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The restoration of the Friday fast is a historic day for English and Welsh Catholics

In the end, it’s obedience, not personal choice, that holds us together as a people

By on Monday, 16 May 2011

In the end, it’s obedience, not personal choice, that holds us together as a people

In the end, it’s obedience, not personal choice, that holds us together as a people

I do not often find myself moved by actual enthusiasm for official utterances emerging from meetings of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. Now I do. A statement they issued on Saturday is not only wonderfully brief (around 400 words), it is written in a powerfully devotional style. Bishops’ Conference statements are sometimes businesslike about the affairs of the church, and sometimes relevant to the needs of society: they rarely convey any concern for the building up and nurture of the spiritual identity of those under their pastoral care—most of whom, frankly, have now come to look for guidance more to their parish priest and to the pope than to their bishops—so much for all the endless Küngian chatter about collegiality.

It’s not just that the pope doesn’t always pay any attention to the decisions of bishops’ conferences; neither do the “People of God”. But if collegiality consistently produced decisions, and English prose, of this quality, they would soon be up and running as a living reality in the life of the faithful. The text of this statement will no doubt be available elsewhere on the Herald’s homepage by the time this post is online. But I’m going to take the liberty of beginning by quoting it myself, in full, here:

By the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.

Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord. The law of the Church requires Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, or some other form of food, or to observe some other form of penance laid down by the Bishops’ Conference.

The Bishops 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. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.

Respectful of this, and in accordance with the mind of 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. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake. This is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.

Many may wish to go beyond this simple act of common witness and mark each Friday with a time of prayer and further self-sacrifice. In all these ways we unite our sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ, who gave up his very life for our salvation.

What has now happened has been gathering momentum ever since the pope’s visit to Britain. It will be recalled that during the papal afterglow some very surprising people started to recommend the restoration of the Friday fast. Bishop Kieran Conry, for instance, argued that abstaining from meat on Friday “…. was one of the most obvious signs of Catholic identity, apart from going to Mass. It determined the diet in places like prison and hospital, and was something that Catholics were instinctively conscious of: we knew that we couldn’t have meat like everybody else that day, and it was a source of a sort of pride – it marked us out as different”.

The point, of course, is not simply that we abstain from meat on Friday (if we do) as a personal devotion: it is that we once did it, and soon will once more, out of obedience to the authority of the Church: it was once, and, deo gratias, will be again, a constant reminder that once we have taken the initial choice of committing ourselves to being Catholics in the first place, we are under obedience; and that it is that obedience that holds us together as a people.

The Church used to make this clear beyond peradventure: a convert was said to “submit” to the authority of the Holy See. This usage was thought, in the heyday of the “Spirit of Vatican II”, unduly forbidding and was quietly dropped in favour of the less daunting usage to “come into full communion” with the Holy See. But downplaying the idea of obedience has had damaging effects on the collective mind of the faithful. “Conscience”, as Newman taught, isn’t an excuse—as so often it seems when used as a Küngspeak neologism—for simply doing as we see fit : a Catholic conscience, on the contrary is something that is shaped and informed by the Church’s teaching; we have to OBEY our conscience, whose dictates will often go against our inclinations.

As I argued in this column at the time, commenting on Bishop Kieran’s remarks last year, nothing stops us from abstaining from meat on a Friday as things stand now. In our household we do already: but the point is that we do it as a private rule of life rather than as an expression of the fact that we are part of the daily life of the Church. We used to do it, in fact, even when we were Catholic-minded Anglicans: that, too, was just a personal devotion. As such, it was a kind of nostalgic tribute to an order within the Church which seemed to have passed away for ever. As I wrote last year, “It would be wonderful if our bishops now actually said, in terms, that the old tradition is now restored by their authority, and formally pronounced that we ought not to eat meat on a Friday without good reason”. Now they have.

The bishops might now turn their attention to building on their achievement: what about restoring our midweek Holydays of Obligation? They too, were once as Bishop Conry said of the Friday fast, “a source of a sort of pride – [they] marked us out as different”. To walk into Church on a Sunday and find that it is not one of the Sundays in ordinary time but Corpus Christi, a kind of bonus for our Sunday obedience rather than something we have to pay for by the sacrifice of our time and freedom of action on a weekday—(rather like a supermarket bogof offer, two for the price of one)—is , I find, not merely intensely irritating, it just feels wrong , it’s almost insulting: an implicit declaration that, since you probably can’t be bothered to observe Corpus Christi on its proper day, here it is without any extra effort to you.

