The State of the Turkey Indult 2023
Each year, we revisit the burning question of our generation:
Did the “Turkey Indult” really happen?
In 1958, did Pope Pius XII allow Catholics to eat meat the Friday after Thanksgiving?
The answer is no…and yes. The Turkey Indult did happen, but not how we think.
A definitive answer
Let’s cut to the chase. Contrary to many blog posts and memes out there, we can confidently say that there was a papal turkey indult in 1958, thanks to this Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper article.
Q: “I am wondering why a dispensation was not given for the Friday after Thanksgiving this year. One was given last year…”
A: “…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.”1
So why the confusion?
Part of the confusion is that at different times in the twentieth century, the reigning pope would give bishops the authority to do their own Turkey Indult. Each bishop was free to use or not use that indult for his diocese. That is an interesting slice of history in itself, but it’s unrelated to our discussion of a papal Turkey Indult - from the chair of St. Peter to you, so to speak.
The more notable cause of confusion is about the exact pope who issued the 1958 Turkey Indult…the Pittsburg Catholic article never actually said the name of the pope.
Pius XII died on October 9, 1958. While it’s possible he issued a Turkey Indult on his deathbed, more than a month before Thanksgiving, he couldn’t have done so in 1959.
The only logical explanation is that the turkey indult - which we now know happened, and was papally issued - came from Pope St. John XXIII, who issued a Turkey Indult in 1958 but chose not to do so in 1959.
Why didn’t it get more coverage? Well, that can be mostly answered by looking at the confusion following John XXIII’s cascade of innovative indults. Let me paint a picture.
(Sidebar: Did John XXIII really say that the purpose of the Council was to let the fresh air in to the Church?2)
Painting a picture
October 9, 1958: Pius XII dies.
October 28, 1958: John XXIII is elected.
November 27, 1958: Thanksgiving Day. Sometime between October 28 and November 27 - likely very close to November 27 - John XXIII fires off a brand new papal “Turkey Indult.” Given the lateness of the hour, the typical chaos of ushering in a new pope, and the pope’s unconventional approach in general, news of the Turkey Indult doesn’t make it to most newspapers.
December 26, 1958: John XXIII issues an indult for the Friday after Christmas.3
May 1, 1959: John XXIII issues an indult for Friday, May 1, the new Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.4 The Diocese of Erie announced it only applied to Europeans.5 The Archdiocese of Philly announced it applied to them.6
August 14, 1959: John XXIII issues an indult for the Vigil of the Assumption. The dioceses of Allentown, Pennsylvania7 and Lafayette, Indiana8 did not receive confirmation in time to announce the indult at Sunday Masses. By August 10, the Archbishop of Ontario, Canada had heard reports of an indult but was still waiting on confirmation.9
December 3, 1959: Someone in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, PA remembers that the pope said he could eat meat last Thanksgiving Friday. He writes his newspaper - can he do so again? The priest responds no, that was a one-time deal. Note that the priest doesn’t say “the pope didn’t issue a turkey indult,” or “that wasn’t the pope, that was your bishop.”
Remember, by 1958, Catholics had already seen numerous reforms, including a transformed Holy Week in 1955. Come 1960, there would be a colossal avalanche of changes. Hand missals constantly needing new inserts. New stuff at Mass every week. Reforms applied unevenly across dioceses.
Is it any wonder that we forgot such a small fact like the Papal Turkey Indult of 1958? Who could possibly keep up with all of this?
In terms of current practice, all of this is moot, of course. But as a fun, academic exercise, the turkey indult is THE MOST FUN.
There really was a one-time Turkey Indult issued in 1958 by Pope John XXIII.
We know this because of one single solitary newspaper column in 1959! And it upends years of debate! What small historical mysteries might we unravel, trawling Catholic newspapers and pamphlets and other (freely available! online!) primary sources!
By way of a conclusion, I quote theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, OP, who - in the midst of the even more confusing collegiality debate - gave a sketch of John XXIII that is illuminating for our story.
I myself find it depressing that I have to write two articles with all kinds of theological distinctions and explanations in order to bring some clarity. When such a thing is necessary, it clearly indicates an opaque situation and the faithful are thoroughly fed up with all these learned explanations. I can only agree with that. We also had to constantly make distinctions with Pope John, but his attitude was overwhelmingly humane and liberating which is why we did not make a spectacle when he suddenly placed St. Joseph in the canon at odds with the council, even though the church had no express need for it. John could have proclaimed Mary as Mother of the Church with the same nonchalance. We would have kindly smiled on. The one who does not take himself seriously but takes the church surprisingly seriously may, for our part, occasionally act against our wishes.10
Read my other Turkey Indult research articles
“On the Mythical Pius XII Thanksgiving indult.” New Liturgical Movement. November 19, 2020. https://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2020/11/on-mythical-pius-xii-thanksgiving.html
“Follow up on the Thanksgiving Indult.” New Liturgical Movement. February 22, 2021. https://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2021/02/follow-up-on-thanksgiving-indult-by.html#.YDUo8ehKjIU
“The Question Box: Why Friday Dispensations?” Pittsburgh Catholic, 3 December 1959. https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org/?a=d&d=TPC19591203-01.1.5&srpos=5 ↩︎
“Pope Okays Meat Friday Dec. 26.” The Herald-Press, Saint Joseph, Michigan. Tue, Dec 16, 1958. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/70239237/the-herald-press/ ↩︎
“Pope John Says Catholics Can Eat Meat Today.” Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fri, May 1, 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/70256261/star-tribune/ ↩︎
“Dispensation Doesn’t Affect Area Catholics.” The Titusville Herald, Titusville, Pennsylvania. Fri, May 1, 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/70246654/the-titusville-herald/ ↩︎
“Catholics Permitted To Eat Meat Today.” The Mercury, Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Fri, May 1, 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/70251793/the-mercury/ ↩︎
“Roman Catholics Eating Meat Today.” Republican and Herald, Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Fri, Aug 14, 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/70248118/republican-and-herald/ ↩︎
“Pope John Grants Dispensation To Eat Meat Friday.” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Logansport, Indiana. Thu, Aug 13, 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/70261669/logansport-pharos-tribune/ ↩︎
“May Erase Catholics’ Meat Ban This Friday.” The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Mon, Aug 10, 1959. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/70261937/the-ottawa-citizen/ ↩︎
This translation of Schillebeeckx’s quote is from Gregory Arblaster, who permitted me to reshare it. Read more context in my post here here: “Catholic fact check: Father Edward Schillebeeckx and Implicit Conclusions.” July 21, 2023. https://sharonkabel.com/post/schillebeeckx-implicit-conclusions/ ↩︎