After the Sex Abuse Crisis and Returning to a “Fish on Friday” Ascetism

There is a human need for discipline, which is
another word for asceticism.

After almost a decade (if you date the modern priest sex abuse crisis from Boston in 2002 1), the Church seems to be on the defensive.  Its response has been limited to reacting to each new revelation, which appears to be unending—with most recent incidences in Ireland, 2 Belgium,3 and Austria. 4 Where to next?  There are forces in our modern culture that seem bent on damaging the hierarchical Church.  These include hopefully well-meaning groups, such as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)  and Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), who seem unable to find anything positive to say about the Church, beyond demanding the removal of bishops, and even the Pope.  The issue is not helped by those who benefit financially from finding new, credible or not, and continuing old abuse cases.  Legal, and other fees, have cost the Church $2,600,000,000.00 as of 2009. 5

Pope Benedict XVI has done, perhaps, more than anyone else to address and correct this matter.  On his recent trip to England, 6 he repeated a litany of public apologies, as well as meeting personally with many of the victims, as he has done in Germany, and innumerable other instances over the past 5 years.  Perhaps, it’s now time to change course and be more proactive.

The public action of the Church must change from one of endless apologies to one of resolute, positive action.  That action must include a return to the classic asceticism that has been the hallmark of the Church for 20 centuries.  We will briefly discuss:  (1) What ascetical discipline is: (2) How the practice of asceticism has given the Church its acknowledged holiness over the centuries;  (3) What happened over the past 50 years to vitiate Church asceticism; and, (4) the efforts at renewal that should be taken now.

Asceticism and Discipleship
There is a human need for discipline.  For example: children are taught to behave themselves; scholastic success requires concentration; athletic victory demands training.  This innate need for discipline is another name for asceticism. 

Asceticism can be defined as “the practice of the denial of physical or psychological desires in order to obtain a spiritual ideal or good.” 7  It is a universally accepted human activity practiced in all societies and religions, both primitive and advanced.  Is it not perhaps a reasonable human response to the effects of original sin, or our material fallibility.  It was best articulated in classical Greece as athletic askesis, or discipline.  This concept then took an ethical turn, becoming control of the bodily and emotional passions.

This discipline, or asceticism, was also the hallmark of Greek, non-athletes, as well.  While the Stoics are best known for their self-discipline, other groups such as the Pythagoreans, had ascetical guidelines as well.  Muslims have Ramadan, a well-known, month-long fasting period. Hindu groups are universally recognized for their ascetical practices, some quite extreme.  Buddhist monks practice a monastic discipline that we would consider severe.  Primitive peoples (American Blackfeet Indians) were ascetical also. (TABLE 1)     We cite these as examples of the universal human practice of asceticism as there appears to be trans-cultural acknowledgments of a need for mortification and discipline.

St. Francis of Assisi in meditation

Christian Tradition and Eventual Erosion
Christ, who fasted 40 days and 40 nights, 8 promoted asceticism.  The Christian Church embraced the idea, from the beginning, not only through fasting and abstinence, but also through celibacy (TABLE 2).  This practice of fasting has been integral to the Church from the time of the apostles, having begun with the apostles’ imitation of Christ who promoted it. 9  This continued during the time of Church persecution, and later was adopted by desert hermits. Their rather extreme ascetical practices—similar to John the Baptist, subsisting on locusts and honey—became an example for their fellow Christian followers. 10  The rise of monasteries furthered the ideal of self-discipline and sacrifice. With austere practices codified into monastic rule, the efficacy of following these rules was proven in the virtuous lives of saints arising from these centers of faith.  The Fifth Canon of the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) codified fasting regulations. 11  Fasting, as well as abstinence from meat (“fish on Friday”), became the standard for centuries, 12 particularly in the Eastern Christian Church. 13 

Unfortunately, this practice has changed since Vatican II (1962-1965).  The “spirit of Vatican II” was interpreted by some to mean that the Church’s ascetic tradition should be updated.  They decided that the idea of fasting and mortification was to be replaced by charitable works of mercy, which they felt would be more positive.  This idea was best articulated by Pope Paul VI, who said: “seek new expressions beyond fast and abstinence,” we must “reorganize penitential discipline with practices more suitable to our times.” 14  While the Church still prescribes fasting and abstinence, it is, for all practical purposes, universally ignored.  Lent used to be highly meaningful, with its “giving up pleasures.” But that is no longer the case as very few Catholics practice the Lenten discipline with the seriousness they did prior to Vatican II.  This is unfortunate.

