A reader writes:
Jimmy, what is the best way to explain to a fallen away Catholic who is troubled about why it is O.K. to now eat meat on Fridays when years ago you would go to hell for eating meat on Fridays.
I would point out several things:
- Human law often interacts with divine law in a particular way whereby human law specifies particular actions that will help accomplish the goals laid out in divine law.
- For example, divine law would require that, under normal circumstances, we behave in a way that we are not a danger to ourselves or others. This requirement applies across the situations we encounter in life, including driving an automobile.
- To facilitate the goal of driving in a safe manner (as required by divine law), human law creates certain mandates to facilitate this goal, such as having everybody drive on the same side of the road.
- Which side of the road it is varies from country to country. It doesn't matter which side is picked (in America it's the right side; in the UK, it's the left side) as long as everybody drives on that side when they are in that country.
- If a country wanted, it could change which side of the road people drive on, say from the left to the right. Before the change it would be a sin to drive on the right side of the road because it would be dangerous in the extreme to do so, but after the change it would be a sin not to drive on the right side of the road.
- Something similar to this applies to the case of penance. The Church teaches that all of the faithful are obligated--and gravely obligated--to do penance for their sins by divine law.
- It therefore has established certain specific requirements to help people fulfill divin law in this regard. These include the practice of fast and abstinence on various days of the year.
- That one is fasting or abstaining on any particular day is not of itself important, the same way that driving on a particular side of the road is not of itself important. What is important is that the community is organized in such a way that the larger goals of divine law (behaving in a safe manner, doing penance for sins) are facilitated.
- With changes of time and culture, the Church has recognized the need to adapt its penitential practice to varying needs. When everyone in Europe was Catholic and shared similar diets and economic conditions, having a law like mandatory Friday abstinence for everyone made more sense.
- But today the Church includes people on every continent, who live in different cultures, with different diets and economic conditions.
- As a result, the Church has allowed the bishops' conferences to make their own best judgment about how the Church's pentitential practice should be applied in their country. If the bishops' conference feels that a variance from the universal norm is warranted for their people, they can request a variance from the Vatican.
- The universal norm is still that Catholics are to abstain from meat on Fridays (all Fridays of the year), but the American bishops' conference judged that a more restricted program of abstinence (only Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, the the Fridays of Lent) would work best for Catholics here in America. They requested a variance from the universal norm and the Vatican granted it. Thus here in America there are a smaller number of days on which abstinence is required.
- The situation with regard to abstinence is thus similar to the situation with driving laws. It doesn't matter of itself which days you do penance on or which side of the road you drive on. The important thing is that you obey the laws of the land that you are in.
- If the law says to abstain from meat on some days and not others, that's what you are obliged to do. If the law says to drive on one side of the road and not the other, that's what you are obliged to do. It is a sin to violate those requirements.
- If the law changes then your obligations change. But to knowingly and deliberately violate the law when it is in force is, by definition, a transgression.
- A Catholic who knowingly and deliberately ate meat on a normal Friday before the law changed in the U.S. and who didn't have an excusing cause was knowingly and deliberately spitting on the requirement to do penance in the way the Church required and thus on the authority that Jesus gave the Church (the Church having been given the power to bind and loose by Christ himself). A person who eats meat on a normal Friday after the law changed is not doing this.
- In the first case, a person is defying not only the obligation to do penance but also the authority of Jesus Christ himself as exercised through his Church. In the second case, a person is complying with the obligation to do penance (assuming he does penance when he is required to do so) and with the authority of Jesus Christ.
- The change of circumstances totally changes the moral character of the act. While it's physical character (the eating of meat) may be the same, its moral character (defying one's grave obligations) is totally different.
- In the same way, a person in the US who drove on the left side of the road at a time this was illegal would be gravely defying his obligations (to drive safely and to obey the law of the land), but if the law changed then though the physical character of his act (driving on the left) would be the same, the moral character of it would be completely different.
Hope this helps!