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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Abstinence and the Spirit of the Law

By February 22, 2008

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A reader writes:

I know I am absolutely right on this but need someone else to confirm it to my mother. Last Friday we went out to dinner (during Lent). She ordered the mushroom soup and I told her she could not have it because it is made from beef broth. She insisted that things made from a meat broth do not count as eating meat. She swears that she was told this as a child. Please confirm for me that this is defeating the spirit of the law!

Every Lent, this debate rages. In its own way, the debate confirms what my pastor says about how our desire for a hamburger or a steak is never greater than on a Friday during Lent. There are seven Fridays during Lent, and Ash Wednesday makes eight days total that we are obliged to abstain from meat--for the entire year (assuming that you substitute some form of penance other than abstaining from meat on the remaining Fridays of the year).

Even setting aside our Lenten obligation, most of us, I suspect, have had at least eight days out of the past year in which we didn't have any meat, for one reason or another. The Lenten abstinence, however, makes something that we may not even have thought about on those other days loom large.

The current law on abstinence, promulgated in 1966, is ambiguous, simply specifying abstinence from "meat." The 1917 Code of Canon Law, however, stated specifically that "The law of abstinence prohibits meat and soups made from meat . . . " The 1966 rule supersedes the 1917 one.

Jimmy Akin, a noted Catholic apologist, has made a compelling case that this means that soups or broths made from meat are no longer forbidden. Even if that wasn't the intention of the change in 1966, the fact that the current law is ambiguous means that Catholics aren't bound to observe the stricter interpretation, though they certainly can, and it's probably a good thing to do.

So, if Mr. Akin is right, your mother is correct. On the other hand, your point about the spirit of the law is a good one. We may not be obliged to remove meat broth from our diet on days of abstinence, but unless we're under a doctor's orders to consume it (or we're in a position where it is the only thing that we're able to consume), there's no particular reason we can't avoid it.

Except, of course, that it seems so desirable precisely because we can't have meat.

You can learn more about Lenten abstinence and the reasons behind it in "Abstinence as Spiritual Discipline." And for ideas for meatless Fridays check out Lenten Recipes: Meatless Recipes for Lent and Throughout the Year.

If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail at catholicism.guide@about.com. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

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February 29, 2008 at 3:10 pm
(1) Mary Anne Richert says:

Today is Friday again and people are heading to all you can eat fish fries, many sponsored by churches and other Catholic oranizations. Others are headng to Red Lobster or the like which serve many seafood delicacies.. What kind of a lenten sacrifice is this and how does it compare to a bowl of soup with a few spoonsful of broth in it.

February 27, 2009 at 12:04 pm
(2) DU says:

As a new Catholic convert, this is my opinion: You can have all the rules and laws you want, but unless you obey them in the spirit in which they are meant to be observed, they are meaningless. People get “hung up” on “rules” and they miss the meaning of what is going on. Relax – I do not think God will stop your mother from going to heaven because of some broth. Anyway, her religion and beliefs are HER business. As for me, no beef or beef broth on any Friday. Love God and the rest will fall into place.

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