I did a quick google search today and saw all kinds of weird questions, such as: "Where does it say that in the Bible that we have to eat fish on Friday", and "Why do Catholics have to eat fish?"
Those are the wrong questions!
Let me address this:
Catholics DON'T have to eat fish on Fridays in Lent!
This is why the "fish industry" myth is so ridiculous, and I'm flummoxed as to why it is so popular and remains so unquestioned! When it comes to Catholics and public opinion about us, what happens to critical thinking? Why is it that myth reigns and weird outta-left-field-ancient-ignorant anti-Catholic attitudes become such a part of our lenten practices?
And really, I also wonder why ANYONE cares whether or not Catholics eat fish on Fridays? Why is something so inane even a topic of discussion? Who had the pettiness to invent this myth, and who is so petty as to pass it on especially in this day and age? If this myth were true, wouldn't it actually be a GOOD thing, for it would have been an exercise of the Church's teaching on social justice and charity for the poor?
My dear friends, if you run into someone who lodges this accusation, please point out to them that at NO point in the history of the Church were Catholics EVER ordered to eat fish on Fridays. If they continue to press the point, ask in turn that they locate the Church document that ordered the practice of EATING FISH.
It isn't there. It doesn't exist. If you think it does, please find it and send it to me. I would be very interested in reading it.
What we are asked to do is to offer a universal penance in honor of the death of Our Lord on the Cross, by abstaining from meat. That is a FAR CRY from the claim that we "have to eat fish on Friday."
But as Fr. V. at Adam's Ale said in a perfect summary of fallen human nature:
THAT (read the whole post to understand "that") is why the Church asks us to practice a common discipline, a common penance, during lent. NOT because the fish union went to a pope and said that they needed help getting people to eat their slimy offerings. “Please make Catholics not eat meat on Fridays so that we can improve our bottom line!” If that were the case the pope would have said, “Eat fish on Fridays!”
We do not eat fish on Fridays. We abstain from meat. The reason so many Catholics eat fish on Fridays is that when we feast we feast, and when we fast we cheat. “They didn’t say we couldn’t eat fish so let’s eat that!” And Holy Mother Church rolls her eyes and says, “Fine, eat fish instead.”
Now, that's ONE explanation, but there is another that gives us some insight into the actual DISCIPLINE of this particular penance. The fact that there is a tradition (small "t") of SOME Catholics eating fish during Lent goes back to the allowance of fish in place of meat. And I can tell you, growing up, while I LOVED to go fishing, I HATED eating the catch. I hated everything ABOUT fish: the smell, the taste, the texture, the fact I had to eat it anyway if I wanted dessert, etc. For me, eating fish on Fridays was a very real penance. (I don't mind fish now...I've grown up. But I still don't eat it on Fridays especially during Lent. I tend to go vegetarian instead.)
But I digress, as usual. So let me offer you another explanation that comes from St. Thomas Aquinas himself: (Thanks to Taylor Marshall at Canturbury Tales for the tip to look to this part of the Summa: check out his post and comments as well.)
From the Summa Theologia, IIa-IIae Q.147.8:
I answer that, As stated above (a. 6), fasting 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, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, 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.
Reply to Objection 3. Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh: wherefore the prohibition of flesh meat takes precedence of the prohibition of eggs and milk foods. Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption. For this reason the eating of flesh meat is forbidden in every fast, while the Lenten fast lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods. As to the use of the latter things in other fasts the custom varies among different people, and each person is bound to conform to that custom which is in vogue with those among whom he is dwelling. Hence Jerome says†: “Let each province keep to its own practice, and look upon the commands of the elders as though they were the laws of the apostles.”
* Cf. P. I., Q. 118, a. 1, ad 3. † Augustine, De Lib. Arb. iii, 18; cf. De Nat. et Grat. lxvii.
e “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Second and Revised Edition, 1920.
We don't eat fish on Fridays by any decree from Rome. In fact, I'd argue that Lenten Fish Fries go against the spirit of Lent, except for the fact that they are usually held for the purpose of giving alms, another Lenten requirement. (Yes, we are called to fast and offer our savings from the food we AREN'T eating to the poor, or offer alms in some other form.)
I loved fishing and have written of my memories of fishing with my Dad as a little girl. But I hated the smell, the taste, the processing of the fish, and found the seeming obligation during Lent to eat fish to be truly penitential, but for a few exceptions. I don't mind it now, but tend to make it a point to deny even the fish that I like in order to experience the deprivations and penance required by the true spirit of Lent which point to the sacrifice of Christ and our obligation as Christians to become more like Him.
The fact is this:
As Catholics, EVERY Friday throughout the year is a commemoration of Good Friday, thus it is a penitential day. EVERY FRIDAY requires us to do some kind of penance. In America, in most dioceses, we can decide what we want to do as penance. Most observant Catholics continue to give up meat on Fridays as it is easy to remember and consistent...and when there are social plans that may involve meat, say, at a friend's home, it reminds one to recall Christ's own sacrifice and maybe give us a chance to proclaim our faith even if in social discomfort.
I don't know why, but the Jews and the Muslims don't seem to have a problem proclaiming their faith through observance of their dietary laws and observances. Why is it such an issue for Catholics? When did WE turn into such complete wusses?
News for most Catholics: it's a sin to NOT do some sort of penitential observance on Fridays throughout the year! It's not a "Lenten" thing, but a WEEKLY thing!
During Lent, though, we are required to abstain from meat in union with all Catholics throughout the world, and if you want to focus on the Social Justice end of it, in union with all the starving peoples everywhere, to whom you can give the money saved so that THEY can have meat for once.
What's so hard about that, and why is it such a cause for controversy?
If you're one to attack the practice, Stop it! Turn your heart and soul to Christ in place of bitterness. He did not die for any of us so that we could be free to be jerks. He died so that we might follow Him, take an example from His own Holiness, and rise above our fallen nature in cooperation with Grace. Lent and the imposed disciplines of Lent help us to do that.
It really is that simple.