It is no coincidence that the priest sex abuse crisis, which actually peaked in the 70s and 80s, only reached the attention of the popular press in 2002.  The liberal theological spin, which arose from misinformation surrounding Vatican II, when coupled with the prevailing cultural individualism and lack of moral discipline pervading that period, negatively influenced some seminaries, leading to a subsequent rise in sexual abuse.  Donald Goergen’s book, The Sexual Celibate, 15 is an example of this attitude: Goergen writes, for instance, that “sexual feelings should not be repressed.”  Some will say that Vatican II had no effect on this crisis, but the facts and temporal sequence, suggest otherwise.  Vatican II could not eliminate original sin, or change human nature.  James Hitchcock has commented that “strict rules about clerical behavior were generally rescinded after the council under the assumption that priests could be trusted to act in appropriate ways.” 16  These ideas are the antithesis of an ascetical or disciplined mindset.

Ascetical theology was traditionally a major element in the Church’s teaching, along with dogma, and moral and liturgical theology.  This discipline emphasized, in particular, fasting, abstinence and celibacy.  These were not highly regarded virtues in post-World War II, western culture.  Indeed, the pervasive cultural zeitgeist emphasized autonomy and sexual expression.  The mood was Pelegian, that is, that the perfectibility of man was possible through self-discipline, without needing divine assistance.  Original sin was forgotten.

Freudian philosophy believed that suppressing emotions and sexual expression were harmful, psychologically and developmentally.  Eugene C. Kennedy’s book, Psychological Investigations of Priests, 17 suggested that most priests were emotionally immature because they had not successfully integrated Erickson’s psychosexual development phase into their personalities.  The emphasis was on autonomy and self-expression—rather than fasting, abstaining and chastity—as practices recommended for seminarians.  Following Vatican II, personal sin was de-emphasized, as was regular confession.  With these ideas being held up as guiding principles, it seems inevitable that some priests would cross the line.

The Western cultural zeitgeist, following the Enlightenment— emphasizing autonomy and downplaying discipline (the drugs and sexual excesses of the 60s)—did not really impact the Church until the negative aspects of the “Spirit of Vatican II” influenced modernist theology.  Indeed, as one reviews the history of Church asceticism, one notes a distinct change in tone around the mid-20th century.  What was formerly mandated discipline became an optional suggestion.

Following Vatican II, some interpretations allowed a lapse in what was previously common practice.  “Fish on Friday” had been a universal practice.  Why was it discontinued?  It was seen as an anachronism.  But, its value remains.  Its reinstitution, with pastoral emphasis and education, would remind the entire Church that asceticism remains an essential discipline of the Church.  It would be an acknowledgment that man has a fallen nature and, because of original sin, an inclination to err.  Our fallen nature requires a practice of the virtues, particularly chastity, which can only be achieved by ascetical efforts.  Fish on Friday would only be a small, but hopefully, a helpful beginning.

In summary, the Church has de-emphasized its ascetical orientation, and the sex abuse crisis followed.  We should renew the discipline of holy asceticism by taking several steps:

(1)    There must be an acknowledgment that man’s fallen nature extends to all in the Church—hierarchy, priests, religious and laity;

(2)    A corollary to the preceding point is that the discipline of asceticism should be required of all members;

(3)    This discipline includes a return of the past practices of fast and abstinence, as well as the evangelical virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience for priests and clergy.

A return to “fish on Friday” would be a small but symbolic step in the right direction.

Universal Human Witness to Asceticism

(1)   Definition: “Practice of the denial of physical or psychological desires in order to obtain a spiritual ideal or good.”

(2)   The Greeks: Realized that human passion and emotion had to be controlled (Stoics).

(3)   Jews: The Bible begins with a description of original sin or the human tendency to succumb to emotional and physical temptations.

(4)   Christians: Discipline (or asceticism) advanced by hermits and monasteries.

(5)   Moslems: Ramadan.  Month long fast.

(6)   Hindu: Extreme forms of corporal punishment.

(7)   Buddhism: Monks and nuns renounced material and physical desires.

