Catholics throughout history have been called many names, some nice and others not so nice. One of the names that has been attached to Catholics is “fish eaters.” This is because of one of the more peculiarly outward Catholic practices that many non-Catholics wonder about—abstaining from meat on Fridays, particularly during Lent.
As a side note, abstaining from meat on all Fridays is still very much encouraged by the church. It was never meant to be completely dropped. Still, it is during Lent that it is actually mandated for Catholics not to eat meat on Fridays, and because there are more than 60 million Catholics in the United States you will start to see advertisements for seafood specials from various restaurants later this month when Lent gets under way.
Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini” on fasting and abstinence states: “The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the product of milk, or condiments made of animal fat.” The Latin word for meat is carnis, which can mean the flesh of any animal, but the original intent of Paul in “Paenitemini” refers to only birds and mammals, to the exclusion of such things as fish and seafood and even creepy crawling things. So if for some reason you want to eat a whole meal of chocolate covered ants on a Lenten Friday, more power to you! But what’s the point of all of this? Why do Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays, and how did that peculiar practice get started? Well, it kind of all started at the beginning—in ancient Palestine, where the church was born.
Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Because of this, Fridays took on a very somber tone. Jesus made the greatest sacrifice, the sacrifice of his very life, on a Friday. We who are Christians are to imitate Jesus to the very best of our ability, so Friday has since ancient times been the day of the week that Christians have abstained and fasted, the day of the week they have made sacrifices.
But why meat? During the time of Jesus, in fact even in Old Testament times, eating meat was an indication of a celebration; meat was fairly uncommon and very expensive. Because of this it was not something that was a regular part of the diet. Fish was much more plentiful and really considered to be the food of the common man. So from the very beginning it was unheard of for a Christian to eat meat on a Friday, because why would we have a celebration on the day that Jesus sacrificed his life?
Abstaining from meat is really not at all about the meat; it’s about the sacrifice. To the ancients, meat was not a bad thing to be avoided; it was a great thing to be savored. So it was meant to be sacrificed in a holy sort of way, so as to be more like our Savior. This is precisely why we miss the point if we go out to some fancy restaurant and order lobster on Lenten Fridays or even if we prepare a nice meal for ourselves at home that adheres to the letter of the law while neglecting the spirit of the law, which is much more important.
There have been numerous occasions when I have had well-intentioned parishioners tell me that they love Lent because they prefer fish to meat anyhow. Well, if you fall into that category then you have an added responsibility. Whether you like meat or fish better, we are still to adhere to the no meat policy of Lent, but it’s the sacrifice that is important. The responsibility then on Fridays would be to make some other sacrifice that would make up for the one you are avoiding in your love of seafood.
Again, we have to remember that it is not so much the letter of the law as it is the spirit of the law. We sacrifice during Lent because we imitate Christ; that’s the point. If you honestly forget that it is Friday and it occurs to you only when your hamburger is half eaten (I must confess that this has happened to me more than once—imagine doing that at McDonald’s wearing clerics), by all means don’t throw out the hamburger. Throwing it away would defeat the purpose and be wasteful at the same time. If this happens, be particularly diligent for the rest of the day, and I would even encourage you to abstain on an additional day of the week.
Lent is a holy time; we should take advantage of the opportunity to become more like Christ in our daily sacrifices. But these daily sacrifices should never be used to draw attention to ourselves. Don’t go around telling people what you are giving up, or what you are doing extra during Lent, because that too would be misguided. Jesus tells us that when we fast and pray we should do it in private. Get the most out of this season by doing as Christ said and did.