The practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays, for centuries a distinctive marker of Catholic practice, became mandatory for all Catholics in England and Wales this past Friday for the first time in decades.
An “analyst” (the BBC felt it necessary to call one in for this story) wasted no time in casting doubt on the bishops’ order by predictably noting that “many Catholics [. . .] are not always willing to follow the rules laid down by the clergy.” But this complaint seems to utterly misjudge the current zeitgeist among contemporary Catholics who take their faith seriously. Near the end of a recent interview with The Independent (UK), London Archbishop Vincent Nichols remarks that many in his flock are “ready for a challenge” in their faith life, and that, in some ways, today’s “young are more religiously minded than the older generations.” The restoration of meatless Fridays, the bishop suggests, is one major way in which the Church can renew this sense of challenge.
While Friday penance was never officially abolished by the bishops of England and Wales, the specific practice of abstaining from meat was turned into a general “call for penance” in 1983. Unfortunately, this had the general effect of slackening discipline, as many laypeople, for whatever reason, simply noted the lifting of the meat requirements and put nothing in its place.
Though some may panic about a “reactionary” or “traditional” impulse gaining strength in the Church, this is, at best, only part of the story. What the bishops are doing suggests, more accurately, a return to concrete practices and specific requirements. In a larger sense, a realization seems to be dawning that the most effective way to engage modernity may be through an emphasis on sacrifice and concision rather than on overbroad sentiments. This movement towards specificity can be seen in other areas, including the new-old literal bent in Mass translations.
Print subscribers to First Things will recognize that a similar argument to the bishops’ is advanced in our October issue by Francesca Aran Murphy, in an article titled “Oriental Aspects of Occidental Faith“. In that piece, as in this interview, a deep desire for return to some the classic markers of Catholic faith is seen as a way to not only stand apart from secularism but also to compete with the growing influence of Islam, which appeals to many because of its counter-cultural call for sacrifice and regimentation. Bishop Nichols, indeed, refers positively to Islam’s emphasis on fasting during Ramadan and notes that the new fast may be seen as a way of expressing solidarity with the poor and homeless. Some will doubtlessly protest that these rhetorical connections to inter-religious dialogue and works of social justice are merely cynical ways of warming modernist Catholics to the idea of the Friday fast, but more likely it indicates that the restoration of meatless Fridays is future-oriented rather than nostalgic.