Thursday, November 19, 2020

On the Mythical Pius XII Thanksgiving Indult: Guest Article by Sharon Kabel

We are grateful once again to Sharon Kabel for sharing her research with us, this time on the so-called Thanksgiving indult ascribed to Pope Pius XII.

Every year around Thanksgiving, a flurry of social media posts make the rounds in traditional Catholic circles, concerning a mysterious “Turkey Indult” from the 1950s. They all follow the same essential pattern: an assertion that it is widely known that Pius XII granted an indult to Catholics in the United States to dispense them from the obligation to abstain from meat on the Friday after Thanksgiving. An example social media post is below, but this claim has been made by many different websites and blogs (including Rorate Caeli, the Society of St Pius X, and OnePeterFive).

A Curious Lack of Sources
Every year, upon reading those posts, I always wondered why no concrete source or proof had yet surfaced to support this claim. Papal indults are official acts with paper trails, so something like this should be fairly easy to substantiate. I have seen comments on various sites by enterprising souls with serious scholarly chops who claim to have perused the entire AAS of Pius XII and found no record of such an indult - but it is an open question whether such an indult would have appeared in the official record of the pope’s decrees. So this year, just for fun, I decided to try and solve this mystery.
Brief Aside On Current Penance Rules
This seems to be a fitting moment to mention that the existence or non-existence of this legendary Turkey Indult does not have any impact on the current obligations in place for Catholics in the United States. The current 1983 Code of Canon Law clearly states that for the universal Church “[a]bstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday”.
However, the current Code also allows the national episcopal conferences to “substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.” [2] In the United States, the episcopal conference issued a document in 1966 stating:
“Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.
Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday [except during Lent], we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.” [3]
Therefore it is clear that while all Catholics should offer a fitting sacrifice each week on Friday, and should view abstinence from meat as the ancient, fitting, and primary way to offer this sacrifice, it is no longer an obligation in the United States that binds under pain of sin.
(As an interesting aside: while most countries in the 1960s did indeed jettison this obligation to abstinence from meat, there is a clear trend of Catholics around the world desiring to return to the traditional practice. In 2011, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales restored the traditional obligation to Friday abstinence under pain of sin.)
Proof finally discovered!
After exploring a variety of databases and sources, I found only one concrete reference to the elusive Pius XII Turkey Indult. The proof comes in a slightly oblique fashion; rather than a papal document, or even an announcement of the indult from official sources (more on this later), the only piece of evidence I was able to find was from a question and answer column on page 8 of the Pittsburgh Catholic, the official publication of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, from Thursday, December 3, 1959.
In the “Question Box” with Fr. Daniel H Brennan, a reader asks, “I am wondering why a dispensation was not given for the Friday after Thanksgiving this year [1959]. Or why one was given last year [1958].” Fr Brennan answers, in part, “If you would insist that there is good cause for such dispensation because the Holy Father granted it in 1958, I would remind you that the Pope does not need a justifying reason to dispense from mere Church law, and in granting the relaxation of the abstinence on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1958 he set no precedent but granted a particular favor for a particular year.” This would seem to be the first documentary proof that the pope granted a “Turkey Indult” to the Catholics of the United States in 1958, which he did not extend in 1959.
The full excerpt from the paper:
After I discovered this article, it seemed to be a simple matter to hunt just a little more and find the official announcement of the indult in a Catholic newspaper in 1958. However, to add further mystery, I was not able to find anything during 1958 that mentions it. I searched the entire Catholic News Archive for relevant terms and their derivatives in proximity, like thanksgiving, indult, meat, dispensation, abstinence, and Friday.
Interestingly, there are plenty of other mentions of dispensations from abstinence during that same year! Here are just a few quick examples from 1958:
● All Connecticut dioceses were dispensed from abstinence on Memorial Day, and July 4
● The diocese of Pittsburgh was dispensed from abstinence on Memorial Day and July 4
● The Bishop of Sacramento dispensed all Catholic visitors to the California State Fair on the Fridays of August 29 and September 5
● Pope John XXIII granted a dispensation from abstinence on December 26
Regarding the existence of the specific indult for American Catholics made by the pope in 1958, there is not a single corroborating reference - not even in the paper on the very day of Thanksgiving in 1958.
This was a twist to the Turkey Indult mystery I certainly did not expect.
The Trend of Holiday Indults
Catholic Transcript, 13 June 1935
An unexpected result of my research into this matter was the discovery of a broader trend of dispensations from abstinence on American holidays. A few non-Thanksgiving examples include:
● 1932: a dispensation for February 12, Lincoln’s birthday
● 1935: a dispensation for February 22, Washington’s birthday
● 1951: a dispensation for five civic holidays, including October 12, Columbus Day
● 1953: a papal dispensation for May 1, Labor Day in many countries
● 1960: a dispensation for November 11, Veterans Day
I found no mention of dispensations granted for abstinence on the Friday after Thanksgiving until 1958.
Catholic Transcript, 5 November 1931
Then, following the 1958 indult, in 1959 (as referenced by the Q&A column above) there were no papal or diocesan dispensations granted for the Friday after Thanksgiving. This tells us that the “Turkey Indult” of 1958 was an outlier.
However, a trend started in 1960 of dioceses around the nation granting indults for the Friday after Thanksgiving. Here are just a few examples (by no means comprehensive) to illustrate the point:
● Diocese of Pittsburgh issued Friday after Thanksgiving dispensations in 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1964
● Dioceses of Connecticut issued Friday after Thanksgiving dispensations in 1962 and 1963
● Diocese of Santa Rosa issued Friday after Thanksgiving dispensations in 1963
● Diocese of Stockton issued a Friday after Thanksgiving dispensation in 1962
● Archdiocese of San Francisco issued Friday after Thanksgiving dispensations in 1962 and 1963
The Monitor, 29 November 1963
Alongside these specific examples, there are also even larger developments like the Canadian Bishops Conference completely abolishing all ember day and Lenten fasting and abstinence (with a few exceptions) in 1960!
Summary & A Final Wrinkle
Based on the 1959 Q&A exchange the Pittsburgh Catholic, it seems reasonable to think that the Turkey Indult was granted by the pope for Americans in 1958. However, it was just once, in 1958; it was not repeated on a papal level, and it is still bewildering that no official record has yet been found during the year of 1958 itself. And, although the papal indult was not repeated, we can see the 1958 Turkey Indult appears to be a tipping point, after which a trend of frequent and repeated dispensations are granted both for Thanksgiving and for many other civic holidays across America, right up to 1966 when the American bishops removed the obligation altogether. Can it be any wonder there have been decades of confusion and rumors about abstinence and dispensations on the Friday after Thanksgiving?
One final note of interest: You may have noticed the article from 1959 did not mention the name of the pope who granted the indult in 1958. He is merely referred to as “the Holy Father.” Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, Pope John XXIII took the throne less than 20 days later on October 28, 1958, and Thanksgiving that year fell on November 28. Until a future researcher finds conclusive proof of the announcement itself in 1958, can we really even truly assume it was, in fact, Pius XII who granted the long rumored papal Turkey Indult after all? Or could there be one more final wrinkle waiting in this mysterious saga?
[2] Ibid, Canon 1253.

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