Friday Abstinence and Mortal Sin

On May 14th 2011 the Bishops of England and Wales announced that they were re-establishing the requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays, effective 16th September 2011. As indicated below, this means that it is now a sin, and sometimes even a mortal sin, to eat meat on Fridays. As our then Bishop, +Christopher Budd, explained in his Ad clerum of July 2011, this is now a matter of “precept”, i.e. a legally established moral obligation.

This webpage will focus on the question of sinfulness, a matter that has been less noted in recent discussions. A more general comment on the topic of Friday abstinence is viewable on this website here; a post on what exactly does and does not constitute ‘meat’ here; and on how a parish priest can dispense someone from the law here. There is similarly a useful post at Fr John Boyle’s blog here and at CUF here (though the CUF post concerns the American context where Friday abstinence is recommended but not obligatory). There are also some Lenten comments on the benefits of 'giving things up' on Fr Dylan's sermon website here, here, here, here and here.

Local Variation

The Church law concerning abstinence from meat on Fridays is a matter that can be determined locally by each national Bishops’ Conference for the Catholics of that region: Post-Vatican II, canons 1251 and 1253 gives each Bishops’ Conference the authority to substitute the universal law of Friday abstinence from meat with another local practice for the Catholics of that region. In 1985 the bishops of England and Wales (along with a number of other countries) determined that each person was to be allowed to decide for themselves which particular Friday penance they wished to perform, and this determination held until the present change:

At the May 2011 meeting of the Bishops' Conference the bishops made a series of resolutions including one that re-established that the canonical Friday penance is to be fulfilled by abstinence from meat: “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 resolution returns Catholics in our countries to the universal practice envisaged as normative in canon law. To consider the sinfulness of failing to observe Friday abstinence it is thus necessary to look at the universal law, a law which many of us are no longer familiar with because it has not been in force in England and Wales in recent years.

But what of mortal sin?

Before considering mortal sin with respect to Friday abstinence it’s important to briefly recall what holds for any mortal sin: For a sin to be sufficiently serious that it is ‘mortal’ there are three conditions that must hold: the matter itself must be grave (i.e. when considered in the abstract, apart from the person acting, the thing itself being done must be serious), the person acting needs to fully know what he or she is doing, and the person acting needs to give deliberate consent to what they are doing (CCC 1857). When sins are referred to in the abstract as ‘mortal’ it is always the matter of the sin that is being discussed.

Friday Abstinence and Grave Matter

In our modern society, and in the contemporary Church, the notion of penance has almost entirely faded from the popular consciousness. As a consequence, it is difficult for us to appreciate just how gravely important the pre-modern Christian Tradition considered penance to be. Yet, even a casual reading of saints and pre-modern scholars indicates a different set of priorities, and the pre-Conciliar teaching that breaking the law of Friday abstinence was 'grave matter' for mortal sin is something that can be found in any of the older Manuals of moral theology: The Manualists argued that the seriousness of the Christian obligation to do penance, combined with its specification by Church law, means that this is a matter of mortal sin. This said, they also argued that the matter of this sin is such that the quantity of meat eaten and the frequency with this is done would affect whether the sin concerned was a matter of venial sin or mortal sin. To consider another example, the sin of theft is also a mortal sin and one that similarly admits of what is called ‘parvity of matter’, i.e. if you are only stealing something small like a grape then the matter is not substantial enough for it to be the grave matter that constitutes a mortal sin. Concerning Friday abstinence, however, there was no consensus among the Manualists as to how much meat, or with what frequency, constituted 'grave matter' for mortal sin.

Post-Vatican II Reaffirmation

In the post-Conciliar period, the 1966 constitution Paenitemini (III.II.1) of Pope Paul VI re-affirmed that failure to make "substantial observance" of the law of Friday abstinence is grave matter, i.e. constitutes a mortal sin. Clarification was then sought in a dubium as to the meaning of “substantial”, resulting in a decree from the Sacred Congregation of the Council in 1967. The clarification interpreted “substantial” in such a manner that indicated that it was not just a matter of how much meat was eaten, or on how many days, but also a matter of such things as the differing significance of different days of penance, for example, eating meat on Good Friday would be more serious than eating meat on a regular Friday. The clarification stated that "one sins gravely against the law, who, without an excusable cause, omits a notable part, quantitative or qualitative, of the penitential observance which is prescribed as a whole” (24 February 1967; reprinted in Canon Law Digest, vol 6, pp.684-85). The Latin text of this dubium can read here and an analysis in Canon Law Abstracts here. It might be noted that the Council's response does not give a precise answer to the question of ‘how much’ constitutes grave matter but it would seem to exclude a single Friday constituting a mortal sin, and also, by referring to a spectrum of quantity and quality, helpfully re-affirms the appropriateness of considering the above-mentioned principle of ‘parvity of matter’ to be relevant to Friday abstinence.

