My Friday Obligation

My Friday Obligation December 7, 2012

The best derogatory term for Catholics is pretty obviously “mackerel-snapper.”  (The best derogatory cartoon is the bishops’ mitres as alligator jaws one)

The slur comes from the Catholic practice of fasting from red meat and poultry on Fridays (and therefore eating fish instead).  In Catholic tradition, every Friday is a little Lent and every Sunday a little Easter, so there should be some remembrance of fasting and feasting as appropriate.  (I should add that every time I explain this, I immediately get “Every Day a Little Death” stuck in my head).

In the United States, Catholics aren’t required to fast from meat on Friday, but that’s not because the penitential requirement has been dispensed with.  Catholics are just free to choose their own practice according to their circumstances.  Unfortunately, this turns out to be a lot harder to remind people about or to do on your own.  For that reason, the bishops of England and Wales restored the meat-specific obligation last year, and the American bishops are perennially considering following suit.

But, even if they did, that doesn’t clear up what I should do, as I’m vegetarian (or, more specifically, a picky eater who dislikes meat among oh so many other foods).  And being a picky eater makes it hard to do a different food-related abstinence, since I don’t have that many categories I can drop and still reliably have something around to eat.

When I poked around for advice, I was told that it’s acceptable to take on an additional discipline instead of abstaining from something.  So, for a while, I made sure to say a rosary on Friday.  However, this turned out to mean that I ended up saying it only on Friday, and ended up feeling a little unbalanced contemplating only the Sorrowful Mysteries.

So, what I’ve hit on for now is spending some time each Friday reading Augustine.  After all, I picked him as my confirmation saint in part so I could come to know him better through his writings.  Today, I’m taking a look at the Rule of St. Augustine that was foundational for some monastic communities.  I won’t necessarily be blogging about all this reading, but I wanted to note it, since the Friday obligation can slip by unnoticed.

Plus, today is the feast day of St. Ambrose, the teacher of St. Augustine and the saint-name of my baptismal sponsor, so it seemed apropos.

As you instructed St. Augustine, so may I be instructed by your pupil’s writings.  Amen.

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  • A Philosopher

    Keep in mind that we’re all evolutionarily designed to give unduly high credence to things we’re told, so every time you read Augustine you should, in preparatory compensation, marginally drop your credence in the truth of Catholicism.

    (We’re also designed to agree with communities we participate in, so every time you attend Mass, you should also nudge your credence down a bit.)

    • Brian

      Where can I find this design? And what exactly do you mean by design, anyway? I am unknowingly following some kind of programming? How do you know that? And where can I find this program?

      • A Philosopher

        Excellent! It’s exactly this kind of pointless terminology chopping that’s the kind of thing Elliot is asking for below.

    • I’ll keep this principle in mind whenever I read essays on logic from now on.

      Also, what’s your preferred way of “dropping credence”? I like temporary asphyxia. It really takes the clarity out of one’s intuitions.

      • A Philosopher

        Just so long as it’s counterbalanced, of course, with the evidential force of the proofs.

        I’m a fan of Herman’s recent book, and hence not so big a fan of intuitions. But if, Mulder-style, you find that a little auto-erotic strangulation does the trick for you, I’ve no complaint.

        • But how is the evidential force of the proofs clear to me beyond the credence I’m inclined to give them?

          • A Philosopher

            By checking for truth-preserving inference rules? So long as evidential force isn’t just a response-dependent property, I don’t see why there should be a special problem here.

          • Don’t we end up in a nasty regress here? I mean, if you’re going to play the skeptic with respect to the effects one’s choice of reading material has on the perceived credibility of some set of propositions, and if we have to beware of the ways participating in a community shapes our tendency to believe, then shouldn’t we try to alienate ourselves from the prevailing logical norms about evidence and inference? If you have to mistrust yourself about Augustine, why not about Tarski, too?

          • A Philosopher

            (Does comment nesting give out for everyone else five levels deep, too? Annoying.)

            Looks like a regress, but not vicious. Yes, mistrust on Tarski as well as Augustine. And mistrust on me on mistrusting Tarski and Augustine. (But not as much, since you probably aren’t very well primed to believe me. The ‘net seems to be a great destroyer of the human tendency to trust.) But that doesn’t mean no evidential force for Tarski, or for Augustine. It just means it needs to be decremented a notch.

            And it’s not as if we need a priori to construct a theory of proper evidential force, and thus get regressed back in our considerations for that force (although, even then, I don’t think the regress would be vicious). It’s a Neurath’s raft situation – we discover in media res that we have certain erroneous credence-distributing propensities, so we cultivate habits of mind to adjust for them.

