Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In Hell on a Meat Rap


Once upon a time, Catholics had the derogatory nickname "mackerel snappers" because it was church discipline that we would abstain from meat every Friday of the year (not just during Lent, as we are accustomed to doing now). It was, in fact, considered grave sin (and mortal sin if full consent and knowledge are involved) to violate this church law. In the sixties, that discipline was relaxed in the United States (surprise, surprise). As for how Catholics should view Fridays outside of Lent, you can find an interesting discussion here.

However, the fact that it is no longer a grave sin to eat meat on Fridays outside of Lent has been a frequent means of attack against our claims to truth as Catholics who point to it as a "changed" teaching. Comedian George Carlin, a fallen-away Catholic, asked during a rant against the Church, what happens to "some guy doing eternity in hell on a meat rap?"

The short answer is this: There isn't one person (nor has there ever been a person) who is in Hell on a "meat rap".

The other short answer is this: George Carlin doesn't have a clue.

Perhaps if Carlin had spent as much time studying the teachings of the Church, he would still be receiving the body of Christ instead of spitting at it so often. He's looking for a punchline, and possibly at the expense of his soul. However, there are those (including our Protestant friends) who are genuinely misinformed about the teachings of the Church. I've had a number of conversations, often with preachers of other faiths, who point at the Church's rule change regarding meat on Fridays and see it as proof against infallibility.

First off, we need to understand the difference between a dogma and a discipline. Teachings of the Church that are based on the public revelation, given once-for-all during the apostolic period cannot be abolished or changed (though they may be developed over time, such as has happened with the Christian definition of the Trinity). A male-only priesthood, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the divinity of Christ, for instance, are dogma. We do not have the option to disbelieve these teachings, and the Church will never change its mind on them.

On the other hand, the Church was established by Christ to shepherd over His flock and to act in a parental role (hence calling priests "Father"), and any parent knows that sometimes children need temporary rules to address certain cultural situations. These are called disciplines. Unlike dogma, disciplines can change. They can disappear and be revised at the Church's will, depending on her perception of the need for that discipline. Disciplines include the celibate priesthood, abstaining from meat on Fridays, and the rule that Catholics cannot join Masonic lodges.

But like with dogmas, we do not have the option to disregard disciplines. I can't count how many times I've heard people dismiss some rule of the Church with the cavalier, "Oh, that's just a man-made rule." First off, even "Bible-only" Protestants shouldn't have a problem with disciplines. There are examples of them in Scripture, after all. One in particular is when Paul stresses in the eleventh chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians that women must wear head coverings. Yet, today almost no Christian Church, Protestant or Catholic, requires this. Even the non-instrumental Church of Christ, perhaps the most militant "Scripture alone" church on the block, will often dismiss this as a cultural rule, applying to that specific community during that specific time.

Yes, we agree. It's called a discipline. And in the model that Paul sets, the Catholic Church has been setting them, with God's approval, for 2,000 years.

But see, the rules of the Church can no more be dismissed than could Paul's exhortation to Corinth. After all, in Luke 10:16, Jesus tells the leaders of the Church that whoever rejects them rejects God. In Matthew 16 and then again in Matthew 18, he tells them that whatever they bind or loosen on earth is bound or loosened in Heaven. In John 21 Jesus tells Peter three times to feed his sheep after his ascension.

In these and other places in Scripture, Christ is deputizing the leaders of his Church, especially the leader of the apostles, Peter, and his successors (and we know what happens when we disobey a deputy).

And when we disobey a "man-made" rule, if that rule was made by the authority of Christ, which was vested in the leaders of the Church, we are essentially telling Christ that our judgment is better than his. That he made a mistake by putting these men in charge of us. That the Church he establish was a flawed institution.

We are, in fact, committing the same sin as Adam and Eve, who ignored God's warning not to eat from the tree and decided (under the temptation of Satan) that they knew better than he did. There is nothing inherently evil about a piece of fruit, after all, but there is something inherently evil about asserting that we are superior in intellect to God.

Likewise, there is nothing inherently evil about meat or consuming it on Fridays, but there is something gravely sinful in telling the Holy Spirit-guided Church and the Pope which heads it that we know better. Just like a good parent might decide a child has to take a vacation from TV for a while, Holy Mother Church has the parental authority to set up disciplines that might steer us from our earthly attachments and help us focus more on Christ. And would any of you let your children disobey your rules because they are "man made"?

Adam and Eve were not banished from the Garden on a "fruit rap".

Nor is anyone in Hell on a "meat rap".

But there might be (who am I to know) plenty of people in Hell on an I-will-make-up-my-own-rules-and-to-Hell-with-the-Church-and-its- God-vested-authority rap.

And, to answer George Carlin's question, they would still be there today.

While we're on the subject, by the way, I don't think it would be such a bad idea, despite a change of discipline in the Church, if the word got out that ordinary Fridays are still days of penance within the Church (many are under the impression that it just went away). Again, for a detailed discussion of that, see the link in the first paragraph. In my opinion, it wouldn't be such a bad thing if we voluntarily moved back to a stricter observance of the significance of Friday.

If nothing else, it would more clearly define our Catholic identity at a time when the cafeteria folks are trying so hard to water it down.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I think it'd be kind of cool to be called a mackerel snapper again.

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