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For hundreds of years, Catholics abstained from meat on Fridays — just as many do for the entire month of Lent. Then came the Second Vatican Council — which put aside centuries of tradition.

Among the traditions was meatless Friday.

But now the bishops of England and Wales have reinstituted it for their faithful, writes Emily Stimpson in Our Sunday Visitor. 

In a letter to parish priests, they wrote that “in accordance with 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.”

Why the change? Actually, it’s a misconception that meatless Friday was ever abolished. Here’s what Catholics were actually told back in 1966 when everything changed so drastically:

“Even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”

According to Stimpson:

Instead of insisting upon abstinence as an act of solidarity with the poor, many affluent nations’ bishops conferences, including those in Britain and the United States, made the traditional practice of meatless Fridays optional, allowing Catholics to choose their own penance instead. Catholics in those countries took that freedom a step further, interpreting the change not simply as an abrogation of meatless Fridays, but as an abrogation of any Friday penance.

“For years, most Catholics were told that eating meat on Fridays was a mortal sin,” explains Rob Corzine, vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology:

“Then, in 1966, they were told it wasn’t. Many simply didn’t understand that the sin was never eating meat. The sin was taking it upon yourself to dispense yourself from the Church’s discipline. So when eating meat on Fridays was suddenly OK, it just fed the perception of the time that everything was up for grabs.”

In England and Wales, the bishops decided back in 2009 to reinstitute the practice as a means of strengthening Catholic identity. Now they are reminding parishioners it’s recommended, not required: it’s a good idea, but violating it is not a mortal sin.

“Which brings us back to the question — what does this have to do with the rest of us?” askes Stimpson:

When the name of the game is “Choose Your Own Penance,” many of us will end up not choosing anything at all. When it’s a settled question, however, that Friday penance means abstaining from meat, the penance is much more likely to be observed.

Then, there remains the fact that abstinence is good for us.

“Like our Jewish brothers who keep a kosher diet,” says Father Edward Connolly, a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., meatless Fridays are “a visible, tangible way” that Catholics can remind themselves they are Catholic.

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