          • Hehe, ok I actually agree with this. Except I think it’s unrealistic to talk about decrementing credence. Credence depends on the perceived coherence of a thing and therefore on the set of other things to which it’s related/compared in the mind. In college, the claim “Everyone our age knows about xkcd” had a high degree of credence simply because of the population I was acquainted with and so on. You’re right. But my recognizing that there are prejudicial filters at work (that shape the connections I make and the objects included in the comparisons I use to check the credibility of a statement) does not mean that I can reasonably reduce the credence of everything impacted by those prejudices. If I see no reason to disbelieve or to be less clear about a particular matter, it doesn’t make sense to start doubting it, or to be less inclined to affirm it, simply because I’m familiar with it or immersed in a community that affirms it. The recognition of prejudicial filters does mean that I should be more attentive to my thought process, but it doesn’t seem to me that you can automatically translate this into a shift in credence. E.g. I realize that at the basis of my Catholic faith there is a positive will sustaining it. This means that I need to be careful to think things through so as not to fall into fideism or some other stupidity, but it doesn’t mean that I should immediately believe Catholicism less.

          • This goes back to Moore’s paradox, I think. I can see that there’s a good chance that some of my beliefs are wrong, but not be rationally compelled to disbelieve any of them.

          • Hmm, on second thought it’s more of a hermeneutical problem than a logical one. But I’ve commented enough.

      • R.C.

        Re: “Dropping Credence”:

        I think he meant abstaining from the music of Tom Fogerty, Doug Clifford, Stu Cook, and John Fogerty.

        For some people that qualifies as a penitential Friday abstinence. (For me, not so much, but to each his own.)

        • A Philosopher

          I’m willing to acknowledge rational disagreement with my claims about credences, but surely we can all agree that creedence should be decremented.

    • deiseach

      But if I am designed to give credence to things I am told, and the best way to overcome this is to consciously ignore or reduce my credulity, then – by the same logic – should I not ignore the advice you have just told me?

      • grok87

        good one! +!

      • A Philosopher

        Well, not ignore, but discount, yes. But less so, now that I’ve said that. (And a bit more so, now. Etc. Luckily, it’s a convergent series.)

        • R.C.

          It is disturbing to me to observe, in myself, how much fun I’m having following this discussion. Clearly there is something wrong about that.

    • Arizona Mike

      What is the evolutionary advantage in believing things we are told, A Philosopher?

      Is there a reason, based on evolutionary psychology, why we are “designed” to give greater credence to that which we are told, as opposed to, say, subtextual messages, or the internal evidence of that which we intuit through reason, or a reasoned apprehension that what someone is telling us is a lie?

      Are we “designed” by the Invisible Hand of Evolution to believe all things we are told, or just some things?

      Are our cognitive faculties “designed” by Evolution, and if so, does Evolution always, sometime, or never select for untrue beliefs?

      Is your claim based on evolutionary psychology falsifiable? If not, is there a particular reason we should give it credence…other than the fact that you told it to us?

      • A Philosopher

        OK, in order:
        (1) That the things we’re told are usually true.
        (2) No. (I’m not sure why you think these things need to be opposed.)
        (3) All.
        (4) Yes, and sometimes.
        (5) Yes.

        • jenesaispas

          How do we know that the things we’re told (that are new information) are usually true?

    • Mitchell Porter

      Are you saying there has been positive selection towards prosocial credence, or just that there has been insufficient selection in favor of skeptical thought, or what?

    • So you are admitting your mind is a flawed instrument for discerning truth. So you want to use your mind to correct the flaws of your mind? I don’t like your chances. Don’t you need something better than the human mind to correct the errors of the human mind? At the very least you need such a thing to have any confidence you error correcting has been done correctly.

      That is why you should give higher credence to Catholic tradition than you should to your own thinking. On one level it is a matter of many great minds correcting each other rather than just your own mind (which may or may not be great!). Beyond that you have the Holy Spirit promising to lead us into all truth. That is important because even large groups of great minds from different times and cultures won’t give you truth unless you discern correctly which ideas to embrace and which to discard. So we need God’s help and He gives it to us in the church.

      • A Philosopher

        Cool, it’s a transcendental disproof of ophthalmology.

        • Do you have a blog? I wouldn’t mind reading it.

        • In the physical world this problem is solvable. That is what the scientific method does. It creates something objective and trustworthy. But what do we have when we get away from the physical word? Preparatory compensation? Of course you want someone to do this when reading St Augustine because you don’t like him. It is much easier to do that then to actually interact with his arguments. It is a suggestion to fix reason by being unreasonable. Replacing it with bias and prejudice. But your prejudice, not mine.

          • A Philosopher

            You don’t like [Augustine]

            Or Tarski. I did try to make that clear above. That’s why I refuse to teach my students elimination of quantifier methods.

            Well, that and the fact that the proofs are so dreadfully boring.

          • When you are challenged you say so. But you are much more energetic about compensation with Augustine.

