat on that day. Once in a while, a pastor will dispense some of his parishioners for a more localized reason (like a wedding). Many readers at some point have probably heard such announcements made about St. Patrick’s Day in dioceses with large numbers of Irish, or about St. Joseph’s Day in areas with a significant Italian population. Since such feast-days have greater cultural importance in some regions than in others, it would make little sense for the entire Church worldwide to be dispensed from abstinence when these feasts fall on a Friday.

Secondly, the canon states that abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Practicing Catholics here in the US are certainly familiar with this regulation, and so it need not concern us here.

But less clear is the requirement that on all Fridays throughout the year, we are to abstain from meat or some other food as determined by the Bishops’ Conference. What is a Bishops’ Conference, anyway? And what has it said about this?

A Bishops’ Conference (also known as an Episcopal Conference) is a permanent institution comprising all the bishops of a country or a particular territory, that as a body exercises certain pastoral functions for the faithful of their territory (c. 447 ). In the US, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is located here in Washington, DC, and all the bishops of dioceses within the United States are de facto members. Generally, the bishops of each country together form their own Bishops’ Conference; but in some parts of the world, particularly in poorer countries or small countries with low Catholic populations, an Episcopal Conference may include the bishops of more than one country. In Africa, for example, the bishops of Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone together form a single Inter-Territorial Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The Irish Episcopal Conference includes not only all the bishops of the Republic of Ireland, but those of the Catholic dioceses in Northern Ireland (which is part of a separate country) as well.

One could say that the functions of an Episcopal Conference are largely pastoral. Probably most of us are at least vaguely familiar with statements issued over the years by our USCCB on issues like the rights of immigrants, or the duty of all Catholics to respect human life. Such statements in and of themselves are not laws; rather, they ordinarily constitute practical applications of Catholic teaching here in the US. Of course each diocesan bishop can, and should, be teaching the people of his diocese about these subjects himself; but when important moral issues are relevant nation-wide, it is often useful for American bishops to be united in making a single public statement.

But there are a handful of places in the Code of Canon Law where the Church actually gives Bishops’ Conferences the right and obligation to make laws that bind all the bishops and all the Catholics in their territories. Canon 1251, regarding abstinence on Fridays, is one of them.

It may seem logical enough to us Westerners that abstaining from meat on certain days is a traditional form of penance. But in countries whose inhabitants might hardly ever eat meat anyway, it’s likely that such a requirement would be pointless—one might as well tell Catholics in such places that as penance they are to abstain from traveling to the moon! In some cultures there might very well be a better food to abstain from, if Catholics there are truly to perform a penitential act. This is why the Church has not given us here an absolute, across-the-board requirement that applies to all Catholics throughout the world. We all should perform penance, but what may be a true sacrifice in some cultures may not be a sacrifice at all in others. This is why each Bishops’ Conference was required by the Code of Canon Law to make its own, particular law on this subject.

So has our USCCB give us the required instructions about Friday abstinence for Catholics in the United States? Absolutely — in fact, we have had a Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence on the books here in the US since 1966. It is true that these norms were in place many years before canon 1251 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law gave Bishops’ Conferences the obligation to provide them; but the Conference has rightly noted that since they fulfill the requirement, and are not contrary to any provisions of the 1983 code, they can remain in force even though they were made before that code even came into existence (cf. c. 6.1 n. 2 ).

But unfortunately, if we expect to find in this Pastoral Statement a black-and-white answer to our questions about Friday abstinence for American Catholics, we will be disappointed. The Statement contains many beautiful statements about the purpose of penance, which are theologically sound and thought-provoking, but it is decidedly non-specific about what exactly we are not supposed to eat on Fridays:

Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.

Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.

For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms:

Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year…For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

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 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… (Nos. 19-24 ).

In other words, the US bishops encourage all American Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays — but if we can find a more effective type of penance to perform on Fridays, we are invited to do so. Our bishops have given each of us the green light to decide for ourselves how best to make our Fridays penitential. How sad, therefore, that most Catholics have wrongly interpreted this as meaning simply that “we don’t need to abstain from meat on Fridays anymore,” without replacing that abstinence with another form of penance! It is just as sad to realize that most of our diocesan clergy do not remind the Catholics under their care of this important obligation.

