Several of the nation’s bishops say they would support the re-establishment of year-round Friday abstinence in Australia, following the lead of England and Wales.
Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne Peter Elliott, Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett of Lismore and Bishop of Armidale Michael Kennedy are among those who support Friday abstinence, almost 30 years after it became non-compulsory in Australia.
In May 2011 the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales made a resolution to restore the practice of Friday abstinence, which came into effect in both countries on September 16, 2011.
Friday penance regulations in England and Wales were relaxed in 1985, as they were in Australia in the same year, allowing Catholics to perform an alternative form of penance on Fridays.
Looking back at the decision to end mandatory Friday abstinence, Bishop Elliott said it was a “big pastoral and spiritual mistake”.
“I can understand why that happened, in the mood of that era, but I believe it failed to take into account human psychology,” he said.
Friday abstinence was a universal Church practice that Catholics were obliged to fulfill under pain of sin, until Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Constitution, Paentimini, was released.
The document, which describes fasting and abstinence as “a religious, personal act which has as its aim love and surrender to God”, gave bishops, gathered in their episcopal conferences, the ability to establish the norms “they consider the most opportune and efficacious” in regards to fasting and abstinence.
This was enshrined in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which states that “the penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent”.
It goes on to say that all Catholics over the age of 14 must observe abstinence from meat on all Fridays, unless a solemnity falls on a Friday, but also permits the conference of bishops to “substitute other forms of penance”.
This was formally done in Australia in 1985, when the bishops declared that Friday penance could be fulfilled by the following:
Prayer – for example, Mass attendance; family prayer; a visit to a church or chapel; reading the Bible; making the Stations of the Cross; praying the rosary.
Self-denial – for example, not eating meat; not eating sweets or dessert; giving up entertainment to spend time with the family; limiting food and drink so as to give to the poor of one’s own country.
Helping others – for example, special attention to someone who is poor, sick, elderly, lonely or overburdened.
But some of Australia’s bishops believe permitting Catholics to determine their own penance hasn’t worked.
“Allowing people to work out some penance was idealistic and unrealistic, like the disastrous trends in religious education that emerged at about the same time, promising much but delivering little,” Bishop Elliott said.
Since allowing Catholics to choose their own penance on Fridays, Bishop Elliott said most Catholics are unaware of or have forgotten the obligation entirely.
Having the Church decide what penance should be done would make it easier to remember and promotes a stronger Catholic identity, he said.
“People identify as “Catholic” in many ways,” Bishop Elliott said.
“In the wide and inclusive Church, proclaimed by Pope Francis, we need to offer ways for the casual Catholics to make simple acts of belonging, and not eating meat on Friday was just that.
“Back in the past priests heard, the comment “I haven’t been to Mass for years, Father, but I never eat meat on Friday”.
“This is why I would support the re-establishment of Friday abstinence – but without the sin sanction.”
Bishop of Lismore Geoffrey Jarrett shared Bishop Elliott’s views, saying that in his experience, only a small amount of priests, religious and laity fulfill their Friday penance during the year.
“It has been difficult for priests to preach it when it remains only a principle with no uniform discipline attached to it,” he said.
Bishop Jarrett described Friday abstinence from meat as “an ancient and universal practice for Catholics deeply ingrained in our identity with Christ and the Church”, and said he too would support its re-establishment in Australia.
“The Bishops of England and Wales were right in restoring the discipline, though taking care not to restore failure to do so with mortal sin,” he said.
“Apart from the personal benefits, the restoration of the discipline in Australia would be a practical help in strengthening Catholic identity.”
Archbishop of Hobart Julian Porteous said by removing Friday abstinence, the Church “lost a distinguishing sign of our identity as Catholics”.
“In the past it was one of those practices that everyone knew – Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays,” he said. “Even if people did not necessarily understand the reasons for it, it was a mark of identity. This is something we have lost.”
Writing to members of his diocese prior to Lent last year, Bishop of Armidale Michael Kennedy echoed Archbishop Porteous’ thoughts.
“Some years ago the law and discipline of Friday abstinence from meat was relaxed in Australia… with the particular form of penance being left to the free choice of the individual,” he wrote.
“Sadly, it seems the practice of deliberate and conscious acts of Friday penance has virtually disappeared. It is time for a renewal in this important religious practice.”
But re-considering the practice of abstinence would require “some serious catechesis” to ensure Catholics understood and embraced it, according to Archbishop Porteous.
“It has been mooted here among some bishops though no action has been taken in any diocese to my knowledge and it has not been formally discussed by the bishops conference,” he said.
“The key to any change in this area would be a fairly thorough catechesis about the need for some act of penance in the Christian life.”
Almost three years since the 2011 decision, the Bishops of England and Wales are adamant that restoring the practice of abstaining from meat every Friday would be beneficial to the Catholic Church in Australia.
Bishop of Middlesbrough Terence Drainey told The Record Friday abstinence has a lot to offer to the Church.
“In offering it to us all as a way of calling to mind that on Friday Catholics all over the world are united in penance, any diocese would be giving to its faithful a timely, apt and practical spiritual gift,” he said.
Bishop Drainey said abstaining from meat on Fridays was a common practice throughout Europe until the latter half of the 20th century, when the rules were relaxed.
“In Lent, in many countries, abstinence was every Friday and Wednesday unless a feast occurred like St Joseph or the Annunciation,” he explained. “In England and Wales it had certainly been a badge which most Catholics wore with varying degrees of willingness.”
The bishops’ 2011 statement emphasised that restoring the practice would give the faithful “a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity”.
It also affirmed the benefits of Catholics being united in a “common witness” and a “common celebration of Friday penance”.
Bishop Drainey said that since 1985, when other forms of penance were permitted to replace Friday abstinence in England and Wales, Catholics began to neglect the obligation, just as they did in Australia.
“The reintroduction of abstinence was a reminder to all of us that there is a call to incorporate some form of penance into our weekly routine on Friday,” he said.
“Over the years, since relinquishing the practice of abstinence, many of us had forgotten this and found it difficult to decide what to do instead.
“Most restaurants and even school dining halls will still offer the option of fish on Fridays; so Friday abstinence has certainly become part of our culture, albeit without much understanding. All we have to do as Catholics is use these opportunities for our own good and growth in the spiritual life.”