Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: Problems in the Catholic Church? Let them not eat fish!

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at, or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ The decision of the American Catholic bishops to study the reimposition of the Friday abstinence rule _ a.k.a.”meatless Fridays”_ proves once again that when an institution is in trouble its leaders do not do good things but rather do the things they do well.

Bereft of credibility, the bishops make a new rule, create a new sin. Why they think people will pay any attention to them about this new sin when they pay no attention to them about old sins, does not seem to enter their heads.

The original 1966 decision to repeal the meatless-Friday rule was not a very swift idea. It made about as much sense as throwing St. Christopher and St. Patrick out of the calendar. However, what’s done is done. To try to restore it now is like locking the proverbial barn door after the stallion has run off.

The bishops are studying whether to urge people to go meatless on Fridays voluntarily and not under pain of sin, or to proclaim it a grave sin once again to eat meat on Friday. If they take the former course, nothing is changed and no one will listen. If they take the latter course, it is not clear that many more will listen.

If you ignore the teachings of bishops on birth control and premarital sex (as do 90 percent of American Catholics), and on in-vitro and in utero fertilization (as 80 percent do), then why would you be any more likely to think that you will go to hell because you eat a hamburger on Friday?

Suppose they compromise and say that eating meat on Friday is only a venial sin. How many more votes will that win them?

The reason for the possible rule change, we are told, is that Catholic lay people need to do penance. How, one might ask, do the bishops know this?

Have they talked to any lay people about the subject of penance? Or any of the parish clergy?

Rather they have made up their mind on this subject in the ethereal world in which they live. Just possibly if they consulted the laity and the clergy they might find wide support for a voluntary pledge to abstain on Friday.

But consult? What’s the point of being a bishop if you have to consult? If they are in the business of imposing penance on the laity, why not repeal the rest of the liberalizing changes associated one way or another with the Second Vatican Council?

They might reimpose excommunication for divorced Catholics who remarry. They might abrogate the American annulment norms. Both these changes would impose powerful penance, but only on a relatively small number of people.

Hence, if they want to do something really sweeping, they might abolish all the liturgical reforms. Turn the altar back to its former position so the priest would no longer face the people. Put the Mass back into Latin. Renew the Communion fast from midnight on. Abolish the Saturday evening Mass. Conservatives Catholics would like that.

While they’re at it, the bishops might renounce ecumenism, abolish religious freedom and repeal the document denouncing anti-Semitism.

Do I believe that many bishops want to undue the Second Vatican Council? It was a lot easier and a lot more fun to be a bishop in the good old days. I don’t doubt that some of them would be delighted if the clock could be turned back 35 years.

Most, however, as much as they may not like the present situation of lay and clerical freedom in the church, know that it would be unwise to tamper with reforms.

The meatless-Friday proposal rests on a dangerous assumption: namely, that lay people and lower clergy care what bishops say. In fact, the hierarchy has lost almost all its credibility.

So I have a proposal for the leaders of the American church: I’ll vote for meatless Fridays as a penance for the laity if you vote for your own penance _ a serious investigation of why no one listens to you any more.