Monday, February 22, 2021

Follow-Up on the Thanksgiving Indult, by Sharon Kabel

Our thanks once again to Sharon Kabel for sharing her research with NLM, this time following up on her November article on the day-after-Thanksgiving indult for eating meat.

In November of last year, I shared a provocative hypothesis: thanks to the discovery of new evidence, it was possible for the first time to confirm that the long-rumored American “Turkey Indult” directly from the Pope did in fact occur, although not quite the way we thought.
Participants in the “Turkey Indult” conversation generally fall into three camps:
● No, the Turkey Indult did not happen; it has been conflated with diocesan permissions for indults.
● Yes, Pope Pius XII did issue a Turkey Indult in 1958 that remained applicable beyond 1958.
● You’re still talking about this?
My position was a fourth way: The papally-issued Turkey Indult happened in 1958 only, and was likely issued by Pope St. John XXIII, not Pius XII. And yes, we are still talking about it, thank you. (For brevity’s sake, I will refer to the event in question as the Turkey Indult throughout the article.)
In this follow-up post, I will briefly respond to the objections raised after my initial article, before revealing additional new discoveries which further confirm my original hypothesis. I would also like to share several new discoveries that paint a picture of growing laxity regarding fasting and abstinence, even before the Second Vatican Council.
Considering the murky origins of this story, and the strident and conflicting opinions held on the matter, it is increasingly obvious that the Turkey Indult Mythos has come to symbolize a preconciliar flash point. The Turkey Indult - its existence and its historiography - is a drama in miniature of rapid relaxation of traditional practices, and of the difficulty of reconstructing mid-twentieth century reforms with any surety.
Origins and Objections
One of the first substantial Internet discussions of the Turkey Indult appeared on Rorate Caeli in 2010 (archived article). Articles with mostly similar wording appeared in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2017. The story lacked definitive sourcing, but provided a clear frame for the discussion. The Turkey Indult, the story went, was not merely a privilege granted by the Pope to American bishops (who could use or ignore it diocese by diocese), but instead a direct papal indult from Pius XII to Americans.
In subsequent years, several writers challenged this story because of the lack of evidence. My article, suggesting that the Turkey Indult happened but not quite the way we think, produced a wide range of responses.
Followers of the Turkey Indult have cited three main sources to argue that a papal dispensation did not occur. I will now examine these sources to provide an honest look at the critiques I received.
Source 1: Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Three websites referenced the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR) to argue that the Turkey Indult never happened (Louis Tofari, Romanitas Press; Matthew Plese, (article); Matthew Plese, A Catholic Life). The specific HPR articles cited are:
• Aidan M. Carr, O.F.M.Conv., “Questions Answered: Friday’s Turkey,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (December 1962; Vol. LXIII, No. 3).
• Aidan M. Carr, O.F.M.Conv., “Questions Answered: Friday’s Turkey Rehashed,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (February 1963; Vol. LXIII, No. 5): “If my original questioner meant - as he most probably did - that the bishop had dispensed the whole diocese from the law of abstinence on Friday after Thanksgiving, then I should have stated that his subjects could not, in that case, avail themselves of the favor when outside the territory of their ordinary.”
These HPR articles confirm that Rome granted US bishops permission to dispense the faithful from abstinence on holidays or days surrounding holidays. However, as these clippings are concerned with diocesan dispensations in 1962-63, rather than a papal indult in 1958, they do not have bearing on the question of the Turkey Indult.
Source 2: Fr. Bouscaren’s Canon Law Digest
Two writers called upon a weighty source to similarly argue that the Turkey Indult likely did not happen (Matthew Plese, A Catholic Life; Dale Price, Dyspeptic Mutterings). The specific source cited is:
● Father T. Lincoln Bouscaren, Canon Law Digest, vol. 5 (1963, Bruce Publishing Company), pp. 557-8, 565: “In a letter of 13 January 1962 His Eminence, the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Council, has graciously informed me that the faculty of the Most Reverend Ordinaries of the United States to dispense from the laws of fast and/or abstinence on civil holidays has been renewed for another period of five years...Note: To avoid misunderstanding, it should be remembered that it does not necessarily follow from the above document that all Ordinaries make full use of their faculties. [...] Dispensation Faculty Available for the Friday After Thanksgiving Day: The U. S. Apostolic Delegate can delegate to local Ordinaries who request it, the faculty to dispense from abstinent on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day. The faculty, when granted, is valid for five years.” [emphases added]
Interestingly, it is worthwhile to note that while Thanksgiving itself is obviously a civic holiday, the Friday after Thanksgiving is not. The fact that the Friday after Thanksgiving was addressed separately a few pages later supports the idea that indults for civic holidays did not automatically include the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Despite this, Fr. Bouscaren’s Digest did not address a 1958 papal Turkey Indult. The writers citing this source merely suggested that the 1958 Turkey Indult was in reality a diocesan dispensation that fell under the existing permissions.
