Hey, Father! What is the history of no meat on Friday?

When I was growing up, one could not eat meat on Fridays at all, even outside of Lent (Editor’s note: this was Church law before 1966). If one did, that was sinful. Yet now, one can eat meat on Fridays, except in Lent. Since God is well aware of future laws and events, did He forgive those folks who did not abstain from meat on all Fridays? 

– Margaret of Springfield

The obligation to abstain from meat is found in the Code of Canon Law. Canon 1251 states: “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Bishops’ 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.” The law of abstaining from meat on Fridays “binds those who have completed their fourteenth year” (canon 1252).

For the last several decades, we have been accustomed to abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent, but not necessarily on the other Fridays of the year. This is because canon 1253 allows the Conference of Bishops to determine another form of penance to be observed. In 1966, the United States Catholic Conference (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) ended the obligation to abstain from meat on the Fridays outside of Lent if some other form of  penance or work of charity was done; they kept in place the obligation to abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent (and on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) under pain of sin.

The reason the bishops can make such a law is because of the power to bind and loose that Christ Jesus entrusted to the Apostles and their successors (see Matthew 16:19 and 18:18). The religious authorities in first century Judaism frequently spoke of the power of binding and loosing as the authority to make enforceable laws. Jesus, himself a devout Jew, gave this same authority to make enforceable laws for his Church to the Bishops.

The Church does not oblige people to future laws; she obliges them to laws in force at a particular time. If someone willfully and knowingly chose to eat meat on a Friday at a time when he or she was obliged to abstain from meat under pain of sin, and if he or she knew at the time the act of doing so was mortally sinful, he or she committed a mortal sin. Such a sin would not be later forgiven simply because the law changed. For a mortal sin to be forgiven, sincere repentance must precede a sacramental confession or a perfect act of contrition with the intention of making a sacramental confession.

Fr. Daren Zehnle is pastor at St. Augustine in Ashland and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.