An article in the Wall Street Journal by Francis Rocca today discusses the potential return of meatless Fridays in Great Britain.
Every year during the 40 days of Lent, millions of Catholics honor Jesus’s crucifixion by foregoing meat in their Friday meals. But starting this September, if the bishops of England and Wales have their way, Catholics there will abstain from meat every Friday, year-round. This change marks the revival of a practice that the church abandoned a half-century ago—and it’s the latest of several in recent years.
Catholic tradition calls for acts of penance every Friday, the day of Jesus’s death, but observance of that tradition has changed dramatically since the modernizing reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Bishops in most countries eliminated abstinence from meat or limited it to Lent alone, and each Catholic became free to choose his own form of Friday penance: skipping television, perhaps, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. This effectively meant the disappearance of Friday penance altogether. In my 11 years of Catholic schooling, I don’t recall hearing it mentioned once.
That’s why the announcement by the bishops of England and Wales is so significant. To anyone with a taste for sushi or smoked salmon, missing hamburger once a week might present little inconvenience. But then, lightly beating one’s breast, as Catholics do in one version of the Penitential rite during Mass, isn’t a serious form of corporal mortification either. Catholicism is a fundamentally symbolic religion whose teachings are typically embodied in conventional signs and gestures.
That last sentence is particularly intriguing. One might quibble with Catholicism being described as a “fundamentally symbolic religion,” but there’s no doubt as to the importance of the little things that make up our identity as Catholics. This paragraph further along in the article explains why this is all so important.
Sociologists such as Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, who study the behavior of “religious economies,” have observed that churches tend to lose vigor when they relax demands on adherents, especially those tenets and practices that cut against the grain of wider society. In economic terms, lowering the “costs” of membership in this way ends up diminishing its benefits, among other ways by loosening the bonds of community.
This is what bothers me with the Novus Ordo. The first time I ever attended a non-Catholic Christian service (In this case Presbyterian) it felt hardly distinguishable from a Catholic Mass, although the small cups of grape juice being passed around at Communion did seem odd to me. That’s because I had only ever attended a Novus Ordo Mass. One of the many great things about the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is how markedly different it is from other Christian worship services. Sure the essential elements bear strong resemblances to one another, but no one would ever walk into the middle of an traditional Latin Mass and think they were in a Lutheran church.
At any rate, I applaud the Bishops for attempting to restore this valuable tradition. For a few years I’ve made a concerted effort to go meatless on Fridays year-round, though I confess to being not quite 100% successful in this endeavor. It is certainly something worth pursuing.
H/t: Rich Leonardi.