But that’s a subject to return to at greater length some other time. It’s a bit unfair, now the bishops have done something really substantial towards the restoration of what was lost from the spiritual life of the faithful through the reductionism of the post-Conciliar period (not, I hasten to insist, through the Council itself) to carry on as though they had done nothing. This is not nothing. It’s a splendid beginning. We’re not there yet. But now, we can feel that under the guidance of the present Holy Father, the journey continues. We’re on our way: Deo Gratias.

  • W Oddie

     You, it appears, don’t know the meaning of irony, which in the way it is used here is synonymous with sarcasm, defined by the Oxford dictionary (online version) as ‘the use of irony to mock or convey contempt’. You have now attempted to instruct me in both English Literature and the English language: I think you need to be a little better informed if you intend to continue with this exercise. 

  • W Oddie

    See also my response to you below.

  • DBMcGinnity

    Whoever purports that that Polonius was the greatest fool in Shakespeare is not a classical scholar of English Language, English Literature or Classics. In Act II Hamlet refers to Polonius as a “tedious old fool”, but this was said affectionately, in the same way that we would refer to a good friend who was getting on our nerves a bit. My son calls be a daft old fool, and other not printable, sobriquets.
     King Lear and Malvolio are renowned to hold these titles. Malvolio is the steward of Olivia’s household in William Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night. Malvolio in particular is pertinent to the blogs in the Catholic Herald. He was an insightless, sanctimonious, overbearing, arrogant, self opinionated, self aggrandised supercilious ass, who is not amenable to logic or reason. Malvolio would not feel out of place blogging in The Catholic Herald. There are too many “Malvolio” bloggers, who hastily react in an aggressive, destructive and defensive manner to a proposition, without giving sufficient thought to the original premise. Not a healthy characteristic in an academic.
    King Lear and Malvolio are renowned to hold these titles. Malvolio is the steward of Olivia’s household in William Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night. Malvolio in particular is pertinent to the blogs in the Catholic Herald. He was an insightless, sanctimonious, overbearing, arrogant, self opinionated, self aggrandised supercilious ass, who is not amenable to logic or reason.

    Malvolio would not feel out of place blogging in The Catholic Herald. There are too many “Malvolio” bloggers, who hastily react in an aggressive, destructive and defensive manner to a proposition, without giving sufficient thought to the original premise. Not a healthy characteristic in an academic.

  • DBMcGinnity

    Please explain why some blogs are being duplicated. Is it someone’s intention to devalue thr content or the blog or the integrity of the blogger. I have given special attention to prose, synax and layout before sending the blog, only to find that is has been altered to become unreadable. That is not professional journalistic conduct !!

    D B McGinnity

  • W Oddie

    See my response to this below. 

  • Alan

    As a “liberal Catholic” who is also a convert, I most certainly do NOT despise converts! 

  • Alan

    To my mind, if something is a “mortal sin” it is a sin at all times and for all people (not just Catholics).  Clearly the “no meat on Friday” rule does not fall into this category.  As I see it, a rule of the Church (which I obey) is not the same as a sin against God. 

  • guest

    I am never sure why eating fish is uniting us with the suffering of Jesus, are they suggesting fish is not a food people chose to eat pleasure? Why is abstinence from meat a good thing? Most people don’t eat red meat more than a couple of times a week due to cost and the fact it is considered hugely unhealthy.
    Fish is considered healthy and people that can afford it each more of then ever.. where is the suffering when Catholics ask for a prawn balti at the curry house or have salmon for dinner?

  • Weary Convert

    Mr Oddie is trying to turn Polonius’ advice to Laertes on its head to mean precisely the opposite of the intention and Mr McGinnity has made some fascinating comments. . Also, I am surprised that Mr Oddie has to turn to a dictionary to define irony rather than recognising it when he sees it. Sarcasm is essentially cruel but the comment in question was an amusing and ironic attempt to put the Bishops’ idea on abstinance into a real context. But then, of course, Mr Oddie has decided that I write “drivel” and who am I to question the measured judgement of one of England’s leading Catholic writers?

    In any case, as I have said at least twice before, – what sanction are bishops putting on their plan for re-introduced Friday Abstinance?  This is the essential question and on their answer much depends. Surely Mr Oddies’s connections with high Catholic circles will allow him to find this out for us

    Finally, is not possible that this website gets itself in some sort of order?  As it stands questions and answers etc are all over the place so that one has (at present below this post) Mr Oddie responding to Mr Oddie and saying his response is below.  I realise what he means but it does get rather complicated.  I don’t expect Mr Oddie himself to necessarily be able to do this, I most certainly could not, but perhaps there is someone in the Catholic Herald who could do so?

