Many of us are aware that Friday is a “day of penance” in the Church and that, for a long time, Canon Law required Catholics to abstain from meat on all Fridays. If you know this, you probably also know that the Canon changed, and Catholics are no longer bound to this practice under pain of sin.
But we ought to ask: is that the end of the story, or should we still be doing something every Friday? It’s actually kind of an awkward topic in many Catholic circles. There is a lot of fake piety, misconceptions, real piety, and moments in which someone says “oh, no thanks, I don’t eat meat on Fridays,” and then all the other Catholics at the table eating cheeseburgers feel guilty or annoyed.
This makes it worth knowing what the actual requirements are. To find out, we must look to our bishops, because the change in Canon Law left the decision up to them when it came to Friday penance. In the United States, the USCCB has published a document to answer our questions. The document is titled the Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, and it can be found here.
The most relevant paragraph is no. 23, which tells us what the standard in the United States is. Our bishops say the following:
“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.”
This means our bishops are urging us, but not demanding us to make special sacrifices on Friday. In other words, you aren’t required to do anything different at all on Friday. It isn’t sinful to treat Friday like any other day. But as always, the question for Christians is not “what’s the minimum requirement?” We don’t do things merely because they are not sins. As an analogy, some food doesn’t harm us, but it also doesn’t have any real nutritional value. It isn’t bad to eat, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it. You’d be better off choosing genuinely good food that nourishes your body and strengthens you. The question for Christians is “how can I become a saint?” Those seeking perfection should take seriously a special observance of Friday. Ironically, self-denial (like choosing not to eat for periods of time) is actually good food that nourishes your soul. You’re not a sinner if you don’t sacrifice on Friday, but you might be trending toward the mediocre and the lukewarm.
Mortification/penance, though not legally required on every Friday, is certainly required for the Christian life in general. If you never give pleasures up in sacrifice to God, you are missing out on one of the most powerful traditions in the Church. It’s found all throughout scripture and the writings of the saints. Luke 4:2-4, Matthew 6:16-18, Acts 14:23, Matthew 17:21, Daniel 10:3, and Psalm 35:13-14 are just a handful of places in the Bible where we find evidence for the importance of fasting. It is legally required on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and before receiving Holy Communion. Many saints, including Augustine and Aquinas, reference fasting as particularly helpful for gaining the virtue of temperance and expelling sins of lust and gluttony.
Abstinence is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Church, so we should do something every Friday, or at least on another day of the week. You don’t have to abstain from meat. You can do others things. Take a cold shower, sleep without a pillow, don’t use seasoning or condiments on your food, skip a meal, give alms, wear something more plain, or kneel on a hard floor for your prayers. You don’t have to be harsh with yourself, but you do have to strive for holiness. It’s likely that you’re fully capable of sacrificing a little more than you already do. Why not store up some more treasure in heaven?