Source 3: The Arkansas Catholic newspaper
One reader shared the following newspaper article:
● Arkansas Catholic, March 1, 1963, “Regulations on Fast and Abstinence: Diocese of Little Rock, 1963“: “By reason of special faculties, His Excellency, the Most Reverend Bishop, grants herewith the following dispensations:...from the Law of Abstinence on Friday, November 29, (day after Thanksgiving)...”
This article described diocesan indults in force for 1962-3 for the Friday after Thanksgiving (and several other days). This newspaper article did not address a 1958 papal Turkey Indult.
New Discoveries
In preparation for this second installment, I redoubled my efforts to find additional confirmation of the Turkey Indult described by Fr. Daniel Brennan in The Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper. As I mentioned at the end of my first article, the phrasing of Fr. Brennan’s response and the date of John XXIII’s election to the papacy make it highly suggestive that the Turkey Indult was granted by John XXIII and not Pius XII.
In the course of research, I sadly could find no additional sources besides the already-linked Pittsburgh Catholic article. I did, however, discover three additional dramatic papal indults granted by John XXIII within the first 10 months of his papacy.
Friday, December 26, 1958 (not a feast, vigil, or civic holiday)
Pope Okays Meat Friday Dec. 26,” The Herald-Press, Saint Joseph, Michigan (16 Dec 1958)
Friday, May 1, 1959 (a new feast)
Pope John Says Catholics Can Eat Meat Today,” Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota (01 May 1959)
Friday, August 14, 1959 (a vigil)
Catholics Can Eat Meat Friday, Pope Declares,” Galesburg Register-Mail, Galesburg, Illinois (11 Aug 1959)
These newspaper articles demonstrate that these papal dispensations were not routine or familiar and caused confusion amongst the bishops and the faithful.
For example, when John XXIII granted an indult for the nearly brand-new Feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1 (which fell on a Friday in 1959):
● The tone of the articles (here, here, and here) strongly suggests this sort of announcement was still a novelty.
● Such confusion reigned about what the Pope had done and to whom it applied to that the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, adamantly informed its Catholics that the indult only applied to Europeans and not to them!
● Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, assured its Catholics that the indult did in fact apply to them, but said that “official confirmation” of the indult from the Pope arrived only on Thursday (one day before the feast). This meant the Archdiocese had virtually no time to notify the faithful and had to print a notice in the paper on May 1, the day of the indult itself, just 24 hours after receiving the official confirmation from Rome.
Similar confusion can be observed when John XXIII granted an indult for the Vigil of the Assumption on August 14, several months later:
The Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana did not receive confirmation in time to announce the indult at Sunday Masses.
An article from Ontario, Canada added several thrilling points: they were waiting on confirmation (suggesting, like John XXIII’s other indults, they were released last-minute), it was a “precedent-making dispensation,” and dispensations never before been granted for the eve of a feast. This is a bit perplexing, as Pius XII issued an indult for the Vigil of the Assumption in 1956.
These new findings unexpectedly lend credence to my original hypothesis.
Within weeks of becoming pope, John XXIII issued multiple indults to dispense Catholics from their obligations to abstinence.
The indults were novel and diverse, dispensing Catholics from both vigils and Fridays adjacent to religious and civic holidays. An indult for the Friday after Thanksgiving would have been entirely in keeping with this pattern.
They were also issued on short notice, typically announced the week of the day in question. This detail suggests that it was John XXIII and not Pius XII who issued the Turkey Indult, as Pius XII died more than a month before Thanksgiving that year.
The newness and the last-minute nature of the announcements would also explain the lack of consistent documentation for any given indult, and the confusion about the indults’ applicability.
In this light, the article from Fr. Brennan in Pittsburgh about the 1958 Turkey Indult no longer seems to be a nearly-unbelievable outlier, but instead merely the first piece in an ensuing pattern.
The discovery of these additional papal indults from John XXIII also help to paint a fuller picture of the rapid preconciliar relaxation of traditional abstinence practices. Before concluding this article, I want to put these new examples into the wider context of what we now know of the history of these indults.
A rough timeline of papal indults from Leo XIII-John XXIII
It was not uncommon for popes to issue indults regarding fasting and abstinence during times of hardship (wartime, sickness) or if a major feast day fell on a Friday (Pope Leo XIII for the Friday of the Feast of the Assumption in 1890).
The bullet points below concern A) papal indults for days not in either of those categories, B) official communiques from Rome, or C) anecdotes that illustrate the atmosphere around fasting and abstinence.
● 1895: Pope Leo XIII issued an indult for all working class peoples.
