Friday, February 15, 2013

Great Catholic Lenten Blog Fights: The Sunday Question

It was bound to happen, ladies and gentlemen.

The ability of lay Catholics, especially Internet lay Catholics, to pick fights about seemingly everything never ceases to amaze me, and this year, the great Lenten Blog fight theme is this one: is it really okay to take a break from your voluntary Lenten penances on Sunday, or isn't it?

In the "It's okay!" corner we have Simcha Fisher, who writes:
Get it? Because it's Lent, but it's also Valentine's Day!  Yes, yes, Valentine's Day is a made-up holiday, but it couldn't hurt to at least find out whether your beloved cares about it -- and if so, do something nice.

But  not too nice!  Because it's Lent!

Well, my husband and I are just gonna celebrate Valentine's Day on Sunday, because Sundayisn'treallypartofLent,there,Isaidit.  But if you gotta do something today, here are a few ideas for how to combine romance and suffering, sweetness and pain.
(Of course, the rest of her post is about how to celebrate Valentine's Day during Lent with just that right mixture of romantic sweetness and the reminder that we're all clinging with our fingernails on the edge of the chasm that leads to eternal damnation, and some of us have short fingernails--but that just makes the "Sunday isn't Lent" admission all the more stunning.)

Peter's confusion aside, I've been sorting through a Lenten quandary of my own. It must be about ten years ago when it was first suggested to me that on Sundays we get to enjoy whatever it is we gave up for Lent. At the time it seemed like a radical and exciting proposition: Candy during Lent. Amazing.

And over the last decade, the chorus of voices heralding fasting-free Sundays has only grown. It seems to have become the norm, such that if you even think about continuing your fast through the weekend you get a friendly reminder that "HEY IT'S SUNDAY WHICH IS A MINI-EASTER SO MAKE SURE YOU EAT THAT BROWNIE!!!"
I did a year or two of breaking my fast on Sundays and found it to be--how do you say--weak sauce.

It's simply not very hard to give something up if you still indulge in it on a weekly basis. Let's say, for example, that you're giving up ice cream for Lent. Are you really having ice cream more than once a week on a regular basis in Ordinary Time anyway? Not unless your goal is a diabetes diagnosis.

And so, I've placed myself pretty resolutely in the "Man-up-and-fast-on-Sundays" camp. When I debate this point, however, I'm usually told that Sundays are not part of Lent anyway, a contention proven by the fact that the number of days in Lent only equals 40 if you toss out the Lord's day. But if that were true, we wouldn't celebrate the "first Sunday of Lent." 
Now, I'm a cradle Catholic raised by two cradle Catholics who were themselves raised by cradle Catholics, et in saecula saeculorum.  And in our family we always, always, always considered Sundays a "day off" from Lent.  

In fact, given that our family has lots of Irish and French ancestry I suspect that the "Sundays aren't part of Lent" thing was originally invented by priests who recognized that asking either Frenchmen or Irishmen to give up, say, spirituous liquor for a whole 40 days without a break would simply have required the invention of modern psychiatry a whole heck of a lot earlier than it actually happened.  Permitting the flock to take a wee break from abstention was also probably better than having waves of the scrupulous flock to Confession the last chance before Easter to admit that they had inadvertently stirred some sugar into their coffee after Mass, or some such thing.  In other words, telling the faithful that it was okay to take a small break from voluntary penances was probably motivated by pastoral sensitivity.

But what about those required penances?  What about back in the good old Real True Catholic days when the Church made everybody fast all of Lent?

Here's where it gets interesting:  on this old blog post of mine you can see the rules for Lent given by Bishop Corrigan of New York in February of 1887.  If you enlarge the image from the old New York Times archives on that post, you will see that it is spelled out that fasting is required on all the "week days" of Lent (which included Saturday back then) and that abstinence is required on Fridays and a few other days (Ash Wednesday etc.).  But then it says quite clearly: "On Sundays there is neither fasting nor abstinence, but fish cannot be used with flesh meat at the same meal at any time in Lent."

