Who sets the rules on Lent?

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March 15 2006 6:41 PM

Thou Shalt Eat Corned Beef on Friday

Who sets the rules on Lent?

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The archbishop of Atlanta has agreed to fudge the rules for Lent this year so that members of the diocese may eat meat this Friday as part of their St. Patrick's Day celebrations. The Associated Press reports that at least a third of the country's dioceses have provided similar dispensations. Under normal circumstances, all U.S. Catholics over the age of 14 are expected to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent. Who decides these things?

Canonical law, with a little help from the bishops. The universal Church Code from 1917 prescribed abstinence from meat every Friday, plus Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday. (Children 7 and under were exempted.) Pope Paul VI updated this section of the rules in 1966 with the Poenitemini, a meditation on the principle of penance. He broadened the canon to allow Catholics to abstain from eating meat "or another food" on Fridays, but they still had to give up meat (and limit themselves to one full meal) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Poenitemini also upped the minimum age for people who had to abstain to 14 years, and decreed that you have to fast only if you're an adult under the age of 60.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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The Poenitemini left some details of abstinence and fasting to the bishops, and Americans wasted no time in issuing their own clarification of the law nine months later: According to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholics in the United States must also abstain from meat on all the Fridays during Lent.

Except for this week. The pope, bishops, and even parish priests can temporarily modify Church rules if they have a good reason. In general, it's easier to grant a dispensation for a local Church rule than it is for a universal one. That means the American bishops would be more likely to tweak their own rule about giving up meat on Fridays during Lent than they would to alter a universal rule, such as the minimum age for obligatory abstinence.

Bishops can change the rules for their whole dioceses, but parish priests can adjust them only on a case-by-case basis. If someone is particularly ill, for example, the parish priest might personally intervene to release him from his obligation to fast. Priests have given out these sorts of dispensations for the infirm for centuries. In Early Modern France, for example, the Church would set up "Lenten butcheries" at hospitals so that patients could have access to salubrious meat dinners while everyone else abstained.

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Explainer thanks Sister Rose McDermott of Catholic University and Sydney Watts of the University of Richmond.

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