How many Catholics are genuinely unaware that they are actually required to perform some kind of penance every Friday? Sincere, practicing Catholics who honestly do not know of this obligation are of course not culpable for failing to follow it; but the fact remains that they should be made aware of this disciplinary rule.

Thus we can see that the answer to Vince’s question is actually more complicated than one might expect. Nevertheless, we can safely say that the popular idea that Friday abstinence has been completely “done away with” is oversimplistic. “Christ died for our Salvation on Friday,” the Pastoral statement points out (no. 18 ), and by some sort of penance we should be reminding ourselves of that pivotal element of our faith every single week.

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  • Cooky642

    Thank you, Ms. Caridi, for reminding us not only of our “duty” and “obligation”, but also of our profound joy in accepting the invitation to “draw closer” to Jesus. Surely, we can all think of something penatential to our specific lives, whether it is refraining from meat or not. As an “senior citizen” and diabetic, I am no longer able to fast as the Church prescribes (and I understand that it is not obligatory, at my age). However, I can abstain from meat, and from those little delicacies that “top off” a meal. I can also abstain from TV, the Internet, gossip, or a “sharp” tongue! If you have eyes to see, opportunities abound.

    I’d like to make 2 “amendments” to your article. First, those of us in Orders have specific days of “fast and abstinance” that others in the Church are not bound to observe. When a celebration in the Order falls on a Friday, we are allowed to “anticipate” that fast to another day (except Sunday, of course).
    The other observation is that those who would ask this question would seem to be “minimalists” who are more interested in the “least” they can do (get away with?) than in growing closer to Christ.

  • javanderhulst

    Wonderful article. Many of us become preoccupied with what we are technically required to do without realizing why we are asked to do it.

    One suggestion/amendment though: St. Joseph is the patron of the universal Church (the Church as a whole) and his feast is a Holy Day of Obligation in the universal Church (though the bishops in the US remove that obligation for those in the US on the feast day). Even if it isn’t a Holy Day, it is always and everywhere a Solemnity. So, wherever you are and whoever you are, if St. Joseph falls on a Friday in Lent, you are not required to abstain. No permission from the bishop is necessary.

  • Samwise

    I don’t know any Catholic, even those who go to daily Mass, who have heard that we are supposed to abstain from meat on Friday…I don’t think it’s obligatory although I abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays as I can. But I think there is kind of an inner instinct that enables us to intuit that Friday is not like any other day…perhaps it is the resonance of the sufferings of Christ on that long ago Friday that continues to pierce our hearts…but we need so much to remember that prayer and fasting can and do work miracles, and we must try to actively do all we can to turn back the forces of evil, especially the anti life forces that seem to permeate our planet … we see prominent Catholic politicians fighting fiercely to push through anti life legislation, to remove all impediments to government funded abortions and to remove laws that allow medical personnel to refuse to do abortions if their faith prohibits them…so I believe we do need to do penance…to abstain from food or tv or gossip or indifference and to actively take on those causes that help to create a culture of life and of love…but prayer is at the root of all…especially the Mass, the Eucharist…the Rosary…individual and communal prayer…get involved, get informed…we all know the saying about how evil thrives because good men and women do nothing…remain uninvolved…Mother Theresa, with whom I worked in Calcutta, has said that no nation that kills its young can survive and we all see what is happening in our nation…so, it is Lent, it is time to pray for all in authority, and pray that we all will be attuned to the mind and Heart of Christ and with Him, bring about peace, healing, reconciliation and justice for all…especially those who have not yet been born…”whatever you do to one of these little ones you do to Me..”…so in slaying the innocent human baby in the womb, we slay Christ all over again; we reject the gift and the mission God sends to us with each little new baby…his/her mission, gifts and blessings that are so desperately needed…and yet, we break them and send them back…Father forgive them -us- for they/we know not what they/we do! …may it be so….Sam

  • edq

    FYI, there are also those who argue that Friday penance is not obligatory outside of Lent due to the wording of the 1966 USCB document. Here is Jimmy Akin’s take on the issue:

  • Doria2

    The ambiguity of the USCCB from Friday abstinance to movies proves to me that all bishop’s conferences should be disbanded as soon as possible. These private clubs are value – less. They do more harm tham good.

