By now you’re probably aware that the bishops of England and Wales have reinstituted Friday abstinence. The majority of CatholicCulture.org users probably applaud this development, as do I. This applause is prompted by a number of closely related considerations.
The first is that Friday abstinence symbolizes a renewal of ecclesial discipline. All discipline—whether discipline of formation or discipline of punishment—sends a message, but not all can serve as a symbol. If the Pope removes a wayward bishop from office, that sends a message to other bishops. If a bishop removes or laicizes a wayward priest, that sends a message to other priests. (I can remember observing to friends over thirty years ago that things won’t change rapidly until heads roll.) But the imposition of a visible and regular penitential pattern on the faithful is not only a discipline but a symbol. It symbolizes that Catholics ought to be characterized by a specific and publicly discernible corporate identity which distinguishes them from everyone else.
In a perfect world, there would be no need to go beyond the identity projected simply by living an exemplary Christian life, but then in a perfect world, there would be no need of Christ in the first place, let alone the scandal of his crucifixion. This brings me to a second consideration. In an imperfect world, we all need help, and among the many forms of help we need is the help of being habituated to reaffirm our Catholic identity without embarrassment. For example, the discipline of ashes imposes on us a visible identity once a year, though we may rush nervously home to clean up. Friday abstinence is only a small penitential sacrifice, but it is also both a corporate activity and visible mark of one’s Faith. If we follow this discipline we remind ourselves that we are part of something important, and insofar as others notice this peculiar habit, we remind them as well. As we do this repeatedly, we become less self-conscious concerning our special relationship with Christ, and more comfortable affirming it even in a bemused or hostile environment.
A third consideration is esprit de corps. When we do things in common with a group, we strengthen our ties with that group and increase both our commitment to it and our positive feelings about it. So too with the Church. Abstaining from meat on Friday may not be a spectacular penance, but it is in some measure a common affirmation of our membership on the team—our status as active, contributing members of the Body of Christ. Thus every group which wants to be cherished in the minds and hearts of its adherents, and desires moreover to thrive over time, establishes little traditions in which its members enjoy a common participation. These generate not only an increased sense of identity but a sense of positive commitment to the strength and importance of the group as a whole. The Church is no different with respect to this basic psychological reality, except that even as we increase our esprit de corps by our participation in the little marks and patterns of our Faith, she channels grace to us.
My fourth and final consideration is the benefit—even the necessity—of specific outward practices if we are to escape the tragedy of so much of contemporary spirituality. On every side, we find the worldly-wise affirming that they are definitely spiritual but not at all religious. By this they mean that they do not follow the narrow tenets and restrictive rules of any particular creed; instead, they follow the superior path of thinking high thoughts and keeping, as it were, a rosy outlook on life. This attitude not only deceives others; it deceives the self. Lofty as it sounds, it is really an excuse for not making any commitment to what God has revealed. It is an excuse to slide into any habit of thought we wish, and to live however we desire. Yet we are not purely intellectual like the angels; we must live a specific Faith in our bodies, or we will not live it at all. God has a plan for us, body and soul, a plan that involves a concrete and practical daily acceptance of His will. The hard edges of simple penitential practices enjoined by religious authority, however small in themselves, awaken us to this reality.
It will be interesting to see how quickly Catholics in England and Wales habituate themselves once again to the adoption of this particular penitential practice, or whether for most it will remain a dead letter. Time will tell. But it would be a very good thing if it were to take hold, simple as it is, and an even better thing if it were to spread to other countries that have similarly abandoned this venerable practice. May this tiny gesture initiate us afresh into what it means to root Catholicism in our very bones.
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