(8)   Primitive: (Blackfeet Indians) isolation of young warriors.

TABLE 2: Catholic Church Ascetical Discipline

(1)  John the Baptist: Subsisted on locusts and honey.

(2)  Christ: Fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.

(3)  St. Mathew: Required fasting.

(4)  Council of Nicaea (325 AD), Fifth Canon: 40 day fast.

(5)  Monasteries, 500 AD -1200 AD: Practiced fast and abstinence.

(6.) Eastern Christian Church: Rigorous fasting and abstinence .

(7)  Vatican II (1962-1965): De-emphasized fasting and abstinence.

(8)  Paul VI (1967): “New expressions beyond fast and abstinence.”

  2. Murphy Report. Report by Commission of Investigation into Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin.
  3. Castle, Stephen. (June 25, 2010). Belgian Catholic Church Offices Raided in Abuse Inquiry.
  4. Exile for disgraced Austrian cardinal,
  6. Reiss, Stuart. Pope Benedict XVI visit to Scotland and England. Catholic Medical Quarterly 60 (2010) 3-6.
  7. Asceticism. The New Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: William Benton Publisher, 1982) vol. 2:135-37.
  8. Luke 4:2.
  9. Matthew 6:16. Ibid.
  10. Matthew 3:4. Ibid.
  11. Council of Nicaea 325 AD. Canon 5. Weiser, Franz Xaver. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt Bruce, 1952).
  13. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Catholic University of America Press. Washington, DC., 1967. p. 148. 
  14. Paul VI. Paenitemini, February 17, 1966.
  15. Goergen, Donald, The Sexual Celibate (New York: Seabury Press, 1974) 181. 
  16. Hitchcock, James, “The end of Gaudim et Spes“, Catholic World Report (May 2003) 54-58.
  17. Kennedy, E.S., and Heklen, V.J. The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1972).
Dr. Pat Guinan About Dr. Pat Guinan

Dr. Pat Guinan, M.D. is President of the Catholic Physicians' Guild of Chicago, and is with the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the Department of Urology and Surgery.


  1. I agree that a return to ascetical practices would be good for all the Church. But in relation to excluding sexual predators who will use the cover of the cloth as a camoflague for their true nature it cannot replace the need for the continued rigourous screeing of candidates for the priesthood.

  2. Avatar JOHN GRONDELSKI says:

    In fact, the Bishops of England have reinstated the practice of year-round mandatory Friday abstinence.

  3. Please examine the Jehovah’s Witnesses who go door to door and come on our property.
    Jehovah’s Witnesses pedophiles.
    Many court documents and news events prove that Jehovah’s Witnesses require two witnesses when a child comes forward with allegations of molestation within the congregation. Such allegations have customarily been treated as sins instead of crimes and are only reported to authorities when it is required to do so by law, (which varies by state). It has also been shown that child molesters within the organization usually have not been identified to the congregation members or the public at large.
    These people engage in a door to door ministry, possibly exposing children to pedophiles.

    Although the Watchtower Bible Tract Society claims that known pedophiles are accompanied by a non-pedophile in such work, there is no law stating that such a practice must be followed.
    The Watchtower corporation has paid out millions in settlement money already.

    Danny Haszard abuse victim

  4. Avatar John Grimes says:

    Two things, the first minor, the second major. First, Fish on Friday was not the rule in Catholic Spain when I lived there many decades ago. In fact, practicing Catholics in Madrid were surprised to learn the rule existed in the US. Two, I think the good doctor treads too lightly in his assessment of the Church’s response to the recent sex scandals. For the general public, the problem persists, and it is not specifically related to the abusers themselves. Rather, it concerns those (mostly bishops) who totally failed to properly supervise priests in their dioceses. Not one of those in authority has even been reprimanded by Rome, and some like a prominent Boston prelate have actually been promoted! Same story around the globe. Till something is done about this very real scandal, the Church will continue to lose credibility regardless of what she says or does.

  5. I’m in England and, quite frankly, it seems the reinstating of this observance is some kind of smokescreen for the virulent Modernism those same Bishops have been peddling for decades.
    Their decrees sound utterly hollow and hypocritical in the light of their own behaviour: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

    A cynic might say it’s got more to do with the ego-maniacal Archbishop Nichols’ desire to win himself a red hat than anything else.


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