You may have heard that the Bishops' Conference in Britain and Wales has brought back the obligation of Catholics abstaining from eating meat on Friday; or, as they more accurately put it, "to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance...[and to]...re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat." Because, of course, the requirement of Friday penance was never actually revoked.
Along with many more traditionally-minded Catholics, I would very much be in favour of re-introducing meatless Fridays for Catholics in Ireland. I have observed it myself, with occasional exceptions, for the last year and more.
Nothing seems to provoke the ridicule of the secular world more than this practice. I seem to remember an episode of Father Ted where Father Dougal wonders aloud what happened to all the people who ate meat on Fridays, now that the requirement has been revoked. Do they get out of hell? There seems to be some vague idea that Catholics view meat as something intrinsically sinful, or fish as something intrinsically virtuous, or that Catholic priests are akin to tribal witchdoctors who attempt to sway their gods with various arbtirary chants or dances or rites.
Of course, the practice is in fact a lot more human than supernatural. It is entirely human to make some small sacrifice or gesture in order to demonstrate loyalty or solidarity. A few weeks ago I saw a young man at a bus-stop wearing a scarlet A badge, which is an atheist symbol modelled on the scarlet letter worn by the adulteress in the Nathanial Hawthorne novel. If even atheists, who usually affirm a loyalty to scientific rationalism (although...should science really need us to believe in it or be loyal to it?), have recourse to such symbols, what is so strange about it?
We wear t-shirts proclaiming our favourite bands and movies. We display bumper stickers or even registration plates announcing our belief in some cause or another. We even make a statement when we name our pets or our houses. If our faith is the most important fact about us, as it should be, than it should seep into these symbolic acts of everyday life.
But it goes deeper than that. It is a part of human nature that small commitments often encourage greater commitments. This phenomenon is used by new religious movements (I am not so politically incorrect as to call them cults) and by charities (sometimes rather cult-ish themselves). They will offer a free badge or sticker or flower to passers-by, and then later on, hit those displaying it with a request for donations. On the logic of "in for a penny, in for a pound", more people will comply if they have accepted the freebie.
Making a little gesture every Friday, no matter what else is going on in our lives, is a constant reminder of the most important commitment we have.
Christ warned us against ritualism, but was himself scrupulous in observing the requirements of the Law. The Jews of Jesus's time were ensnared in legalism, and Christianity and Catholicism may often have veered in the same direction. I think that today we err in quite the opposite direction. The shadow of Luther still hangs over us, and even informs the religious sensibilities of Catholics; we tend to believe that religion is a matter of "inwardness", of states of mind and emotion, and we forget that it belongs just as much to the public world of behaviour and interaction; that it belongs to the everyday as much as visits to cathedrals when on holiday.
William Oddie, writing in the Catholic Herald, put it very well:
The point, of course, is not simply that we abstain from meat on Friday (if we do) as a personal devotion: it is that we once did it, and soon will once more, out of obedience to the authority of the Church: it was once, and, deo gratias, will be again, a constant reminder that once we have taken the initial choice of committing ourselves to being Catholics in the first place, we are under obedience; and that it is that obedience that holds us together as a people.