            But how does one do that? Reason has to be as straight as you can make it or it is not reason. As soon as you intentionally put your thumb on the scale you have left reason behind.

  • grok87

    Very apt prayer Leah.
    Office of Readings has a reading from Ambrose today. It may have even been written to Augustine (when Augustine became Bishop of Hippo perhaps?) I like the “water” imagery…

    Second reading
    From a letter by Saint Ambrose, bishop
    By the grace of your words win over your people

    “You have entered upon the office of bishop.

    He who reads much and understands much, receives his fill. He who is full, refreshes others. So Scripture says: If the clouds are full, they will pour rain upon the earth.

    Therefore, let your words be rivers, clean and limpid, so that in your exhortations you may charm the ears of your people. And by the grace of your words win them over to follow your leadership. Let your sermons be full of understanding. Solomon says: The weapons of the understanding are the lips of the wise; and in another place he says: Let your lips be bound with wisdom. That is, let the meaning of your words shine forth, let understanding blaze out. See that your addresses and expositions do not need to invoke the authority of others, but let your words be their own defense. Let no word escape your lips in vain or be uttered without depth of meaning.”


  • deiseach

    If you don’t have things you can fast from, maybe there are things you can fast with; to quote from Chesterton’s “Four Faultless Felons” about a modern ascetic:

    “But our friend is a Christian anchorite; and understands the advice, ‘When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.’ He is not seen of men to fast. On the contrary, he is seen of men to feast. Only, don’t you see, he has invented a new kind of fasting.”

    Mr. Pinion of the Comet suddenly laughed, a curt and startled laugh, for he was very quick and had already guessed the joke.

    “You don’t really mean–” he began.

    “Well, it’s quite simple, isn’t it?” replied his informant. “He feasts on all the most luxurious and expensive things that he doesn’t like. Especially on the things that he simply detests. Under that cover, nobody can possibly accuse him of virtue. He remains impenetrably protected behind a rampart of repulsive oysters and unwelcome aperitifs. In short, the hermit must now hide anywhere but in the hermitage. He generally hides in the latest luxurious gilded hotels, because that’s where they have the worst cooking.”

    “This is a very extraordinary tale,” said the American, arching his eyebrows.

    “You begin to see the idea?” said the other. “If he has twenty different hors-d’œuvres brought to him and takes the olives, who is to know that he hates olives? If he thoughtfully scans the whole wine-list and eventually selects a rather recondite Hock, who will guess that his whole soul rises in disgust at the very thought of Hock: and that he knows that’s the nastiest–even of Hocks? Whereas, if he were to demand dried peas or a mouldy crust at the Ritz, he would probably attract attention.”

    But taking on a new discipline is probably a better idea, anyway 🙂

    • Ohtobide

      Have you heard of Alfred Gilbey? He was the Roman Catholic chaplain to Cambridge University for more than thirty years. He was thrown out eventually because of his persistent refusal to allow women university students inside Fisher House, the chaplaincy building. (He probably thought they polluted the place.)

      He put your ideas, or Chesterton’s ideas, into practice. He would take his friends out to dinner at expensive restaurants and then order dishes that he knew would not be well cooked, as a form of mortification.

      I suppose all this makes sense to Catholics. To non-Catholics it is a source of great amusement. As one English writer put it: “Who needs a hair shirt when you can have a badly baked boeuf en croute instead?”

      • grok87

        apparently he wrote a book “We believe”- anybody read it?

    • R.C.

      The inescapable conclusion is that Friday is exactly the moment when Leah should order a lean steak and a side of bratwurst.

      Except that then she might be giving scandal to people who knew she was a Catholic. Ah, but that could still work, if scandal was something that Leah really disliked, if it was a real hairshirt to think of herself as giving scandal, then by doing so anyway and experiencing all the agitation thereof, she could get two penances for the price of one!

      That’s the trick: Don’t just fast by feasting; do penance by sinning.

      “‘Oh, that was easy,’ says man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed at the next zebra crossing.”

      • deiseach

        Nope, sorry, R.C. but that one is already c overed: we may not sin the more, that grace may be the more abounding, and we must consider the conscience of the ‘weaker brethren’.

        If it gives scandal, don’t do it. So if it really upset, inconvenienced or caused trouble for others, Leah could dispense herself of her Friday fast.

        Lewis has something about this in “The Screwtape Letters”, along the lines of we think the sin of gluttony only applies to big meals or expensive fancy foods, but it’s also possible to sin through excessive refinement: the person who says “All I want is…” (a small piece of dry toast, done to my perfect specifications, and I’ll go through half a loaf of bread and wreck the toaster to get it, or in the example he gives, a woman who orders a meal in a busy restaurant and when the over-worked waitress brings it to the table, gives a little shriek about how ‘that’s way too much, take half of it away’ and makes twice the trouble for everyone all in the name of ‘I only want just a little’.