So, apart from that interesting prohibition against surf 'n turf or the kind of hoity-toity dinner with a fish course during Lent that held true for Sundays as well as weekdays, the instruction is clear: there is no fasting or abstinence on Sundays.

It seems, therefore, that the pre-Vatican II Church didn't see easing the fasting requirement on Sunday to be "weak sauce" at all, but as something that would remind people of the special character of Sunday in the Christian week.  And that was back when the fasting was otherwise mandatory for many people (excluding the elderly, the infirm, those whose work was primarily physical, pregnant or nursing women, etc. who weren't bound at all by the law).

Now that Lenten fasting is, apart from Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, voluntary and can be done in ways other than limiting the meals, what should Catholics do about Sunday?

I would recommend the following:

1. If you are voluntarily adhering to the strict fast (e.g., one full meal, two smaller meals, nothing in between) daily, then you should probably think about taking a break from that on Sundays.  The Church herself didn't require it as far back as 1887, and I think the wording of Bishop Corrigan's announcement, that is, "On Sundays there is neither fasting nor abstinence..." comes out more like a command than a suggestion (though perhaps that's merely an interpretation of mine).  When we try to do more than the Church requires (unless we are acting under the direct supervision of a spiritual director or lawful religious superior in religious life) we often crash and burn.  If back in 1887 when people were used to fasting from midnight on before receiving Communion the bishop of New York was reminding people not to fast on Sundays, we might want to think that the Church had an inkling of the right idea about such things.
2. If your voluntary penances are other than the strict fast, then whether you continue them on Sunday or continue to give them up probably depends on what they are and what giving them up means to you.  Steve Karlen uses the example of someone giving up ice cream for Lent; if you eat ice cream daily as a meal substitute and give it up for Lent it would be different to have it on Sunday than the scenario Steve envisions, in which someone merely relocates their weekly dish of ice cream from, say, Thursday evenings to Sunday.  On the other hand, if you give up putting butter on things for Lent (as one of my children once did), it might be okay to put some on your Sunday toast (especially when every other day of the week you're eating your toast and sandwiches dry).

But here, too, common sense should apply.  If you give up watching TV during the week, it's sort of problematic to record everything you want to watch and go in for a marathon TV-watching session on Sundays; and if you find yourself staying up until midnight on Saturdays (when you normally wouldn't) just to crack into the tin of chocolate-chip cookies, it might be time to rethink things a bit.  This kind of rethinking applies to the "But Pop-tarts (tm) aren't dessert!" and the "I pledge not to eat between my normal six meals a day..." approaches to Lenten sacrifices as well.

3. Most important of all: eyes on your own plate/paper/sacrifices, with the minor exception for parents of minors who may need guidance at times.  If you and your family continue your voluntary penances on Sunday and someone else doesn't, smile, agree to do what works for your family, and keep going.  Nobody should be made to feel guilty about either eating or not eating that brownie on Sunday (well, except for me, because if it's chocolate it will trigger a migraine and I'll be in bed all day on Monday, so I can't eat them any day of the week, Lent or not, which is why I no longer give up chocolate for Lent because I can't have it anyway...see, this is what happens when I have to type the word "brownie").

I've got an idea.  How about we give up criticizing the perfectly lawful things other Catholics do during Lent for Lent?


vera said...

Dunno, Erin. We seem to be on the brink of an ecological catastrophe, and the banksters have taken over the world, and you worry about girls cussing, and Lenten Sunday fights?!

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, it's just my way of whistling past the graveyard, Vera. :)

vera said...


LarryD said...

Sounds like ol' Bishop Corrigan was a modernist...

How about we give up criticizing the perfectly lawful things other Catholics do during Lent for Lent?

Can we criticize them on Sundays then? :-)

Red Cardigan said...

Larry, it would be an act of heroic charity to avoid criticizing one's fellow Catholics on Sundays, and would remove a certain zest from coffee hour, too. But we should probably try to give it up. ;)

LarryD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Dunno, Erin. We seem to be on the brink of an ecological catastrophe, and the banksters have taken over the world, and you worry about girls cussing, and Lenten Sunday fights?!

The Giant Internet Hand of Spanking