  • DBMcGinnity

    SATANIC GREMLINS In my view there has been mischief insofar that I checked the spelling and syntax before posting. I also set the it out in logical paragraphs. However after posting the message appears to be jumbled up and repeated so as to frustrate the reader and devalue the literally skills and the integrity of the writer.

  • PJP

    Perhaps the parishes could organise  Friday Fast Days (eg weekly or monthly), based on fish, bread and water and eaten in silence as a specific act of penance and prayer with everyone giving a donation to one of the charities that help those where there is no clean water and not much food.  

     The fish should be plainly cooked (grilled or boiled), not gourmet style, the bread fresh and without butter and the silence maintained throughout.  The partaking of such meals regularly and in company eg in parish halls, assists the discipline and obedience of the penance.  The Friday Fast Days should ideally begin and end with prayers of thanksgiving.  During Lent this idea could be extended ecumenically.  Just an idea.

    The charity Mary’s Meals does something similar in Medjugorje where bread and water only are available on Wednesdays and Fridays. 

  • DBMcGinnity

    Craziness and arch-stupidity beyond Belief. The pristine teachings of Jesus Christ are the most beautiful thing this side of heaven. But the church’s interpretations of Jesus teaching are the silliest thing on this side of hell. For example: When I was a boy, the bishop of the dioceses of Clogher, Eugene O’Callaghan decreed that it was a mortal sin to play, listen to or participate in any way with soccer football, rugby, cricket or any other protestant game that might lead to the occasion of sin.He further decreed that it was a mortal sin to listen to Radio Luxemburg or to dance rock (jive) and roll music, because the girls showed their knickers. He decreed that it was a mortal sin to bring a commercial vehicle like a lorry or van into the cathedral car park not to wash the family car before coming to mass. In the adjacent dioceses of Kilmore, these rules did not apply as their bishop had not made such edicts. Therefore a transgressor living in Ballybay would commit a mortal sin, but a few miles down the road in Coothill it was not a sin. The Roman Catholic church is still plagued with such outrageous instances such as nonsensical rules about not eating meat on Fridays.  There was a family in a “Puckoon” situation, where the house was in the Dioceses of Clogher, but the garden was in the Dioceses of Kilmore. If a person listened to Radio Luxemburg in the house it was a mortal sin, but if they moved down the garden it was not. What on earth has this sort of ‘Mishegoss’ got to do with Jesus, who would have understood the term ‘Mishegoss’, which means craziness and arch-stupidity beyond belief.

  • guest

     What if you are veggie or allergic to fish? Personally I would give it two weeks before I start to loathe fish and I doubt I will ever touch it again…Though many of a weight loss diet would like it, though not without vegatables or a salad.

  • Anonymous

    It’s hardly a revolutionary idea and it works a lot better than much of what modern society has offered. In a society where choice and pleasure is thrust at us and we are taught nothing but to do as best we can for ourselves (I can confirm that we are taught virtually nothing about obedience and everything about self-fulfillment in schools today.) This has led to a complete moral breakdown in society and the results in Britain and elsewhere in the West speak for themselves. By contrast ideas of chivalry, service and obedience were what kept society together for centuries (though it was marred by oppression by those at the top) and if we couple these ideals with the human rights values and lessons that we have learned over the years then we simply combine the best of the old world and the new. In the end this is a Catholic newspaper and true Catholicism must always boil down to obedience to Christ and, to a lesser extent, his representative on Earth: His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.

  • Anonymous

    Absolute obedience to man results in misery but that is not what the Church teaches. The doctrines of the Catholic Church apply to all Catholics, inside the Vatican and out, and so they are not man’s law but God’s law passed through his representative on Earth. Following that the only absolute obedience that we are required to show is to God and that is hardly a new idea; attempt to deny that and you are left with atheism, which in one century has spilled vastly more blood than any religion and leads ultimately to the kind of arrogance and greed that has so defiled today’s society. I await atheist responses with baited breath.

  • Anonymous

    You were having an interesting debate until then but those sorts of commets rather ruin the interest of these sorts of arguments and neither you nor JA are doing anything for your arguments by hurling insults at each other. Save that for a facebook conversation where the rest of us don’t have to see it. 

  • Anonymous

    The mistakes of the past have been made and the lessons learned by anybody with an eye in their head. As for the subtle point on the child sex-scandal bickering for years over who covered up who and by who’s order won’t solve anything. If we hope to reconcile the divided world that we see now then  we have to be able to live up to Christianity’s central teaching and forgive the sins of the past. After all it will be sorted out by a much higher authority than us if he sees fit and if he does not then we have no right to question his judgement.

