Back in high school Kings was the place to be. Tiner’s, with poodle-skirted car-hops in roller-skates, was so passé. After a Friday night football game or a Saturday movie everyone who was “anyone” – in adolescent parlance that means everybody and no one – needed to make an appearance at Kings. I would slide in with the protective cover of my group, grateful to have established the right to say next week at school that I’d been there. How I envied – and despised – the self-appointed “kings” who commanded both attention and comment as they appeared through the door. They knew who they were and the rest of us did too.
As with previous generations, we carefully complied with prescribed dietary rules and social rituals. Malts were soooooo “Tiner’s!” At Kings we’d have fries and a Coke on Fridays. On Saturdays it had to be a hamburger and a Coke. All this ordered from vinyl booths on Princess telephones at each table connected to the kitchen switchboard. I was always happy to defer to someone else the task of calling-in the table’s order. I accepted my place in the social hierarchy and was compliant to group norms.
Unspoken as much of adolescent culture and compliance remains today, we consciously knew and obeyed the rules. We were happy – even grateful – to do so. Unspoken we knew that we ordered fries and a Coke on Friday because it was meatless. We gratefully ordered a Coke with a hamburger (only yellow mustard and dill pickle, no ketchup for me, please) on Saturdays as long as it was before midnight. Because of curfews our choices were always simple and prescribed. We felt secure.
Catholics of my generation remember Friday abstinence and Sunday fasting before communion. Of course we rebelled. That was a necessary part of growing-up. Some still grouse about “growing-up Catholic”. Some still remain unwittingly rule-bound in their inability to give-up the grousing. Some actually mastered the fine art of breaking rules – a life skill more of us would do well to acquire if we are ever to become mature adults. But I digress! Of enduring importance for all who navigated the Kings experience, we knew who we were! We felt secure in our respective and multiple peer groups.
Several Australian Catholic bishops have recently said they would support re-establishment of year-round Friday abstinence from meat – without any sanction of “sin” – following the lead of England and Wales in 2011. American Catholic bishops ended obligatory abstinence just about the time I graduated from high school. Looking back at the decision to end Friday abstinence, Australian Bishop Elliott wonders if it was a “pastoral and spiritual mistake” stating, “I can understand why that happened, in the mood of that era, but I believe it failed to take into account human psychology.”
Acting through their episcopal conferences, bishops have used their authority to establish norms “they consider the most opportune and efficacious” in regards to fasting and abstinence. Catholic norms continue to state that “the penitential days and times in the universal church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent,” but that any conference of bishops can “substitute other forms of penance” in place of abstinence. Consistently through my adulthood Catholics have been encouraged to fulfill the spirit of Friday penance through prayer, self-denial or helping others. However, based on personal practice and observation, it is only honest to admit we simply have ignored the opportunity that is ours. Encouraging folks to work out their own spiritual practice may have been a noble affirmation of human freedom and presumption of maturity. But I would concur it was overly idealistic and naïve.
Our dominant culture remains “adolescent” in our preoccupation with brands, labels and social hierarchy. Such norms, parameters and indicators are not evil in themselves. We all need a secure sense of self, a clear identity and a sense of belonging. Peer group and external rules enable us to navigate that transition to personal freedom and social maturity. Dietary prescriptions, even outright prohibitions, have been part and parcel of religious practice across human history because they aid in this process. Turkey on Thanksgiving and oyster stew on Christmas eve fulfill a corresponding function still. They help us understand and express who we are as a person, a family, a nation, a people.
As much as we said we hated it – that in itself was socially prescribed “rebellion” – compliance with Friday abstinence at Kings promoted our personal identity and sense of social connection. We remembered who we were and knew with whom we belonged. We took a hidden but much needed comfort and pride in it. Fifty years later I increasingly recognize so much more that was good and necessary in those challenging teenage years – and am grateful.
Today I welcome the questions Australian, British and Welsh bishops are asking. But why wait for the bishops? Who’s stopping me now? My peer group? C’mon, it is so past time to give-up and get-over my adolescent insecurities and rebellion. Time to grow-up! Meatless Fridays wouldn’t hurt one bit. In fact, they might just help, at long last, as an expression of freedom and hard-earned maturity.
Quotes and references are from an article by Matthew Biddle with Catholic News Service and is available [here].