Every so often, the Church’s discipline sparks intrigue, especially in a state as culturally Catholic as Rhode Island. Such was the case last week when The Providence Journal’s food section took up the question of abstinence from meat on St. Patrick’s Day. Unfortunately, the article’s original title — “Corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day? Tobin says no dispensation for RI Catholics” — obfuscates the heart of the matter. To make matters worse, other media outlets picked up the story, implying a farcical battle between the bishop (who is Irish American) and his largely Irish-American flock.
Before jumping into the case at hand, the notion of “dispensation” needs some context. For two millennia, the Church recognized that merely ecclesiastical laws (as opposed to the natural law or divine laws, which admit of no dispensation) cannot envisage every circumstance. Hence, the power to dispense became a means to reconcile the force of general regulations with the needs of particular situations. After the Second Vatican Council, bishops received ordinary dispensing power—once the sole prerogative of the Pope or his vicars. In fact, even the 1917 Code of Canon Law permitted pastors to dispense their parishioners, in individual cases, from days of fasting and abstinence. The newly revised 1983 Code of Canon Law repeated this practice. Subsidiarity had won the day. Catholics could thus find local refuge in the relaxation of certain laws to lessen their burdens and even provide some spiritual advantage. Their bishops and parish priests could connect with them in ways the Roman Pontiff obviously couldn’t.
Contrary to the opinions of some, dispensations are not bureaucratic barriers, which some ecclesial clerk mandates to justify his or her paper-pushing existence. As its etymological root implies — namely, “weighing or thinking heavily” — a dispensation requires a thoughtful response to particular circumstances for the spiritual good of persons. This is why dispensations shouldn’t be arbitrary or doled out indiscriminately. They require a just cause: a meaningful discernment between beneficiary and benefactor. For instance, when a pastor meets with an engaged couple and realizes there is an impediment preventing their valid marriage, he requests a dispensation after listening to their story. Sometimes, the conversation reveals that a dispensation might not be spiritually advantageous to the couple. And that’s okay; it’s even beneficial. If the Church grants dispensations always and everywhere, one might wonder: why not just abrogate the law itself?
There’s certainly nothing wrong with granting a general dispensation, as some bishops have done throughout the country. In their own judgment, a general dispensation might be the best way to reach their flock. Bishop Tobin decided this year that he would not grant a general dispensation. Instead, he considered a different approach, one in keeping with the subsidiarity called for by the Council. Keeping in mind that pastors can grant dispensations to their own parishioners on a case-by-case basis, Bishop Tobin generously agreed to grant dispensations to any individuals or groups who sought them. While departing from previous praxis, this opened up a new door. This decision became an opportunity for Catholics to write to their bishop and receive a personal response in his name. With eyes formed by charity, we can see wisdom at work. With an individualized request, each person has an opportunity to search within himself, finding reasons why a dispensation might be—or might not be—spiritually helpful. In fact, after serious consideration, some may consider abstaining instead. Indeed, some have. This way, the bishop can remind his flock personally that one can both enjoy corned beef and also engage in another act of piety, charity, or fasting, to honor the Lenten discipline of sacrifice. One caller recently thanked the bishop for engaging as such. No outrage there.
The media outlets which have broadcasted a false battle between the shepherd and his flock have largely ignored this line of reasoning, even allowing commentators to impugn motives. Why? A good fight gets better ratings. Clickbait is more important. Thankfully, no such fight exists. The doors are wide open! “St. Patrick's Day” serves to focus on Christ, to whom St. Patrick’s entire life points, and whose death for our sake every Friday in Lent bids us recall.