Several dioceses across the United States have dispensed Catholics from the canonical requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in certain food items becoming difficult to acquire.
The Archdioceses of Boston and Dubuque, as well as the Dioceses of Brooklyn, Houma-Thibodeaux, Metuchen, Pittsburgh, and Rochester, have all issued letters stating that Catholics who may find it difficult to obtain other foods are permitted to eat meat on the last two Fridays of Lent.
In a letter to his diocese published March 26, Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodeaux, Louisiana, wrote that while the practices of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence on other Fridays during Lent was the law of the Church, he understood that many people in his diocese may be experiencing difficulty with grocery shopping or obtaining meat alternatives.
Since President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel between the United States and Europe on March 12, grocery stores have reported instances of increased buying of many items.
While there is not a shortage in the production of food, toilet paper, or other necessities nationwide, in many places, items have been purchased quicker than supply chains are able to replenish stocks.
In response to this, some grocery stores have implemented “senior-only” hours, for the elderly or otherwise vulnerable populations to go grocery shopping without fear of having to fight for products.
“I am being mindful of this and have our people’s best interest in my heart. Nevertheless, I am also aware that these Fridays of Lent will remain as days of penance and prayer,” said Fabre.
The bishop said that those who are able to abstain from meat should continue to abstain, but “for those who sincerely find it difficult to embrace this practice, I hereby grant you dispensation from the obligation to abstain from eating meat for the remaining Fridays in Lent (4th and 5th weeks).”
Fabre instructed Catholics in his diocese to substitute the penance of abstaining from meat with “other forms of penance, especially works of piety and charity.”
Other dioceses issued similar letters, citing concerns that parishioners may not have non-meat food on hand, be reliant on meal deliveries, or otherwise be concerned about leaving the house to go to the grocery store.
“One of the effects of the current events is uncertainty regarding what food products are available on any given day. At this time, we are called to make the best of what we have at hand or is available for purchase,” said a letter from the Archdiocese of Boston.
“Many people are using what they have stored in their freezers and on their shelves. Others are depending upon pre-packaged meals or food delivered through support agencies, which are providing an important service for individuals and families in our communities, especially for children and our senior citizens,” the letter added.
Those who are still able to abstain from meat at this time are encouraged to continue this practice.
The Archdiocese of Boston clarified to CNA that, unlike the other dioceses who have dispensed their congregations from the requirement to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays, Catholics there are further dispensed from the requirement to abstain from meat on Good Friday if they are unable to obtain meat-free foods.
Examples given as substitute penance include abstention from desserts or other food items, volunteering time, donating to charity, or increased personal prayer.