  • In Our Times

    Take heart Mr McGinnity & Mr Convert. I am not ‘permitted’ either by accident or design, to comment from the comfort of my home computer; no matter whom I log in as or from where. I resort to random laptops that the students use at work. I am not even going to bother speculating!
    DB, your comments are always most enlightening & instructive to me. Many thanks.

  • In Our Times

    This wasn’t always the case I might add. But a look at the ‘terms & conditions’ tells me that they may bar whomever they feel they need, if that is indeed what it is. 

  • Weary Convert

    “doctrines of the Catholic Church …..God’s law passed by his repesentative on earth.”  Disagree with this and one is an atheist it seems.  In other posts I have mentioned the writings of Lord Acton, one of the greatest historians of the 19th and early 20th century.  Only today (and before I saw this post) I was reading (as one does) his essay on the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. In this he writes of Pope Saint Pius V and the position of the Saint and his successor after the massacre. “Pius declared that he would release a culprit guilty of a hundred murders rather than one obstinate heretic.  ….”  He abjured (the King of France) “to hold no intercourse with Huguenots, to make no terms with them and not to observe the terms he had made.  He required that they should be pursued to the death, that not one should be spared under any pretence, that all (heretic) prisoners should suffer death.  He threatened Charles (King of France) with the punishment of Saul when he forebore to exterminate the Amalakites.”  All this with Lord Acton giving detailed references of e.g. letters from the Pope to the King (“The History of Freedom and other essays” edited by John Neville Figgis and Richard Vere Lawrence – Macmillan 1907 – pages 138/9)

    So and as can be seen, Saint Pius V required absolute obedience to his interpretation of God’s Law which, unfortunately for the heretics, required their extermination.  So it might be seen that absolute obedience to God’s representative had outcomes that in wicked minds infected by the Spirit of Vatican II, might be unacceptable – even perhaps to some of the more delicate stomachs of the Ultra Catholics so prominent in this website.  Of course, there is a sort of way out – Saint Pius V was mad as a hatter and hence his doctrines can be put quietly to one side.

    Incidentally, because I suggested that “absolute obedience finishes in misery,” Mr Oddie (leading English Catholic writer etc. etc.) considers my posts “drivel” and perhaps I have drifted into sarcasm in this post rather than the irony intended.  So, in the views of Anonymous, I suppose that now, as well as a drivelling old man, I am also a drivelling old atheist.

  • Weary Convert

    Thank you for this demonstration of these absurdities presumably from the time before Vatican II tried – with limited success – to bring some reality into the ridiculous world of clerical paranoia, so mourned by the Ultra Catholics. Assuming that they have not done so already, I suppose that if the Scottish bishops do not re-introduce Friday abstinance, a similar situation will apply to e.g. those living in Berwick and commuting to Edinburgh etc. At a time when the English Judges are making themselves look ridiculous with their equivalent of anathema, I suppose that one cannot expect anything much less silly from English and Welsh bishops eager to demonstrate to the Pope how macho they are towards their flocks.

  • DB McGinnity

    It is very sad that many bloggers retort with unsophisticated and meaningless expletives like rubbish and drivel without giving any logical verification of what that banal exclamation means. Such invective is usually reserved to heated domestic arguments and public house repartee, when people are heavily imbibed with alcohol, but hardly when discussing spiritual and philosophical concepts. It is a sad reflection on the future of the Catholic Church when writers resort to facile, crude and pejorative idioms to describe Muslims, Protestants secularist and modernist. These expressions remind me of the “mods and rockers” era. These terms meant nothing important, except to the few who were undergoing social change. The same applies to the terms secularist and modernist. The Freedom of speech and expression may be important, but truth is more important. To think the truth, to speak the truth, to act the truth is what Jesus meant his apostles to do. Jesus meant us to be truthful, and not use biblical quotations, histrionic religious zeal, exaggerated devotion (bible thumping) and doctrinal hyperbole to oppress, suppress or smother the true teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant mystical holy man who loved everybody and saw good in everybody. Use of pejorative and invective idioms contradict the tenets of the eight commandment regarding ‘bearing false witness against your neighbour’.Will some logical, educated and sophisticated person please explain the following conundrum to me. This is a true story. In 1956, a girl I knew wanted to be a church cleaner and to attend to the flowers on the altar. Before she was allowed to do so, she had to undergo some sort of cleansing dispensation ceremony whereby she would be allowed to go near the altar, as women were forbidden from going into the sanctuary (behind the altar rails). Can someone please explain the logicality (not the banality) of this situation. I genuinely wish to know the non-discriminatory justification for this way of thinking. The traditional reason that God selected a man to be his son and Jesus selected men as his apostles does not stack up in terms of reason and logic. I would welcome a cogent answer. Why are women, not suitable to be priests?