    Bishops are indeed fighting bishops – unity is dead. Pope Benedict was right when he intimated that we were probably going to have a smaller more faithful Church. The cafeteria is closing – AndyP/Doria2 Yonkers, NY HOSEA 4:6

  • Samwise

    I hope that all Catholics who truly practice the faith will find some way to do penance that will have meaning for them. An act of mercy or kindness, an abstaining from something…whatever, because satan is VERY active and is truly going around as a roaring lion seeking someone to devour…here in Connecticut we have proposed legislation that will diminish the authority of our Bishops and our Pastors. This is unimagineable and I think really that it is a kind of test case to see how many Catholics are really willing to stand strong with and for the Church. The legislation proposed is definitely unconstitutional but at one time, so was killing babies in the wombs of their mothers…or at least it was against the law. It is so true that evil thrives because good men and women remain indifferent and do nothing. If we don’t stand strong now, then we will have no reason to complain when we see the walls of a healthy and good morality crumble around us…it is already crumbing but held by the thread of fatih but the bodies of babies slaughtered in the wombs of their mothers go on piling up around us and we…or many of us, do nothing or even further the rights of abortion by voting for someone like Obama…please pray for all of us here in Connecticut that we may indeed have a massive turnout of all those who care for religious freedom….Sam

  • Tsanchez002

    this should be told to all catholic persons, we need to to penance for the time of our life, we need God’s help now more than ever

  • Rjrios2005

    This is very confusing for many Catholics. I have spoken to catholic friends and family and they belive the Church has done away with eating meat on Fridays and they do not even know that there is a penance to perform on Fridays. Why is the Church so ambiguous on this issue? It doesn’t help us practicing catholics to understand the faith any better and that’s a shame. I remember when all masses were in Latin and there was no doubt then that we had to adstain from meat on Fridays. Is this confusion and loss of faith and snctity attributable to the “new” modern mass? 

  • Hiker1952

    I was told when I went to a  catholic grade school long time ago that if you eat meat on friday that is a mortal sin
    I go to a christian church not a catholic chuch now
    does the pope have the right to make something a sin

  • Derekssjeter2

    The Catholic Church is a Christian church (the one and only). It’s a form of abstinence and penance, to help ourselves get closer to Christ. It is disobedient to not follow the Church, thus we have 34,000+ Protestant sects in the USA who can believe whatever they want and do whatever they want.

  • Rob_s_h

    YES !!!!!
    Jesus told Peter the first Pope  “whatever you bind on earth is bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in Heaven ” – – – -When the Pope makes decisions regarding Church Doctrine, He is lead by the Holy Spirit and cannot err only at this time – – -Basic Catholic teaching since the time of Jesus – –
    Other than that, the Pope being human, can err and sin just as you and I –

  • mgeorge

    If people are concerned about proteins they can replace meat with other foods that are rich in proteins like beans, eggs etc.

  • Davidleojaspers

    thank you.

  • Djaspers

    Is this confusion and loss of faith and sanctity attributable to the “new” modern mass?  I’d say no. 
    In 1966 the bishops were hoping to increase authentic penance over simple formal fulfillment of a law.  I played football in college for a team that won the national championship and we did NO team conditioning.  It was all individually motivated, each player striving to be the best player we could be. It was successful because we had team meetings encouraging us to be our best self and a spirit on the team of striving to be our best self.  As regard to penance, it would seem there wasn’t a good enough game plan for the pep talks, besides there just isn’t enough time to talk about everything, and I’d guess many catholics didn’t read the article in the paper they just read the sensational headline “Catholics can eat meat on Fridays”.  One could argue that the climate of need for reform of penitential practices was the very underming of the practice–meaning, people did not have a penitential spirit on fridays, they were simply abstaining from meat, thus the lack of a spirit of penitence meant the new approach was doomed  to fail, because it required a greater degree spirit of penitence to be successful.  In the end, a well intenioned idea that failed.   Yet, here we are in 2012 talking about all this.  And instead of just having a blanket law, we are striving for holiness and free to respond how we feel the Lord is calling us. 
    Being a robot catholic (everything programmed) might be easier sometimes, but sometimes it’s good to hope and believe that cooperating with God’s grace, we will be able to live in the freedom of the Spirit that St. Paul talks about so often in the Scriptures.  Realistically, I figure it’s somewhere in the middle.
    Peace, Dj

  • penance is not the reason for not eating meat on friday in lent. i had a great uncle who was a bishop. there is NO religion involved at all. and lent does NOT end of easter sunday either. just fyi

  • anonymous

    Do Catholics have to not eat meat on friday during lent or choose to eat meat?? And is it bad if you do eat meat during lent and why?

