Fish on Fridays


Nothing symbolizes the supposed arbitrariness of religion to those predisposed towards skepticism towards religious belief more than does the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays during the season of Lent. I’ll admit to having asked myself, especially on Good Friday, what connection is there really, between not eating meat and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And then there is the philosophical paradox. If my soul is lost after I’ve eaten meat on a Lenten Friday, does that mean I’m free to commit worse sins without making my situation worse? But if the rule doesn’t really matter, then why follow it? And on and on and on and on…

Here’s what I do know. With the wide variety of fish and other meatless options available to a 21st century American, abstaining from meat on Fridays is about as small a “sacrifice” in a material sense as can be asked for. But honoring the rule does require me to make some conscious choices that run contrary to what the surrounding culture tells me are cool and sensible. And if I am unable to make this small sacrifice, because I find it too inconvenient, or because I’m afraid to explain myself to others who don’t share my belief or who might think that I’m being just plain silly, then on what basis can I believe myself to be capable of taking a stand in more serious situations, when the choices might be a little harder and the stakes a bit higher?

Slightly edited re-post of an April 6, 2007 original.

  • Warrington,

    I finally gave in to your annual critique this year, but I’m keeping the original title!

    • Warrington Faust

      If you would care for a brief scholarly, rather than theological, history of many of the Church’s customs and rituals, I commend William Manchester’s “A World Lit only by FIre”. Wil Durant takes it into much greater depth. While the Durants’ style is enjoyable, it is long.

  • Warrington Faust

    It is hard to understand how poor people were in the medeival period when these rules took root. It was not unusal for peasants to be so hungry that they sold their clothes and went naked in the summer. Meat on the table, on any day, was a rare event. I doubt that “meatless Fridays” worked any hardship, other than for the “one pecenters”. A lot of strange rules came into effect during that period, for instance “celibate” priests. That was introduced by a Pope that had children. Actually, the rule stems from the clergy flaunting their mistresses in front of the peasantry (those stories cling on in areas where Protestants are a majority, and Catholics rare. I remember hearing them as a kid).Fortunately, Johan Tetzel could clear you up for a few pence. I’m hazy on this, but I believe that “meatless Fridays” only apply to Western Hemisphere Catholics. In this age of much diminished Popes, it is hard to remember that their power was frequently exercised simply to remind the faithful of its existence. I am not sure the Germans have yet forgiven the Pope for requiring one of thier princes to remain prostate in the snow for 3 days, just because he could. I would have to dig through my books (a study of the Middle Ages is the study of Catholicism), but I believe there was a time when Lent was entirely meatless.

    Like Justin, I wonder what point there is to this rule, other than to remind people of their Catholicism. Since little to no harm is done, that might be sufficient.