Following a May plenary meeting, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales are seeking to propagate the practice of abstaining from meat as “Friday penance,” even outside of Lent.
In their resolution, they write:
By the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.
Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord. The law of the Church requires Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, or some other form of food, or to observe some other form of penance laid down by the Bishops’ Conference.
The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.
Respectful of this, and in accordance with the mind of the whole Church, the Bishops’ Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. 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 is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.
Francis X. Rocca, a Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service, amplifies this notion of distinction – lifting up what is different about a thing as a way to increase its vigor and testimony.
Sociologists such as Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, who study the behavior of “religious economies,” have observed that churches tend to lose vigor when they relax demands on adherents, especially those tenets and practices that cut against the grain of wider society. In economic terms, lowering the “costs” of membership in this way ends up diminishing its benefits, among other ways by loosening the bonds of community.
In the half century since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has de-emphasized many of the traditional outward signs of its distinctive character, a process that has coincided with a decline in such expressions of commitment as Mass attendance and vocations to the priesthood and religious orders. The growing emphasis on Catholic identity today represents an effort to counteract both trends.
It was a highly suggestive coincidence that the English and Welsh bishops’ announcement about Friday penance came the same day as a Vatican document designed to expand access to the Tridentine Mass in Latin, another distinctive practice that fell out of use in the wake of Vatican II. Pope Benedict XVI lifted restrictions on the old Latin Mass in 2007, and though only a small fraction of the world’s Catholics attend it today, it has excited disproportionate interest among the young, suggesting that it is a tradition with a future.