  • Dmar198

    The document didn’t mention any requirement. It terminated the obligation to give up meat, and replaced it with the “invitation” to give up that or something else. But it didn’t require any penitential practices.

  • Jenny

    With all due respect, your uncle was incorrect. All Fridays of the year are days of penance. And yes, Lent does end at the start of Easter. Lent is a time of penance.

  • St_Donatus

    I would agree with what the Bishops were trying to do but I they gave us too much credit because it failed miserably. Yes, people will always take the easiest way around things so as the Bishops of history realized, you need to tell people right out what to do. Somehow we seem to think we are so superior to our ancestors. For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, the Bishops told us what we needed to know to worship more reverently and gain Gods Grace. Look at the results with 75% of Catholics performing ANY Catholic activities including penance. We also have the lack of religious vocations, and many other spiritual maladies.

    But today It is like telling people that they shouldn’t go too fast and remove all the speed limits, remove drunk driving laws, etc. What would happen? Most people would go as fast as they felt they could safely which would probably be too fast. Driving deaths would go up multiple times.

    We modern folk don’t seem to give our ancient fathers the credit they deserve. We may be smarter with our technical gizmos but we are more stupid when it comes to human behavior. Just look at the acceptance in society of ‘same sex marriage’, no fault divorce, etc.

    Otherwise, the Bishops need to just tell us how to best perform our penance across the board. Not only does it help us learn better self control, it also helps us actually perform the penance, and remember that we are a special people set apart for God.

  • lmaxwell53

    Reading this, I was surprised to find out a Friday obligation still exists, but not entirely. As a Catholic who abandoned the Faith during my late teen to early adult years, when lots of changes in the Church were going on, I was only told the no-meat-on-Friday rule had been lifted, just as we were taught way back that we no longer took Communion on the tongue, but only in the hand. Not quite the whole story, as I discovered later. Sad to say, the Bishops did not do a very good job for a very long time making sure the faithful were properly catechized. An awful lot of clergy seem to have been unaware that millions of Catholics, like me, leave the Church, but come back later, having forgotten whatever they knew prior to leaving. It took me years to catch up, yet I find, despite being a daily communicant for perhaps 15 years, that there are still things I don’t know, like this. The USCCB is thankfully making some efforts to address the need for ongoing catechesis, but I find out more about my Church from articles like this. Thank you for writing about it!

  • Paul Holden

    We are saved by Grace through faith in Christ, and this is not from ourselves, it’s God’s gift to us, nor is it from works-so no one would boast. For we are God’s making, created for good works which God prepared ahead of time, that we should walk in them.

  • disqus_xdPymuqnXz

    Like you I left and returned 2 years ago and am now relearning everything I forgot. My brother was shocked when I mentioned what I ate on a Friday. I have been meatless since the Lenten season on Fridays. I didn’t know I was to fast on Ash Wednesday, oh boy, do I have a lot of catching up to do. I’m reading the Bible for Lent and plan on fasting on Good Friday(hope I remember).

  • disqus_xdPymuqnXz

    Lent ends on Holy Thursday and the Paschal Fast begins. The Sacred Three Days start on Holy Thursday(night) and ends on Easter Sunday as per the pamphlet handed out at my Church(PEI, Canada). Lent is indeed a time of Penance while Easter is a time of celebration, the Resurreciton of Jesus Christ.

  • dave

    In case there is any confusion on how fasting should be done. This coming straight from our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ. The answers are all in the bible people.

    Matthew 6:16-18 ESV

    “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

  • Nathan

    What a great and well written article Cathy! Will definitely share with my Catholic friends and family. Thank you! 🙂

  • Paul

    Yes, many things about Catholicism are confusing.