Sunday, November 18, 2012

Meatless Monday or Fish on Friday?

As part of the Year of Faith, the New Evangelization, etc., Cardinal Dolan has asked his fellow bishops to consider re-introducing Friday abstinence:
The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.
He put this forward at the recent November meeting of the USCCB, as part of a push for to encourage more frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance (more on that in a future post).

I like the notion of retrieving the Friday fast -- abstaining from eating meat as an invitation to step away from our appetites and turn toward Christ. It is true that our sinfulness has many dimensions and thus our focus could just as well take the form of a fast from social media, or unequal financial dealings, or the consumption of overpriced coffee.  Yet, there is something very pointed in the call to mark, concretely, that the plentiful food surrounding me is denied to much of the world, the poor in whom we are to see the face of Christ.

Moreover, for those of us who "live in the land of overthink," such a fast is immediate and personal and bodily.  It's a pretty simple metric, a fairly straightforward way of reminding me how satiety can blind me to my real hunger.

But there's probably more to this. In a radio interview shortly thereafter, Cardinal Dolan mentions the 2011 move by the English bishops to re-introduce abstinence from meat on Fridays as the most immediate spur for this.  That may be true, bishops know what other bishops are doing.

I suspect, however, that a more recent development is behind this move: however: the secular movement toward healthy eating known as "Meatless Mondays," which is gaining enough ground in the US to catch on officially in Los Angeles, among other places.

When I heard of this movement, my first thought was, "Hey, that's a Catholic thing." But Catholics abstain from meat on Friday as a penitential sign, one that draws us close to the crucified Christ in a recognition of the timeless sign of Good Friday.  It's about turning to God; it's not about my muffin top.

The "Meatless Monday" movement, on the other hand, steps away from the religious tie.  It's progressive, a good word on this blog, in that it advocates a health benefit for you that, writ large, will also promote the health of others and get us all thinking about sustainable eating.  These are fine things, but there are clearly different agendas at work here.

It's in this context that Friday abstinence takes on a new energy for Cardinal Dolan.  I suspect that the real push for Friday is also a strategic cultural push-back against the realization that a traditional Catholic practice -- widely recognized as "Catholic" -- is on the verge of being reclaimed (and secularized) by the progressive left. These kinds of calculations are, for Cardinal Dolan, very much in the forefront.

Indeed, Dolan is quite correct, in the radio interview, when he observes that "Religious communities have to have identifiable markers."  A big concern the Second Vatican Council addressed was the problem of practices ("identifiable markers") that had become lifeless and rote, broadly observed but lacking a strong basis in a mature faith.  Out of this concern, things like routine Friday abstinence, outside of Lent, fell by the wayside.But so did the sense of a visible Catholic community, as a clearly identifiable social group.  This is a loss, I think many will agree.  But how to re-engage this is the question of the hour:  by the re-inscribing of a tribal fiat?  Or by a retrieval of Catholic faith and practice that is deeply engaged with our own day? 

If the agenda is tribal ("I'm Catholic and I VOTE"), that's a loss. If the first movement in its promotion by the bishops is to offer legislation making the provision of fish sticks in public school lunches a religious liberty issue, it will be a disaster. (But mark my words...)

Catholics could, however, notice what's happening and, nevertheless, choose to name something deep about their bodies and the Body of Christ by the renewed observation of Friday abstinence, as a not-so-public yet still recognizable sign of our common catholicity -- and our common sinfulness. 

So I will cheer this and I encourage you to take it to heart as well.  But don't underestimate the reactionary impulse.  Googling around, I found reference to the restoration of Friday abstinence in England and Wales in 2011...after Meatless Monday had become a significant cultural movement in Britain.  Ah.