The US Catholic norm for fasting

The norm of Friday fasting and abstinence for American Catholics is articulated in this 1966 Bishop’s letter:

24. 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.

There are three criticisms to make here, going from more to less evident:

1.) It’s very difficult to argue that the Bishop’s hope came to pass. Abstinence and penance is not typical even among many of the devout, and it’s hard to believe this was unforeseeable.

2.) The norm is ambiguous and can be read either as

a.) The bishops are removing the necessity under pain of sin from Friday abstinence (broad reading).

b.) The bishops are removing the necessity under pain of sin from abstention from meat but keeping such necessity of Friday penance. (narrow reading).

The insistence on voluntary as opposed to imposed penance suggests (a), but the assumption that  the qualifications of the first sentence are necessary suggests (b). No matter how many times I read the norm it shifts iridescently between (a) and (b).

3.) While it’s easy to criticize the Bishops naïvety-suggesting confidence, the devout have to also accept some blame for not voluntarily doing more mortifications. The faithful are now, within broad parameters, to decide for themselves how they will exercise mortification and penance in their lives, but a self-examination is likely to show that we haven’t made serious efforts to think this out. Sure, no plan of fasting is imposed on me, but what plan am I imposing on myself?


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