In a Nutshell
- Over 70% of U.S. bishops are allowing Catholics to eat meat on Friday, March 17, even though it’s a Friday during Lent.
- Many bishops issuing dispensations cite Irish cultural customs celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
- Some say the Church should hold the line on the rules of Lent.
- About 92% of bishops have announced what they plan to do.
More than 70% of U.S. diocesan bishops are allowing Catholics to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day this year, even though it’s a Friday during Lent.
With a week to go, 125 of the 176 dioceses in the country are providing a dispensation from the ordinary rules of Lent or a commutation offering Catholics another option to make up for celebrating the occasion by eating the flesh of a warm-blooded animal.
Of those saying some form of Yes, 91 are providing a dispensation with no strings attached — although many of those bishops suggest extra prayers or spiritual exercises or abstaining from meat on another day. Thirty-four require a substitute, such as attending Mass on St. Patrick’s Day, saying the “Breastplate of St. Patrick,” praying the Rosary, abstaining another day, or helping the poor.
Thirty-seven have said No to a general dispensation or commutation for all Catholics in the diocese (although many of those grant individual dispensations upon request).
As of Friday, March 10, only 14 dioceses hadn’t announced what they plan to do. That means 92% have.
The Register began surveying every diocese in the United States in late February.
A story published March 3 in the Register describes the history of St. Patrick’s Day dispensations and reported on the then-current state of them this year. Since then, the Register has continued to track dioceses on this issue.
Of the 176 dioceses in the United States, the percentages are 71% granting relief for St. Patrick’s Day (of which about 52% are a straight dispensation and 19% a commutation with conditions); 2% No; and about 8% with no announcement yet.
The last time St. Patrick’s Day was on a Friday, in 2017, some bishops waited until a day or two before the day to announce a dispensation.
St. Patrick’s Day, which commemorates the death of the fifth-century missionary bishop to Ireland, always occurs during Lent; so periodically it falls on a Friday during Lent, which leads to a clash between long-standing Catholic penitential practices and long-standing celebrations of the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland, Nigeria and many dioceses in the United States.
The Roman Catholic Church requires abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday — and also on most Fridays of the year unless a country’s bishops conference changes the requirement there. In 1966, what was then known in the United States as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reduced the abstinence-from-meat requirement from all Fridays of the year to just Fridays during Lent (along with Ash Wednesday and Good Friday).
Even then, under canon law, a diocesan bishop “is able to dispense the faithful” from such disciplinary rules, and therefore has the ability to lift the requirement to abstain from meat on St. Patrick’s Day if it falls on a Friday.
Supporters of granting dispensations say it’s appropriate given the unparalleled attachment people with Irish heritage have to St. Patrick and the long-standing custom in this country of celebrating his feast day with meat, particularly corned beef.
“As an Irishman and as bishop, I am aware that many of the faithful celebrate this day,” said Bishop Francis Malone, a Philadelphia native, in announcing a dispensation for the Diocese of Shreveport in northern Louisiana on Wednesday, March 8. Bishop Malone is recommending (but not requiring) that Catholics in his diocese find another day “in which to substitute the required abstinence.”
In northern Michigan, Bishop Jeffrey Walsh announced Thursday, March 9, a conditional dispensation in the Diocese of Gaylord “for the spiritual good of the faithful who celebrate this feast,” noting that it “is celebrated in a culturally significant way” by many in his diocese. He is requiring “suitable penance” on Thursday, March 16, or Saturday, March 18, for partakers of the dispensation “to express their penitential solidarity with the Catholic community.”
Opponents of the dispensations say Lent ought to be observed as is, and some note that the Church’s once-far-reaching rules requiring fasting and abstaining from certain foods are now down to just eight — Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of required partial fasting and of abstaining from meat; and the six Fridays of Lent are days of abstaining from meat.
The St. Patrick’s Day question — which comes up usually every five, six or 11 years, because of oddities in the calendar — causes disagreement and uncertainty among some Catholics and their leaders.
A handful of bishops have changed their minds during the past week or so, deciding to issue a dispensation after initially not planning to do so. One example is Bishop Brendan Cahill, who decided late this week to offer a dispensation for the Diocese of Victoria in southeast Texas in solidarity with neighboring diocesan bishops, and particularly with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, a spokesman told the Register.
Nor are bishops always consistent about it. Among the Nos this year is Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, who said Yes in 2017.
In early March 2017, Cardinal Cupich announced that Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago could licitly eat meat on Friday, March 17, that year if they substituted another form of penance.
But earlier this week, on Tuesday, March 7, the archdiocese announced Cardinal Cupich will not grant a general dispensation this year, saying that “it is important to take seriously the obligation to observe Fridays in Lent as a way of uniting ourselves to Jesus who died on Good Friday. That should not be undervalued as we reflect on his sacrifice on the Cross for the salvation of the world in this holy season.”
The Register contacted a spokesman for Cardinal Cupich to ask about the cardinal’s change in thinking, but did not hear back by deadline.
The next year St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday is 2028.
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