● 1907: A Canadian newspaper reported a papal indult for Friday, November 1 (the Feast of All Saints), but stressed that the indult did not apply to their Thanksgiving, the day before (the Vigil of All Saints). The American Ecclesiastical Review in 1910 would uphold this.
● 1925: The Catholic Transcript ran a joke that, “Then, too, we suppose if a turkey had its way it would change Thanksgiving Day to Friday,” suggesting that Thanksgiving Friday was still meatless.
● 1931: Rome “granted to all the Ordinaries of the United States, ad quinquennium [for 5 years], the faculty to dispense their subjects from the laws in question whenever any of the civil holidays now observed occurs on a day of fast and abstinence, or of abstinence.” (Plese, This was not a papal indult, nor was the day in question a civic holiday. This was papal permission for diocesan indults. This same year, the Catholic Transcript’s Q&A column answered “Are Catholics allowed to eat meat on the Friday after Thanksgiving?” with a decisive “No.”
● 1954: Pope Pius XII issued an indult for Friday, December 31, the Vigil of the Octave of the Nativity of Our Lord.
● 1956: Pope Pius issued an indult for Tuesday, August 14, the Vigil of the Assumption. The article noted that the reasons for this indult were unexplained.
● 1957: Rome renewed the 1931 permissions for bishops to issue indults for the Friday after Thanksgiving.
● 1958, May: The Monitor teased lax Catholics who ate meat on Fridays: “Friday after Thanksgiving Day brings out the half-Catholics. In spite of all the refrigerators and deep freezers available, left-over turkey must be eaten on Friday “so it won’t spoil.”
● 1958, November: Pittsburgh Catholic reported a papal indult for the Friday after Thanksgiving that happened in 1958, and only 1958.
● 1958, December: John XXIII issued a papal indult to all Catholics for the Friday after Christmas.
● 1959, May: John XXIII issued a papal indult to all Catholics for Friday, May 1, the fairly new Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.
● 1959, August: John XXIII issued a papal indult to all Catholics for Friday, August 14, the Vigil of the Feast of the Assumption.
● 1960-onward: More American bishops take advantage of their ability to grant holiday and holiday-adjacent indults. For another dramatic example, the Canadian bishops abolished fasting and abstinence requirements for Ember days and all of Lent - in 1960.
● 1962: The Catholic News Service covered the renewal of the papal permissions for Turkey Indults, with an interesting quotation about the “great inconvenience” of abstaining on that Friday.
● 1966: Monsignor Charles Rice Owens in the Pittsburgh Catholic wrote a column with some admirable mental gymnastics explaining that actually, fasting and abstinence rules were bad.
● 1974: Archbishop Peter Gerety of Newark accidentally reinvented Wednesday and Friday fasting and abstinence.
Where does this leave us? Tying it all together
Based on the information collected so far, we can sketch a general picture of why this event was so difficult to discover and untangle.
Until the 1950’s, popes and bishops issued indults regarding fasting and abstinence when feast days fell on Fridays, and during wartime, sickness, or other times of widespread hardship. The indults were almost always one-time-use (for that year only), or for a finite period of time.
In 1954, we see our first anomaly: Pius XII issued an indult for Friday, December 31 (a vigil). Very shortly thereafter, Pius XII suppressed most vigils, necessitating fewer indults going forward. Pius XII offered a similar indult for Tuesday, August 14th, another Vigil.
Pius XII died on October 9, 1958. John XXIII was elected on October 28, 1958. In rapid succession, John XXIII issued indults for: the Friday after Thanksgiving (not a feast, a vigil, or a civic holiday), the Friday after Christmas (a vigil), Friday May 1 (a new feast), and Friday August 14 (a vigil). These indults caused a stir in both Catholic and secular newspapers.
By 1960, abstinence indults no longer automatically merited a headline, as more and more bishops issued their own indults. By the mid-to-late 1960’s, some writers wrote justifications for why fasting and abstinence were bad. By the 1970’s, the merits of fasting and abstinence had been “rediscovered.”
What this picture suggests to me is that the rash of papal indults were a sudden and short-lived event. Like many other contemporary reforms and changes, things moved so quickly that the actual facts and their applicability were difficult to determine, even by the recordkeepers.
Papal indults for vigils and feast- (or civic holiday adjacent-) Fridays did not appear until about 1954. Within just a few years, vigils had lost their penitential character, and abstinence was largely optional. The landscape shifted so quickly that the entire topic was rendered moot.
Indult-Gate should impress upon us several things: the confusion regarding exact facts and timelines preceding, during, and after the Council; the scarcity and inconsistency of documentation; and new documentation can dramatically alter our narratives. This mystery has not disappointed, and there is meat enough here (pun intended) for future researchers to question and explore.

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