      • Arizona Mike

        That’s the trick: Don’t just fast by feasting; do penance by sinning.[/1]

        The problem with thinking like that is you could wind up as a Khlysty.

    • Rachel K

      Deiseach, I had a similar thing a few years ago when I was pregnant during Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (and I’ll have it again this year when I’m breastfeeding). I was allowed to eat more than the one large meal and two small meals that everyone else could have, but I didn’t want to eat normal food because it just felt wrong to break into the trail mix between meals on Good Friday. So instead, I ate healthy foods that would nourish the baby, but that I didn’t like. I hate Swiss cheese; time for a grilled Swiss cheese sandwich. My crazy pregnancy hormones were making me loathe carrots, even though loved them when I wasn’t pregnant; time to chow down on a lot of carrots.

  • Arizona Mike

    I’ve always appreciated the fact that the word “Carnival” literally means, “Goodbye, meat” from the pre-Lenten last shot at red meat.

    I understand that the discipline was removed because for some cultures in the Universal Church, meat is already rare so it doesn’t constitute much of a sacrifice, and many cultures already eat fish as their primary source of protein. Vegans would presumably feel the same way.

    I suspect my discipline should be the forego the Internet on Fridays,

    • R.C.

      Re: “Forego the Internet on Fridays”:

      Ow. Now THAT would hurt. Don’t mistake masochism for penance. I recommend something a little more moderate to start with, like a cilice.

      • People underestimate how easy it is to go without the internet. It’s really liberating.

        • Arizona Mike

          True. There are times when I’m involved in all these Internet debates on various websites, and following news stories that raise my blood pressure on different news sites, and I step back and think, “Why am I bothering to do this?”

  • You could actually fast on Fridays instead. It doesn’t have to be Ash Wednesday, but if you are hungry for most of the day that would be far more than simply avoiding meat.

  • kbrill

    I’m glad I’m not the only new Catholic who tried saying a rosary for Friday discipline and then just ended up saying it on Fridays and feeling unbalanced for only contemplating the sorrowful mysteries… Another Friday discipline I tried was cleaning my room, because I hate it. If you’re a messy person like me, that might be a good one…

    • Iota

      AFAIK it isn’t necessary to pray the mysteries on particular days of the week. It’s a widespread custom, you could use one mystery a week (and, therefore, say the 4 in a month). It would be unconventional and excludes doing it in a community that runs on the weekly schedule, but why not?

      This indication is not intended to limit a rightful freedom in personal and community prayer, where account needs to be taken of spiritual and pastoral needs and of the occurrence of particular liturgical celebrations which might call for suitable adaptations. What is really important is that the Rosary should always be seen and experienced as a path of contemplation.
      Rosarium Virginis Mariae, near the end of section 38.

      • Irenist

        You could also try Joyful Mysteries during Advent, then Luminous for the subsequent short bit of Ordinary Time, then Sorrowful for Lent, Glorious from Easter-Pentecost, and then switch around weekly/daily/whatever for the longer stretch of Ordinary Time until the next Advent. Works for me.

      • Rachel K

        Iota, I had to start rotating. I only have time to pray the rosary on Tuesdays and Fridays (that’s when my mother-in-law babysits my son, so he isn’t constantly trying to get my attention while I pray), and of course, those are traditionally Sorrowful Mystery days. It worked well for me.

  • Niemand

    Is it still ok to eat capybaras on Friday? Or was that always an urban legend?

    • That was a thing. You could also eat barnacle geese (because they grow from barnacles) and beaver tails (not the lovely French Canadian pastries, but the rodent body parts). I don’t know if it’s still a thing, though.
      But there’s a practical point to the declaration that certain kinds of meat were not really meat: capybara made up an important part of indigenous diet. Denying people capybara during Lent would have killed them outright. So as much as there was a (deeply confused) taxonomical reason for declaring capybara a kind of fish, one of the major motivations was political and/or practical.

    • deiseach

      If the only foodstuff you can get your hands on is a capybara, you may have bigger worries than the Friday fast 🙂

  • TJosephS

    FYI: The Rosay by Fr Benedict J Groeschel CFR is available from Ignatius Press and explains all four rosaries including Pope John Paul’s letter on the Rosary. When done privately suitable adaptations according to spiritual and pastoral needs can be done.

    • This is a great meditation book. Full title is Rosary: Chain of Hope, and I just loooove it. Go get it. Mine’s all dog-eared now.

  • Hi Leah,

    Attaching below the document of the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales, where they reestablished the practice of not eating food on Fridays. For vegetarians not eating meat on Fridays is not fulfilling the penitential duty. You could abstain of some other food (as Bishops in England suggest below) or some other practice. Thinking about this it occurred to me that if I didn’t eat meat I would consider abstaining of watching movies on Friday.

    “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 is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.”