First off, I have to apologize for stealing the title for this post from a book on schismatics by Patrick Madrid. However, it seemed like the appropriate title for this question, which came as a follow-up to my "In Hell on a Meat Rap" post (scroll down):
A reader writes, "A friend always tells me that it isn't much of a sacrifice when you go to fish fries and eat till you are full. What is your response?"
The rules for fasting and abstinence during Lent certainly are more relaxed than the Church might have required in the past. In the ancient times, some groups could be found who would abstain from all food until evening, and then only a small meal without meat or alcohol. One only needs to look at the number of days of obligation that have been "joined" with the nearest Sunday to get a sense that things have been relaxed a bit for us contemporary Christians, and perhaps this is an explanation for why the rules of Lent have softened.
Perhaps another reason has to do with the rationale for lifting the abstanance requirement for Fridays during ordinary times (see "In Hell on a Meat Rap" below). Many mistakingly think that when the rules on ordinary Fridays was lifted, the Church has stopped viewing them as penitential days. Actually, the bishops (particularly in the US) decided that the act of penance might be more meaningful if each individual decided for himself what sacrifice to make. Rather than giving up meat on a Friday (outside of Lent), it might be more appropriate for me to give up my morning tea or to spend my lunch hour in private prayer rather than socializing.
During Lent, we are asked to abstain from meat and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but only abstain from meat during the other Fridays of that season. However, Catholics are also asked to make personal and personalized acts of penance. Some of us give up sweets or television. Others give up their free time for acts of charity or join Bible studies.
The important aspect is that these acts are voluntary. In lifting the rules for abstanance on Fridays outside of Lent, the U.S. bishops wrote in the document "On Penance and Abstinence" (Nov. 18, 1966), "Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish."
Shouldn't the same hold true for us during Lent? Suppose a woman just cannot live without her morning coffee. Would that not be a great sacrifice for her to go without it during Lent? And considering she did this voluntarily, out a genuine love for Christ and a sincere desire to unite herself with his sufferings, doesn't that make the sacrifice even more meaningful?
So she enjoys a fish fry on a Friday evening. Does this negate her personal sacrifice and the prayerful attention she has given to Christ during Lent? What about the man who skips lunch as his personal sacrifice? Is it wrong for him to eat until he's full at supper that evening?
Are there some Catholics who are a bit more lax than others? Perhaps some who give up nothing of any significance at all? Sure, but to recognize that fact just doesn't seem to justify the blanket assumption that everyone who goes to a fish fry isn't making "much of a sacrifice". Do we, after all, have a personal account of each individual's voluntary sufferings and charitable acts?
I guess it's easy enough to sit at home on a Friday night and have a bit of contempt for anyone who doens't appear to be living up to our own moral standards, but in the end, I think we'll just find ourselves in a dangerous extreme. Just as there are those who don't take Lent very seriously, there are those on the other end who tend to be "more Catholic than the Pope" and more Catholic than everyone around them in the pews. For instance, it is great if I decide to say a rosary each night of the week and spent an hour in perpetual adoration every Wednesday, but is my Catholic neighbor any less of disciple of Christ because he doesn't live up to that standard? Am I slacking behind the woman who has two hours in the chapel and prays the liturgy of the hours (and her evening rosary)?
Or, in the end, is it best not to become the Lent police and to worry, instead, about my own personal sacrifice, assume the best of those around me. Perhaps I want to have a grilled cheese and a glass of water for supper on a Friday night because it seems like the right sacrifice for me. But if the guy next door, the one who volunteers at the homeless shelter during Lent, wants to eat at the St. Andrew fish fry on a Friday evening, and in doing so fellowship with dozens of his fellow Catholics who had the same idea, then God bless him.