Does Friday Penance Bind Gravely?

Today, when this is being posted, is a Friday of Lent — a day of abstinence from meat for all Catholics who have completed 14 years of age. But is it really a sin if one chooses to eat meat anyhow (i.e., deliberately) on a Lenten Friday? Throughout my priestly ministry I have regularly encountered this question among the faithful.

The last major document that dealt with penitential discipline in the Church was Paenitemini, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1966. There we read the following:

II. 1. The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of “Grande Quaresima” (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely.

So here it is very clear: all Fridays and Ash Wednesday are days when the deliberate/culpable failure to do the required penance would be a mortal sin. Except (keep reading)…

Another question arises: What about all the Fridays outside of Lent? Because here in the United States, we are not required to give up meat outside of Lent. In fact, the law is rather vague about what we must do. Can we really say that it’s a mortal sin if we fail to do penance on non-Lenten Fridays, even though the law is so very vague?

First, let’s review the law. Paenitemini gave Bishops’ Conferences the power to adjust penitential discipline for local/regional sensibilities. And this was carried over into the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Therefore, the U.S. Bishops first issued a pastoral statement on penance in 1966 that reflected the possibilities that Paenitemini afforded. Here are some relevant excerpts:

13. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul’s Constitution Poenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.

(So they upheld the gravity of the obligation of Friday penance in Lent.)

21. 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.

22. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.

23. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire 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.

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.

So, basically, “we really want you to know that Friday is a day of penance, but there is no longer anything particular required and it does not bind under pain of sin”. I’m sorry if that sounds flippant, but re-read the paragraphs I quoted.

Basically, we are encouraged to do something — especially preserving the traditional practice of abstaining from meat — but nothing in particular is strictly required, in the sense of possibly giving rise to sin.

Therefore, from this we may conclude that failure to do penance on a Friday outside of Lent is not a mortal sin. In fact, the Bishops protest that it is not a sin at all. See this, for example:

25. Every Catholic Christian understands that the fast and abstinence regulations admit of change, unlike the commandments and precepts of that unchanging divine moral law which the Church must today and always defend as immutable. This said, we emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that “no” scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience, confessions, or personal decisions on this point.

(The statement is carefully written — there is no pain of sin “in what pertains to Friday abstinence”; I suppose one could argue that there is some pain of sin for not doing anything at all. But I can’t see how it could be classified as anything more than a light matter, given the overall vagueness of the legal norm and the teaching included in it.)

The Code of Canon Law merely re-iterates and formalizes what was set forth in Paenitemini, preserving the right of the Bishops to adapt it — which the U.S. Bishops did.

All that said, it is important to note what Paenitemini also says about penance in general:

I. 1. By divine law all the faithful are required to do penance.

The Bishops also said this in their pastoral statement:

1. Thus Sacred Scriptures declare our guilt to be universal; hence the universal obligation to that repentance which Peter, in his sermon on Pentecost, declared necessary for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38). Hence, too, the Church’s constant recognition that all the faithful are required by divine law to do penance. As from the fact of sin we Christians can claim no exception, so from the obligation to penance we can seek no exemption.

We can split moral hairs about penance outside of Lent, but the bottom line for all of us: we need to do penance. Therefore, we should strive to keep all Fridays of the year, as is the Church’s immemorial custom — even when Friday penance outside of Lent is not morally obligatory. We should do other penances besides. We must do penance for our many sins. Let us not be “bare minimum Catholics“!

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