Make Catholicism Penitential Again

Repentance is not a sometime dimension of the Church’s message, occasionally trotted out at Lent and maybe in a raging pandemic. It is an essential, everyday message of the Church.

Jesus’ very first words in the Gospel of Mark are: “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand!” (1:15). While Matthew and Luke expand upon Jesus’ infancy, His baptism, and the temptations in the desert, they also begin with a repentance motif. After all, John the Baptist is introduced as Christ’s herald, preaching a baptism of repentance. And, after the events listed above, Jesus inaugurates His own public ministry with a call to repentance (Matthew 4:17) and a campaign against evil, characterized by healings and exorcisms. 

Repentance, then, is the very leitmotif of Jesus’ ministry. It is also the Church’s, for the Risen Christ commissions His Apostles to “preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins, beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-48; see also John 20:21-23).

I make these observations because of feedback from my recent Crisis article, “Restore Year-Round Friday Abstinence.” In it, I argued that the 1966 decision of the Catholic bishops of the United States to lift the requirement of Friday abstinence outside of Lent in favor of “do-it-yourself” (DIY) penance was flawed and should be reversed. I admitted that Catholics can voluntarily assume year-round Friday abstinence, but such an approach was flawed because it eviscerated the ecclesiological dimension of the act: Catholics are not just a pack of individuals who happen to come together under the same ecclesiastical roof, but rather a community characterized by a common ethos, discipline, and esprit de corps. The DIY nature of the bishops’ 1966 decision undermines that.

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Let me develop that point more broadly and generally.

As noted above, repentance is not a sometime dimension of the Church’s message, occasionally trotted out at Lent and maybe in a raging pandemic. It is an essential, everyday message of the Church because, as long as we are alive, we are in need of salvation, for which we work “in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) not because of God’s infidelity but our own inconstancy.  

If repentance is part of the Church’s essential, everyday message…well, it doesn’t look like it, especially compared to the past.

As the Friday abstinence article pointed out, traditional corporal penitential disciplines—fasting and abstinence—are minimal in the Roman Rite today. The Church designates two days out of 365 as fast days and seven as mandatory days of abstinence. That’s one-half of one percent of the days in the year on which fasting is required and not even two percent set aside for abstinence.

Compared to Christ’s message, those figures don’t seem to tally.

But it’s not just fasting and abstinence (though mandatory year-round Friday abstinence would bump the total up to about 15 percent of the year). The feedback from that article made me think of the many other ways communal disciplines of penance have been sidelined in the past sixty years. Friday abstinence, while perhaps the most prominent, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Every year I also get questions about whether Advent is a “penitential” season, and I must answer that, according to Canon Law, it technically isn’t. Canon 1250 says that “[t]he penitential days and times in the Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.” And we’ve already discussed what’s become of the communal penitential discipline of Fridays outside of Lent in the United States.

The very structure of Lent harkens to its penitential origins: 40 years in the desert by which Israel was tested in preparation of entering the Promised Land, 40 days of fasting by Our Lord in preparation for His public ministry. But the very structure of Advent, too, alludes to penitential origins: the four weeks of Advent symbolize the literal four thousand years according to biblical chronology from creation (and man’s quick fall) until the birth of Christ.  

Yes, medieval theologians debated whether Jesus would have become incarnate if man had not sinned, and there were those—like Duns Scotus—who said yes. But that question is, as they say, “academic.” Man did sin. He excluded himself from communion with God and, like every suicide—physical or spiritual—was incapable of restoring the spiritual life he had killed. So, in the real world in which every human being but Jesus and Mary live, the Incarnation was sine qua non to human redemption. In other words, absent Christ’s coming, man would be in his sins.  

That sounds like a need for repentance. So why is the penitential aspect of Advent muted?

Once upon a time, the Church regularly reminded Catholics of penance, the need for prayer, and the duty to help the needy through quarterly observance of Ember Days.  The Ember Days, which included fasting and abstinence, fell on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Ash Wednesday, Trinity Sunday, September 14 (the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross), and December 13. They systematically recalled the need for penance and reinforced human connections with the cycle of nature and the year. With the reform of the Roman Calendar in 1969, observance of Ember Days was relegated to decisions of local bishops’ conferences, and the bishops of the United States suppressed them.

The same can be said of the tradition of springtime Rogation Days. Like Ember Days, the 1969 Roman Calendar reform left them up to decisions of local episcopal conferences, and in the United States, they were eliminated.

Each of these actions has its own individual justifications which, taken alone, perhaps were plausible. Their cumulative effect, however, has been to marginalize the Church’s public communal penitential discipline to somewhere between 0.5 to 2 percent of the calendar.

Is it perhaps time we rethought all of this considering the centrality of Christ’s message of repentance?  

Do we really believe that, in the past sixty years, Catholics in the United States have in general become morally better than their predecessors who followed these practices?

Yes, individual Catholics can choose to abstain from meat on Fridays. Yes, they can undertake private penances. But DIY penance undermines the Church’s communal witness to the centrality of repentance as part of its Good News. 

It also fails to understand how human beings work. An individual who thinks about skirting a communal practice finds that the tradition tends to restrain him far more than self-imposed disciplines. Perhaps, in some idealists’ minds, it shouldn’t be like that…but that is how people are. That said, the person then has three choices: do what he wants (bad), do what the Church calls for out of rote (not great but not bad, either), or think about why everybody else in the Church is doing this and make self-appropriate the rationale along with the discipline (best).  

So, who’s up for rethinking the dilution of the Church in the United States’ communal penitential ethos?

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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