Friday, 16 September 2011

Is Eating Meat on a Friday a Mortal Sin?

Nice juicy steak - save it for Saturday

And I'm only talking about for those who are baptised here (though of course, baptism itself is a grave obligation).

Today, Friday 16th September 2011, is the day appointed by the bishop's conference for the reintroduction of the traditional Friday abstinence from meat. This is great news, as it marks a return to aspects of life that for centuries defined the Catholic Faith given to us by Our Lord. It gives us a chance to unite a meagre sacrifice to his Holy and Exalted Cross, in a gesture of sorrow and reparation for our innumerable sins, offences and negligences. Juventutem London thanks the Bishops for this restoration (and encourages the restoration of the Holy Days of Obligation).

But is it now a sin to eat meat on Fridays? And if it is, isn't it totally arbitrary to say that something that was licit last week is now a sin - even a mortal sin, requiring sacramental confession? But certainly in the past, it would have been understood to be a mortal sin. Fr Heribert Jone in Moral Theology writes:
The laws of fasting and abstinence [much, much stricter at his time of writing - JL] in themselves oblige gravely.
Ever reasonable, Fr Jone also says that "slight violations of them are only venial sins" - and then talks about very small quantities of meat/food over and above the prescribed amount.

Q&A Document from Fr Stock

Unfortunately, the Q&A document released by Fr Stock, the general secretary of the episcopal conference, is a little confusing. The last sentence in this document on this topic reads:
Failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday then would not constitute a sin.
But, the footnote to Q11 contains, in tiny print, this:
The "substantial observance" of the penitential discipline of Fridays and Ash Wednesday, Pope Paul VI wrote, "binds gravely." Interpreting this statement authoritatively, the Sacred Congregation of the Council (now the Congregation for the Clergy) decreed that this grave obligation does not refer to the individual days of penance, but to "the whole complexus of penitential days to be observed... that is, one sins gravely against the law, who, without an excusable cause, omits a notable part, quantative or qualitative, of the penitential observance which is prescribed as a whole.
Claims that are floating about that this means that one may have a few Fridays off are ludicrous. This obligation binds gravely on every baptised person, as it is an obligation to 'substantially' (and that does not mean 'partially' or 'mostly') observe the whole annual cycle of penance. This hopefully illustrates the point that doing penance on Fridays was always a grave obligation, though what constituted as fitting penance was left up to the individual (having been given a range of options). Now, the Bishops of England and Wales have decided to define what that penance should be. This is the same obligation to do penance and obey our pastors. The only difference is now they have a more restrictive definition of what penance we are to do.

If one is not bound by mortal sin to abstain from meat on Friday, that means that the law does not bind gravely. If the law does not bind gravely, in what way does it bind? How many Fridays can we get away with eating meat on? These are not questions that Catholics should be asking, but this ambiguity really does lead to the question.

Obedience to Lawful Authorities

If this document is saying that it is not a sin to eat meat on a Friday because one has (in good conscience) forgotten the obligation, then this is old news. Sin requires knowledge and consent. If this document is saying that a grave reason may justify eating meat on a Friday - sickness, grave obligation in terms of work, pregnancy - then clearly it would displace the obligation. Nothing new there either. If it is saying that the consumption of meat on a Friday is not, of itself, an intrinsic evil, there's nothing new there either.

But the grave obligation, binding by sin, not to eat meat on a Friday arises not from the intrinsic evil of the act itself, but the obligation of obedience that we owe to the hierarchy in matters such as this. Each bishop has jurisdiction over all of the baptised in his diocese, and Canon 1251 gives the authority to all of the bishops in a geographical area to agree to implement a certain interpretation of the law in their dioceses. We are not their slaves, but in matters such as this obedience must be given.

This is because our obligation to obey our Bishop in a matter such as this is rooted in our obligation to obey Peter, to whom Our Lord gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever he shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever he shall loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven (Matthew 16.19). And Our Lord says to those who he has called and sent, "He that hears you hears me: and he that despises you despises me: and he that despises me despises him that sent me" (Luke 10.16)


Also never forget the binding force of tradition. Let's not fall into pharisaism* and legal positivism where, in the absence of an explicit instruction from a bishop, we feign ignorance of how this has been understood from time immemorial.

Conclusion and a Pun

I hope that I have illustrated that there is more at stake hear than the morally neutral act of eating a nice little bit of steak on a day which happens to be a Friday. The sin here is not eating meat on a Friday (though that would be the best way to formulate the accusation in Confession), it is a matter of 'grave' disobedience to Almighty God (Pope Paul's word!) and a despising of that authority that he himself gave and 'delegated' firstly to Blessed Peter and his successors, and then apostles, and their successors. So, I'm coming down on the side of 'yes it is a mortal sin'.

So just don't do it.

If you disagree and have a reasoned argument, please, let's talk in the combox!

*And yes, I suppose I'd better counter the inevitable accusation of pharisaism. This is not about righteousness. The argument is not that abstaining from meat justifies us, or makes us righteous or holy. Of itself it is a tainted sacrifice to God, as it comes from finite humans. That said, through his grace Our Lord does deign to give value to our works. But the issue here is obedience to God via the Pope, via the Bishop of our diocese, via the Bishops' Conference (in that order). And, of course, it's no good to abstain from meat whilst depriving the worker of his pay and despising the widow and the orphan etc. This, Isaias 58, is the goal.