For those who avoid meat anyway, is there another Lenten Friday penance?

Q: Now that we are in Lent, most Catholics I know are doing "fish on Fridays" to conform to the fasting and abstinence requirement. But if I typically avoid meat or eat fish most days anyway, should I do something different for Lent, or just stay the same? I've heard some Catholics give up chocolate or sodas for Lent, and a priest recently told me I could even set aside a little extra time each Friday for private prayer and meditation. Could you comment? (Indiana)

A: The short answer is no: During Lent, a Catholic cannot substitute another form of penance for Friday abstinence from meat.

Canon 1251 of the Code of Canon Law tells us: "Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday."

In some countries, such as England and Wales in the United Kingdom, Catholics are required to refrain from consuming meat every Friday year-round. In the United States specifically, our local Episcopal Conference (the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) issued a "Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence" in 1966. This document gives Catholics the option to substitute some other form of penance -- such as giving up some other food or taking on additional prayer time -- for the canonically required abstinence from meat on Fridays outside of Lent, in accord with their own personal discernment.

The 1966 "Pastoral Statement" shares some of your reasoning when it notes that: "Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace. Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential."

However, the "Pastoral Statement" still requires American Catholics to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays. As the document states: "in keeping with the letter and spirit" of "Paenitemini," the apostolic constitution by Pope Paul VI, "we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice."

Part of the value of this mandatory Lenten Friday abstinence for all Catholics, even those Catholics who wouldn't normally be craving a meat-based meal, is not only the subjective sense of doing penance but also the solidarity and witness-value of a communal penitential practice. When we abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent, we are practicing a penance alongside our brothers and sisters in the church around the world. On those occasions when we may need to visibly refuse meat or otherwise choose a fish or vegetarian option on a Friday, we are also demonstrating the importance of our faith to each other and to non-Catholics.

This all being said, if you personally feel that Friday abstinence during Lent is not enough of a sacrifice to be spiritually beneficial for you, you are certainly free to incorporate another penitential practice in addition to abstinence on Fridays.

And while the only strictly binding Lenten obligations for Catholics are abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Fridays, and to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, it is customary, albeit not required, for Catholics to choose some additional spiritual practice for Lent at their own discretion. Traditionally, we speak of Lent as a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, so any penance falling generally into one of these categories would be appropriate.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.