Dispensations: Why Some of Us Can Eat Meat on St. Patrick’s Day
The traditional Irish meal to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day is corned beef and cabbage. But what happens when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday during Lent, when Catholics are required to abstain from meat? For some dioceses, you may still be able to enjoy your corned beef and cabbage.
In certain dioceses, like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Atlanta, bishops can grant a dispensation that allows the faithful to eat meat on this feast day. This is a common, though not universal, practice in the United States when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday. The reasons for this can vary, but a large factor is the inseparable religious and cultural influence that Irish immigrants and the Irish Catholic Church have had on the United States. For many Irish Catholics, their religion has a strong influence on the way they identify culturally, and so the dispensation allows Catholics to fully celebrate this heritage. In a handful of dioceses, like Boston, where St. Patrick is the patron saint, a dispensation is not even required. This is because the feast is raised to a solemnity, which means abstinence is not required.
Dispensations have a long history in the Church, dating back many centuries. The goal of a dispensation is not to abolish a law or to suggest that the law is not good or worthwhile. Rather, in certain circumstances, it can spiritually benefit either an individual or a community to relax strict adherence to a law. This is not something done lightly. There are rules and a hierarchical organization for granting dispensations. But when these rules are followed to grant dispensations, they can be spiritually enriching. This is certainly true for allowing meat when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Lenten Friday. Other types of dispensations can also be granted in special circumstances. For example, when a Catholic wants to marry a non-Catholic, he or she must first obtain a dispensation.
Depending on what kind of dispensation is granted, pious works may be required in the place of the rule that is relaxed. Some dioceses, for example, require that Catholics who eat meat this St. Patrick’s Day transfer their abstinence to Saturday or perform charitable works. Be sure to check with your own diocese before you eat meat this St. Patrick’s Day. Whether you eat meat or not, we encourage you to remember the religious significance of this feast day, which commemorates the saint who converted the entire island of Ireland to Christianity.