You open your refrigerator on a Friday evening, contemplating what to make for dinner. Your eyes immediately go to the bacon, sausage, and chicken, but then you remember – today is Friday during Lent, so you can’t eat meat!
As a Catholic, abstaining from meat on Fridays has become second nature. But have you ever wondered when and why this tradition began?
A History of Abstinence in the Early Church
The practice of abstaining from meat has ancient roots in the Christian faith. In the early centuries of the church, there was a general sense that Christians should practice self-denial and avoid meat for ascetic reasons. The Didache, an early Christian text dating back to the 1st century, instructs:
“Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. But do you fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).” (Didache 8:1)
So Friday fasting was already established as a tradition by the early 2nd century. Abstaining from meat was also common in monasteries and among devout laypeople. By avoiding meat, Christians hoped to tame their desires and focus more on God.
Various church councils reinforced the importance of fasting. The Council of Orleans in 511 mandated Lenten fasting 3 times per year. The third Council of Tours in 567 advised fasting on Fridays as a suitable successor to the very strict fasting of Lent. Over time, Friday became established as a day of penance when meat was avoided.
The Frequency of Friday Abstinence
In the early centuries, Friday abstinence from meat was a frequent but voluntary practice. But over time, the Church began making it more mandatory.
In 763, Pope Paul I mandated that St Willibrord (the Bishop of Utrecht) enforce the Friday abstinence rule in his diocese.
In the 11th century, Pope Nicholas II officially made abstinence from meat compulsory on Fridays and Saturdays for all throughout the year. This more rigorous stance reflected a desire to differentiate Christians from Jews, who observed the Sabbath on Saturdays, and Muslims, who observed Fridays. Abstaining on Fridays and Saturdays became a marker of Christian identity.
Exceptions to Friday Abstinence
While Friday abstinence was widespread, it was not completely inflexible. Crusaders were given dispensation from fasting during times of war. Occasionally popes allowed exceptions for holidays and special occasions. In the 16th century, Pope Pius V permitted eating meat on Saturdays if Christmas fell on a Friday.
There were also regional exceptions. In 1288, King Denis of Portugal complained to Pope Nicholas IV that the fishing industry couldn’t supply enough fish for total Friday and Saturday abstinence. The pope allowed Portugal to eat meat on Saturdays to give the supply of fish a chance to recover.
So Friday abstinence existed for centuries but was adjusted at times based on circumstances. It was not until the 20th century that the rules were codified and standardized across the Catholic world.
Friday Abstinence Codified in 1917
In the early 20th century, Pope Benedict XV desired to establish a uniform and universally binding set of laws for the Catholic Church. He commissioned a group of experts to codify the existing body of canon law, producing the 1918 Code of Canon Law. This code formalized and clarified Catholic discipline across the world.
Regarding Fridays, the code specified:
“On Fridays or on the Vigil of Christmas the law of abstinence is binding on all older than 21 years and younger than 60 years” (Canon 1252.4)
Additionally, the code noted that abstinence was required:
- In Lent
- On Ember Days
- During certain vigils
So for the first time, Friday abstinence was given a uniform standard. The weekly Friday requirement was now an official part of the universal canon law, though some regional exceptions remained.
Loosening Restrictions in the 1960s
In the 1960s, the rules on Friday abstinence were loosened. According to Pope Paul VI, for matters of discipline, the Church must be willing to read the “signs of the times.”
Friday abstinence had declined in practice and no longer held the same religious significance. So in 1966, Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic constitution that amended the Friday abstinence rules going forward:
- Abstinence was now only required during Lent. Outside of Lent, it was voluntary.
- Bishops conferences could establish more specific guidelines for their country if desired.
So the mandatory year-round Friday abstinence was largely reduced to a voluntary practice, except during the penitential season of Lent. These amended rules remain in effect today.
Reinforcing Friday Penance
While Friday abstinence became voluntary for most weeks, Pope Paul VI underlined that Catholics should still dedicate Fridays to penance and self-denial. In his apostolic constitution, he declared:
Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. (Paenitemini 4)
The bishops of England and Wales responded by requiring abstinence from meat only on Fridays of Lent but recommending a different penitential practice on the other Fridays. In the US, the bishops mandated penance in the form of meatless Fridays year-round. So Friday penance remained, even if the specific practice varied by country.
Reinstating Obligatory Abstinence in England and Wales
In 2011, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales re-established mandatory abstinence on all Fridays except solemnities:
Therefore, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, far from downplaying the significance of penance and abstinence, are reinforcing the obligation of Friday abstinence … [We] wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. (Statement 2011)
So England and Wales returned to obligatory abstinence nearly every Friday, while in other countries like the US, the minimal requirement remains performing some act of penance.
- Friday abstinence has roots as a voluntary practice in the early church.
- It became a widespread custom and was eventually made mandatory in the 11th century.
- The 1917 Code of Canon Law officially codified Friday abstinence.
- Restrictions were loosened in the 1960s, making it non-obligatory outside of Lent.
- Catholics are still required to observe some form of penance on Fridays today.
In the life of the Catholic Church, discipline and practice develops over the centuries. Customs like Friday abstinence take shape at the grassroots level, are eventually formalized, and can change again when circumstances warrant it.
While the specific prescriptions have shifted, the tradition of Friday penance reminds Catholics to offer sacrifices, do works of charity, and unite themselves with Christ’s suffering every week. This weekly rhythm of contemplating Christ’s passion remains a timeless practice for devoted believers.
As you glance again at the bacon and chicken in your refrigerator next Friday, remember the centuries of tradition behind this act of weekly penance. Whether you choose to abstain from meat or take on another sacrifice, let Friday be a day you grow closer to Christ in some small way each week.