Matters arising: Must we eat fish on Fridays?

Rev. Nicholas Mary, C.SS.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

Fasting vs abstinence

There is a common misunderstanding amongst non-Catholics, and even amongst some Catholics, that the Church obliges, or once obliged its members to eat fish on Fridays. This has never been the case, of course; it is abstinence from meat that has been commanded. The Second Commandment of the Church, as the Penny Catechism reminds us, is "to keep the days of fasting and abstinence appointed by the Church ... that so we may mortify the flesh and satisfy God for our sins.” As distinguished from days of fasting (on which it is the quantity of food consumed which is notably lessened, “days of abstinence are days on which we are forbidden to eat flesh-meat, but are allowed the usual number of meals.”A Catechism of Christian Doctrine London, 1880 (CTS) §§ 236-9.

Of course, days of fasting can also be days of abstinence, but first let us understand that fasting and abstinence are different things.

Regarding the origin of this discipline, Fathers McHugh and Callan, O.P., write:

In substance this precept is of the natural law, but in details (time, manner, etc.) it is of ecclesiastical law, and has come down from customs that began in the first ages of Christianity. The Church regulation on abstinence is most wise and moderate: the foods forbidden are those whose deprivation is a mortification to most persons, and at the same time a great benefit to spiritual and bodily health; the times appointed are few but appropriate (viz. days of sorrow, special prayer, penance, preparation, such as Fridays, Ember Days, Lent, vigils), and they are so distributed as to sanctify by mortification each week and each season of the year.

True, no food is evil in itself (Matt 15:11; 1 Cor 8:8; I Tim 4, 3; Col 2:16), but just as the physician can forbid certain foods to his patient for the sake of temporal good, so for the sake of spiritual good God forbade to Adam the fruit of one tree and to the Jews the flesh of certain animals; and the Church from the days of the Apostles (Acts 15:29) has exercised the same right.J.A. McHugh, O.P, & C.J. Callan, O.P. - Moral Theology New York, 1958 (Wagner), Rev. ed., no. 2587.

As to the scope and obligation of this ecclesiastical law of abstinence, we see great variety over the Church’s history, with a general trend towards a lessening of obligation until we arrive at the minimal discipline of the postconciliar era today. At different times, some or all Fridays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, Rogation and Ember Days, the vigils of certain feats, as well as the seasons of Lent and Advent have required mandatory abstinence from flesh-meat throughout, or in parts of the Latin Church.

If we limit ourselves here to the law as currently in vigour in this country today, we do not mean to imply that it is satisfactory legislation from a Traditional Catholic point of view, nor enter into a discussion as to what such legislation would be once the crisis is resolved. We wish here only to ensure that the letter of the law is clear to all, and that the minimal obligation it imposes is kept. Thereafter let all strive to observe the spirit of the law as best they can. Let all do penance for their sins according to their different abilities and opportunities, and preferably taking guidance from their confessors and spiritual directors. If one keeps the current law, one need not scruple that one is sinning by not observing previous laws no longer in vigour, but if, without excusing reason, one does not even keep the current law, one should confess this as a sin, and seek to make amendment in this regard.

The current law

The current general law of abstinence is found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

Can. 1249—All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which the following canons prescribe.

Can. 1250—The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

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. 1252—The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.Note that unlike with fasting, there is no upper age limit to the obligation of abstinence. Whilst children should be taught to abstain much earlier than the age of 14, all are legally obliged from that age onwards to abstinence. Furthermore, a solemnity is the equivalent of a First Class Feast in the 1962 liturgical calendar.

The situation in Britain and Ireland

Though the Bishops of England and Wales initially made what we do as a Friday penance throughout the year “a matter of personal choice [which] does not have to take the same form every Friday”,Bishops of England and Wales, Statement of 24 January 1985, §6. since 2011, they have re-established “the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat.”Bishops of England and Wales, Spring 2011 Plenary Resolutions.

They also specify that “those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake.” This means that habitual vegetarians or vegans, for example, are obliged to make some further sacrifice on Fridays.

In Scotland the form of self-denial on Fridays remains one of choice.Bishops of Scotland, Statement of 20 December, 1967.

In Ireland, the bishops have likewise decreed:

Because each Friday recalls the crucifixion of Our Lord, it too is set aside as a special penitential day. The Church does not prescribe however that fish must be eaten on Fridays. It never did. Abstinence always meant the giving up of meat rather than the eating of fish as a substitute. What the Church does require, according to the new Code, is that its members abstain on Fridays from meat or some other food or that they perform some alternative work of penance laid down by the Bishops' Conference. In accordance with the mind of the universal Church, the Irish Bishops remind their people of the obligation of Friday penance, and instruct them that it may be fulfilled in one or more of the following ways:

  1. By abstaining from meat or some other food
  2. By abstaining from alcoholic drink, smoking, or some form of amusement
  3. By making the special effort involved in family prayer, taking part in the Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or praying the Stations of the Cross
  4. By fasting from all food for a longer period than usual and perhaps by giving what is saved in this way to the needy at home or abroad
  5. By going out of our way to help somebody who is poor, sick, old or lonely.

While the form of penance is an option and does not have to take the same form every Friday, the obligation to do penance is not. There is a serious obligation to observe Friday as a penitential day.Bishops of Ireland, Intercom, 18 §§ 4-6 1987-1988, pp. 10–11.