  • Anonymous

    What I actually said was that if one denies absolute obedience to God then one is left with atheism, which is the truth. If one calls oneself a Christian then one is subject to all of Christ’s teachings and all of Chritian law; there is no cherry-picking. That is hardly new and was first espoused by Christ himself when he said that any man who does not accept the kingdom of God as a child can never enter into it, meaning there is no middle ground; a person either is a Christian and accepts God’s laws or is not and so does not.

    In response to your mention of Pope Saint Pius V this choice spreads equally to those at the top of the Catholic Church; if what they do is in direct contradiction to Christ’s teachings (for example encouraging murder) then of course absolute obedience is not required as these men are not fulfilling their roles as Christ’s representatives on Earth. This is, regretably what happened in the days of the Reformation; the Popes allowed power to overcome them and so went from representing God on Earth to acting in his stead which is when their doctrines can be placed aside.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dpfromwyo David Parkhurst

    Actually, I believe red meat is more commonly consumed now than at any point in history (before the last half century, I can’t imagine most people had enough money to enjoy red meat once a year, let alone once a week). That the fast deprived the rich more than the poor was doubtlessly intentional. The point is that meat is a luxury item, and luxuries should be abstained from in penitential seasons. Granted, in a place like the U.K. seafood could also be considered a luxury, so maybe you should just go vegetarian on Fridays instead. Or you could go vegan like us Orthodox;-)

    Abstinence from anything pleasurable is good from time to time. It disciplines our wills in the daily spiritual warfare that we fight. I recall a desert father saying that a full stomach never defeated lust. We will never learn to say no to our sinful desires if we never learn to deny ourselves even the good things in life. The scripture tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. If eating shrimp is not denying yourself enough, than go vegetarian; it does the soul better than to complain about your bishops.

  • Weary Convert

    You have mentioned the days of the Reformation but look further back – try the Popes of the 800/900 period – what John Julius Norwich calls in his recent book, the “Pornocracy” when the Popes were murderers, rapists, thieves and into every other crime you can imagine.  But they were Popes and God’s representatives on earth so their “teaching” was equally valid to that of say, John Paul II.  So long as the Church claims that individuals can speak as God’s representatives, there has to be “cherry-picking” to exclude the evil of such Popes as these (not to mention their own representatives), even though in their days they would impose their will though any violence that was to hand.
     
    I don’t really think that there is great point in carrying on this debate since I am clearly a cherry-picker and you are not – so there it is.
     
    Best regards.

  • In Our Times

    Not to worry Weary, it’s all relative anyway & people hold way too much store by labels these days. I love drivelling old atheists. And looking on the bright side, on the days whe you’re a drivelling old atheist, you can fully accept God by sweeping your books away & making beautiful & profound love with a divorced Unitarian, say, & not have to worry about all that “mortal sin of the heart” nonsense. In the afternoon no less.

    “Anonymous” is either very naive or rather dangerously controlled & indoctrinated.

  • DB McGinnity

    What you have written “dangerously controlled & indoctrinated” is philosophical music. These people are not only ‘dangerously controlled’, but they are very dangerous people. Some time ago one of the “God Squad” ; (God’s chosen People) was giving me rhetorical venomous abuse. Because I am open to criticism I left my e-mail address for all to see. As a consequence I was inundated by unsolicited abusive, obnoxious, threatening hell and damnation with oaths and curses. I also received a plethora of salacious e-mails about ‘S&M’ and other ugly material. Someone thought that I was in need of self mortification, instead of fornication. That was not a problem for me. The problem was that I was saddened that so little has changed since I was a boy in Ireland over 60 years ago, where sadism, cruelty, belittling and obnoxious conduct was the rule of the Catholic Church (nuns and Christian Brothers) in the same dioceses where the Bishop made it a sin to play soccer football. He was the Bishop who went to Vatican II, and was punched on the mouth by an intemperate, irascible Italian monsignor.It is hard for me to accept that anyone would want to return to the oppression and suppression of human dignity and freedom of thought.. It is “The God Squad” who are in need of the S&M therapy.

  • Rosie Toes Under 55

    It isn’t OBEDIENCE that keeps us together as Catholics, it is FAITH in the Person and Presence of Christ and on the teaching of the Church as handed down from the Apostles.
    Meat is nothing in our culture, with a multiplicity of diets and cuisines. Abstinence from meat is not part of the spiritual or cultural vocabulary of most Catholis under 60. If they really want to suggest a meaningful penitential act why don’t they suggest we all forgo television, that would mean something for most people and would have the added benefit of really making Catholics stand out. Not some quaint archaic custom most people don’t understand.