Can the Church ‘create’ sins to impose on us?

Before concluding, some comment needs to be made about the ability of the Church to create a law that binds us under pain of sin. Many people can accept the notion that the Church makes laws to regulate Church life, just as any society or club makes laws that govern its members. But does the Church really have the authority to ‘make’ a sin by establishing a law that it imposes on us? In short, yes, and this is what we see if we look back at the history and origins of the Church. In general, we can observe a pattern that holds for any Church precept: Divine Revelation gives us a general law that is made particular and concrete by a specific Church law in a particular time and place. Concerning fasting and abstinence, Divine law establishes the general precept that we need to do penance, a general precept this has been specified by particular Church precepts in varied ways through the Church’s history. The earliest post-Biblical record of the Church’s life is found in the late 1st century-early 2nd century document The Didache (‘The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’) and it records how the Church imposed on the early Christians the obligation to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. What this manifests is the fact that the early Church understood itself to have received from Christ the authority to command like this. As the Lord Jesus said to St Peter and the Apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”(Mt 16:19; 18:18), and, “He who hears you hears me; he who rejects you rejects me”(Lk 10:16). This ‘binding’ is imposed on us to lead us to salvation because we need concrete laws to guide us.

And so it that today the Catechism gives clear expression to the traditional “five precepts of the Church”, of which the fourth of these is, "You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church (CCC 2043)”.

Summary of the Law

To conclude, the following summarises the re-established law as in now stands in England and Wales: "The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat [i.e. mammals and birds], but eggs, milk products, and condiments [i.e. seasonings] made from animals fat may be eaten. Fish [including shell fish] and all cold blooded animal may be eaten, e.g. frogs, clams, turtles, [snails] etc" (Paenitemini III.III.1 (1966)). Unlike the pre-1966 legislation, meat-derived products and meat broth may be eaten –though a meat soup with large chunks of meat would seem to move from the category of broth to that of meat. The law of Friday abstinence from meat binds all those who are age 14 and older (Canon 1252) -unlike the law of fasting there is no upper age limit when the law of abstinence ceases to apply. The law of abstinence does not apply when a Solemnity falls on a Friday (canon 1251). "In individual cases, for a just reason", a parish priest can dispense one of his parishioners from the Friday abstinence (canon 1245).

In summary, eating meat on Friday is a sin (excluding Solemnities or serious grounds for exception such as illness), but whether it is a mortal sin or a venial one will depend on many factors, including the quantity of meat, the number of Fridays in question, and the significance of the particular Fridays in question.


Concerning the present legal situation:

“The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of "Grande Quaresima" (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely.” (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini (1966), III.II.1).

A 1967 decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council interpreted the above cited statement of Pope Paul VI saying that the 'grave' obligation applies to "the whole complexus of penitential days to be observed . . . that is, one sins gravely against the law, who, without an excusable cause, omits a notable part, quantitative or qualitative, of the penitential observance which is prescribed as a whole" (24 February 1967; reprinted in Canon Law Digest, vol 6, pp.684-85). This decree is published in full here, with a canonical analysis in Canon Law Abstracts here.

Concerning the analysis in the pre-conciliar manuals:

“This precept binds under pain of grave sin, but a violation of it would not be a mortal sin unless an appreciable quantity of unlawful food were taken. Theologians are not agreed on what quantity is necessary to constitute grave matter, but, in the opinion of some, two ounces would be necessary and sufficient.” (Thomas Slater, A Manual of Moral Theology, Vol. 1, 4th edition (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1918), p.572.

“This law binds per se under pain of mortal sin because its matter is objectively important; but it admits of parvitas materiae.” (Antony Koch, A Handbook of Moral Theology, Vol. IV, 3rd ed, edited by Arthur Preuss (London: B. Herder, 1928), p.377).

“The laws of fasting and abstinence in themselves obliged gravely. Slight violations of them are only venial sins.” (Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, 15th edition, trans. Urban Adleman (Cork, Ireland: Percier Press, 1956), p.264).

“The obligation to abstain binds under pain of grievous sin but it admits of slight matter –equal to the size of a walnut = about four grammes.” (Dominic Prummer, Handbook of Moral Theology (Cork: Mercier Press, 1956), p.227)

“The violation of the law is in itself a grave sin...” (Henry Davis, SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology Vol 2, Heythrop Series II, 4th edition (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945), p.437)