The variety of discipline in the modern Church, the lack of clarity as to what rules are presently in vigour, and the lack of insistence on the part of the clergy as to our obligations have all led to the general perception that “Catholics used to have to eat fish on Fridays, but are no longer obliged to do so.” Even certain Traditional Catholics entertain the notion that no Friday penance is ever strictly obligatory. On the contrary, there is a law which binds us, even if minimally, and we must take pains to comply at least with its terms.

And now, some doubts answered by moral theologians of the past...

What if I’ve ordered meat and then remember it’s Friday?

Fr. F.J. Connell, C.SS.R answers the following question, “if a person has inadvertently ordered meat in a restaurant on Friday, may he eat it if he realises only after the meal has been served that he is bound to observe abstinence on this day?”

If he has not yet begun to eat the meat, it is possible that he will be allowed to exchange it for some abstinence fare without any extra cost, and if this is permitted he must follow this procedure. However, if he will not be permitted to exchange the meal, or if he has already begun to eat it, he would ordinarily be allowed to partake of the dish. The reason is that for a person of average means the expense involved would usually constitute an excusing cause; besides, the wasting of a serving of meat is not commendable. Of course, if scandal could be foreseen from the eating of the meat (as might be the case when the patron is a priest), one should abstain, despite the cost and the waste. It should be noted that this solution refers only to the case of meat ordered by mistake in a restaurant. When a Catholic is a guest in a private home and meat is served on Friday, he is ordinarily bound to abstain from taking any, because the danger of scandal is hardly ever absent. Indeed, some non-Catholic hosts do not hesitate to serve meat on such an occasion with the deliberate purpose of testing the Catholic spirit of the guest.Fr. F.J. Connell, C.SS.R., Father Connell answers Moral Questions, Washington, D.C. 1959 (CUA), Q. 92. The likelihood of scandal being given will be far less today than in 1959.

What constitutes flesh-meat?

Fr. James D. O’ Neill writes thus in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Throughout the Latin Church the law of abstinence prohibits all responsible subjects from indulging in meat diet on duly appointed days. Meat diet comprises the flesh, blood, or marrow of such animals and birds as constitute flesh meat according to the appreciation of intelligent and law-abiding Christians. For this reason the use of fish, vegetables, molluscs, crabs, turtles, frogs, and such-like cold-blooded creatures is not at variance with the law of abstinence. Amphibians are relegated to the category whereunto they bear most striking resemblance. This classification can scarcely preclude all doubt regarding viands prohibited by the law of abstinence. Local usage, together with the practice of intelligent and conscientious Christians, generally holds a key for the solution of mooted points in such matters, otherwise the decision rests with ecclesiastical authority.‘Abstinence’ in The Catholic Encyclopedia New York. 1907 (Robert Appleton Co.), Vol. I.

How about whale meat?

Here is Fr. Connell, C.SS.R. again:

The whale is a warm-blooded animal and hence, according to the norm laid down by some theologians, would be forbidden as food on a day of abstinence. However, others lay down norms that would allow the use of whale flesh. Thus, Bouscaren says: ‘The general rule is that animals which live on land and have warm blood are considered meat; others, not.’ Since the whale lives in the ocean, it would not be considered forbidden meat, according to this standard, even though it has warm blood. Merkelbach states that by common estimation throughout the whole world mammals are considered lawful abstinence fare if they live at all times in the water such as whales. Such authorities would seem to make an affirmative answer to the questioner safely probable.Op. cit. Q.94.

How about dripping and suet?

“The law of abstinence,“ the 1917 Code of Canon Law specifies, “prohibits meat and soups made of meat but not of eggs, milks, and other condiments, even if taken from animals.”As translated in Dr. Edward N. Peters (ed.), The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law: in English translation with extensive scholarly apparatus, San Francisco, 2001 (Ignatius Press). Canon Mahoney answers the question:

By condiment (condio—to season, to make savoury) is meant something added in a small quantity to food in order to make it palatable; also, since food is made palatable by being cooked, it includes something used in the preparation of food. The law of abstinence does not permit any flesh, even when used as a condiment. An omelette, for example, is made more palatable by adding fragments of ham; various uninteresting kinds of food, such as macaroni, can be brightened up by using a little gravy. Both of these condiments are forbidden by the law. What is permitted as a condiment is the fat of animals, whether in liquid or solid form. Thus, dripping used for frying fish is certainly permitted. If someone with unusual tastes proposed to make a meal of dripping, this would be against the law, not because the food is meat or gravy, but because it is the fat of animals and not taken as a condiment. Suet, the fatty tissues in the region of the loins and kidneys, [...] is, in the common estimation, not meat but fat. It may therefore be used as a condiment, and Fr. Davis permits it as such. Suet pudding, in which a little suet is used as a condiment merely, is not forbidden. If the suet is used in such quantity that it can no longer be called a mere condiment, it is forbidden. We doubt whether, even in the most suety kind of pudding, the suet is ever more than a “condiment” to the flour. Pudding can be made with butter or dripping instead of suet, but it is not so light and palatable. Therefore it is simpler to say, without any culinary distinctions, that suet pudding is not forbidden on days of abstinence. The point is at least that kind of dubium which permits liberty.Canon E.J. Mahoney, Questions and Answers II – Precepts (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1949) p. 164.

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