The corned-beef Catholic crisis has been quietly building momentum for a week or two and now, with St. Patrick's Day upon us, has finally made the leap into major media. Believe it or not, there is a real story hidden back there somewhere in the giddy headlines, like the latest offering in the Washington Post: "As Luck Would Have It, Bishops Allow Meat on St. Patrick's Day" Here is the top of reporter Michelle Boorstein's lighthearted story:
Corned beef and cabbage will be on the menu tomorrow. Call it a gift from Saint Patrick.
Despite the Vatican's prohibition against eating meat on Fridays during Lent, Catholic bishops in about one-third of the country's 197 dioceses have issued a one-day waiver of the rule, citing the benefits of Irish American tradition and community. After all, what do you wash down with green beer if not corned beef and cabbage?
Among the bishops granting the dispensation are those in Washington, Baltimore, Arlington and Richmond, the four dioceses that cover the Washington region.
Hidden in that language is a complication. Note that it is the "Vatican's prohibition against eating meat on Fridays during Lent." You would assume this means that this is the spiritual discipline practiced in the typical American Catholic church.
As it turns out, different people interpret that rule in different ways -- as I discovered when I wrote a column recently in which I set out to describe what modern Catholics do and don't do during Lent. Click here if you want to read that. I've been getting email ever since pointing me toward clashing interpretations (many of which I had already seen online, while preparing for the column) of what the U.S. Catholic Bishops have or have not done to soften the rules of Lent.
Things get pretty complicated real quick. Here's a hint of what's out there, drawn from Boorstein's report:
All Christians are called upon to pray and perform acts of charity during Lent, a solemn period of penance. Among Catholics, there has been more focus in recent years on doing good deeds rather than on giving up something pleasurable, said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of Catholic University's School of Theology and Religious Studies.
Let's overlook that reference to "all Christians" observing Lent, a season that doesn't do much for most Southern Baptists and millions of other Protestants. But that's another story.
What interests me is a more basic news hook: What percentage of Catholics "get" Lent at all? How many, at the very least, go to confession during this season? As Father William Stetson of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. (a very traditional apologetics center), told me:
"There are all kinds of actions that the church teaches are seriously sinful that the typical modern Catholic no longer believes are seriously sinful," said Stetson, who, as a 75-year-old priest, has seen many changes sweep through the Church of Rome. "Therefore, these typical Catholics walk up to the altar week after week to receive Communion without a single thought entering their minds about repentance or confession or anything like that.
"So you have to take that into account when you talk about Lent. In a penitential season you are supposed to feel real sorrow for your sins, which can be hard to do if you really do not think that you're sinning."
Now that's a news hook at the very heart of daily religious life, and there are similar nuts-and-bolts hooks linked -- day after day, week after week, world without end, amen -- to dozens of other subjects (and not just among Catholics, either).
Want to see what I mean about practical news hooks? Check out this well-researched visit by the Los Angeles Times to the bottom line of parish life. (By the way, note the material from empty tomb inc., which is a nice mini-think tank on issues related to faith, finances, social justice and mission work, broadly defined.)