The past six Fridays, Catholics observing Lent have skipped sirloin in favor of fish sticks. Why? Legend has it that, centuries ago, a medieval pope with connections to EuropeБs fishing business banned red meat on Fridays to give the industry a boost. That story isnБt true. Sunday school teachers have a more theological answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days and died on a Friday. Catholics honor both occasions by making a small sacrifice: avoiding animal flesh one day out of the week. That explanation is dandy for a homily, but it doesnБt explain why red meat and poultry are targetedБand why itБs perfectly okay to eat seafood. For centuries, the reason evolved with the fast. In the beginning, some worshippers only ate bread. But by the Middle Ages, they were avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 13th century, the meat-fish divide was firmly establishedБand Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a lovely answer explaining why: sex, simplicity, and farts. In Part II of his, Aquinas wrote:
БFasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products. Б Put differently, Aquinas thought fellow Catholics should abstain from eating land-locked animals because they were too darn tasty. Lent was a time for simplicity, and he suggested that everyone tone it down. It makes sense. In the 1200s, meat was a luxury.
Eating something as decadent as beef was no way to celebrate a holiday centered on modesty. But Aquinas had another reason, too: He believed meat made you horny. б БFor, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods. Б There you have it. You can now blame those impure thoughts on a beef patty. (Aquinas might have had it backwards. According to the American Dietetic Association, red meat doesnБt boost Бseminal matter. Б Men trying to increase their sperm count are generally advised to on meat. However, red meat does improve, so itБs give-and-take. ) Aquinas gave a third reason to avoid meatБit wonБt give you gas. БThose who fast,Б Aquinas wrote, Бare forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables, which are flatulent foods. Б Aquinas argued that Бflatulent foodsБ gave your Бvital spiritБ a quick pick-me-up. Meat, on the other hand, boosts the bodyБs long-lasting, lustful Бa religious no-no. But why isnБt fish considered meat? The reason is foggy. Saint PaulБs first letter to the Corinthians, for one, has been used to justify fasting rules. Paul wrote, ББThere is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fish, and another of birdsБ (15:39). That distinction was possibly taken from JudaismБs own dietary restrictions, which separates fleishig (which includes land-locked mammals and fowl) from pareve (which includes fish).
Neither the Torah, Talmud, or New Testament clearly explains the rationale behind the divide. ItБs arbitrary, anyway. In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec ruled that. In Latin America, itБs okay to eat capybaraБapparently Бon Lenten Fridays. Churchgoers around Detroit can guiltlessly munch on every Friday. And in 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans gave alligator the thumbs up when he declared, Б. Б Thanks to King Henry VIII and Martin Luther, Protestants donБt have to worry about their diet. When Henry ruled, fish was one of EnglandБs most popular dishes. But when the Church refused to grant the King a divorce, he broke from the Church. Consuming fish became a pro-Catholic political statement. Anglicans and the KingБs sympathizers made it a point to eat meat on Fridays. Around that same time, Martin Luther declared that fasting was up to the individual, not the Church. Those attitudes hurt EnglandБs fishing industry so much that, in 1547, HenryБs son King Edward VIБwho was just 10 at the timeБtried to reinstate the fast to improve the countryБs fishing economy. Some Anglicans picked the practice back up, but ProtestantsБwho were strongest in Continental EuropeБdidnБt need to take the bait. б б By Father Kenneth Doyle Catholic News Service Posted April 3, 2014 Q. Why is it OK to eat fish on Fridays during Lent, but not other animals? Isn t fish meat as well? Is shellfish, like lobster and shrimp, considered fish, and does the church allow its consumption on meatless days? (It seems to me that lobster is extravagant and shouldn t be eaten during a season when almsgiving and abstinence are encouraged. ) (Canal Winchester, Ohio) A. First, a clarification on the rule.
The prohibition against meat on Lenten Fridays is not universally binding. National conferences of bishops, and even bishops of each diocese, have some discretion in applying the rules of fast and abstinence. In the diocese where I live, for example, Catholics are asked to refrain from eating meat on the Fridays in Lent. However, the published guidelines specify that by retaining these traditions for our diocese we do not intend that they be interpreted as laws binding under pain of sin, but as customs from which we will not hold ourselves lightly excused. Evidence from the church s earliest centuries indicates that meat was already singled out as a particular type of food from which Christians occasionally abstained. Why meat? Because meat was associated with celebrations and feasts and was considered a luxury in some cultures. Fish, by comparison, was more often the poor man s meal. Your observation that fish is also meat is correct technically and biologically. It is the flesh of an animal, but in many Western languages the term meat is used customarily to refer only to the flesh of mammals and fowl. In his 1966 apostolic constitution on penance, Paul VI used the Latin word carnis in regard to abstinence, a word that refers specifically to mammals and birds. As to lobster and shrimp, they are indeed fish, and so there is no prohibition against eating them on days of abstinence. But I agree with your point: The spirit of Lent is one of penance, in memory of Christ s suffering, and of sharing our blessings with the poor.
To forego a hamburger on a Lenten Friday and substitute instead a lobster tail seems a bit hypocritical. As a matter of fact, the bishops of the U. S. agree; their website says, While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not considered meat and can be consumed on days of abstinence, indulging in the lavish buffet at your favorite seafood place sort of misses the point. Q. In the church that I attend, there are several mothers who breast-feed their children during Mass. Is that, in the church s view, appropriate? (Indianapolis) A. There is, as you might suspect, no particular canon in the church s code that covers this. To some extent, the appropriateness would depend on local culture and customs. But mothers who want to breast-feed discreetly during a church service now seem to have a new advocate and one with considerable standing. In January 2014, Pope Francis baptized 32 babies at a Mass in the Vatican s Sistine Chapel. During a short and unscripted homily, he said this: Some (children) will cry because they are uncomfortable or because they are hungry. If they are hungry, mothers, let them eat, no worries, because here they are the main focus. That matched what Pope Francis had told an Italian newspaper a month earlier, about a woman whose infant had been crying forcefully at a general audience: I told her, Ma am, I think your baby is hungry. And she replied, Yes, it would be time. I replied, Well, please feed him. She was modest and didn t want to breast-feed him in public while the pope drove by. Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at and 40 Hopewell St. , Albany, N. Y. 12208.