Visitors - Come on in and say hello!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Fridays in Lent?

I don't know about you, but I'm weary of hearing both Catholics and non-Catholics trot out the "saving-the-fish-industry" tripe in explanation as to why Catholics may eat fish on Fridays.

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:

 "When we feast we feast. When we fast, we cheat."

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:

Whether it is fitting that those who fast should be bidden to abstain from flesh meat, eggs, and
milk foods?

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.

Well! That's interesting, isn't it?   Keep in mind, before you start arguing about what science tells us about nutrition, that the questions regarding the discipline of Lent really don't have anything to do with nutrition at all. They have to do with SACRIFICE and controlling our passions in order to be better conformed to Christ.   You can read the entire question of fasting here.  Note how the Angelic Doctor uses the term "flesh" and its relation to humanity and thus to Christ.

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.


Mandrivnyk said...

I dunno, Adoro. Is the issue of meat on Friday's really that controversial?

Honestly? Growing up, I thought Catholics had to eat fish on Fridays. I didn't learn about things like abstinence from meat until after I started seriously contemplating Catholicism.

It wasn't a particularly petty thought on my part. I thought it was interesting, sure, and definitely pretty funny, but didn't much care. Lots of religions have dietary restrictions. If someone got upset at my anti-Catholic stupidity back then, it would really have put me off, I think.

Adoro said...

Mandrivynk ~ It might not be an issue for YOU, but google it, and you'll find it's a point of contention for a LOT of people, Catholic and non-Catholic both.

A few years ago when St. Patrick's Day fell on a Friday, you'd have thought it was Armegeddon with all the Catholics demanding dispensation so they could get drunk and eat meat. (While in Ireland they said, "What the heck is wrong with Americans? That's not what St. Patrick is about!")

Just today, I've come across SEVERAL (i.e. "can't count") posts on this topic, because for some reason, everyone feels the need to discuss it, and certain people like to trot out the "fish industry" carp.

(Yes, I said "carp" Given they are bottom-feeders I feel the transposition of letters is proper to this topic.)

If I wasn't a blogger, maybe I wouldn't notice it, and maybe people wouldn't write to me asking for links on the topic. And so maybe I wouldn't notice.

But clearly, it is a point of contention for some souls, and therefore, it NEEDS to be answered. And as it is a question, it belongs to the higher power of human reason, and thus it DESERVES to be answered, even if it isn't YOUR question.

Does that make sense?

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

Gotcha :)

Mandrivnyk said...

Heh. I don't have problems with asking, or answering questions.

Just saying, I guess, that it's a common enough misconception - and most people don't mean any harm by it. They just don't know any better.

I’ve noticed, like you, how upset people can get over fasting and abstinence, and it really is very confusing. Our norms are so very lax in the West (I recently had to try and explain the Byzantine, in both senses of the term, restrictions for Great Lent to my Ukrainian Mom, and succeeded in gaining a headache). As if avoiding meat for one day a week is really such a burden. Well, it can be in my house – but I have *no* control on what I am able to eat, and that’s hardly what life is for most people.

Anyway, back to watching figure skating!

Abbey's Road said...

I've heard that converts (like moi) are the ones who take things so very seriously when it comes to our mother Church. I appreciate every new fact that I learn. The Church Laws are there for a reason and it's like the American Constitution - everybody keeps trying to conform it to suit their personal agendas/lifestyles.

Accept and go on, I say, or leaving the Church is another option. OR, you can just go to confession, but in that case, you must not engage in the sin again.

I am embracing this Lenten Season with everything in me, and I am already experiencing a great and wonderful enlightenment. My spirituality is growing in leaps and bounds ... my cousin wrote to me the other day saying, "you have changed so much in the last year ...", meaning spiritualy.

God is probably looking at all this hoopla and grinning at how silly humanity can be. At least He has something to humor him; war and evil are not the only things that our Loving Father sees!

Blessings, Adoro,

Joe @ Defend Us In Battle said...

In Detroit Muskrat is OK. So if you need a fix... that is the place to go ;)

Melody K said...

I hadn't heard the "saving the fish industry" thing for many years; I didn't think anyone took it seriously anymore, until a co-worker mentioned it recently. I charitably (I hope!) corrected him.
It's funny, but Lenten "Friday food" doesn't really seem penitential to me. It brings back good memories of when I was a kid, and Mom fixed tuna casserole; salmon patties, or mac and cheese on Friday night. And my brother and I hurried to wash the dishes so we could watch "Rawhide" after supper (that really dates me!).

Banshee said...

Re: St Patrick's Day

The Irish in Ireland went through a hundred and fifty years of strict stamping out of "patterans" (patronal feast fairs) in order to make St. Patrick's Day not about drinking. Now that that's stopped, they're going back to doing what the American Irish never stopped doing on the one big patteran, which is dancing, listening to music, and drinking. (Although we don't usually gamble or fight, or go on barefoot pilgrimages before the drinking and fighting parts, so we're not really experiencing the full patteran spectrum.)

It's a very similar phenomenon to what happened in the Appalachians, or with the Acadians in Quebec and Louisiana. The mother country forgot; the daughter country remembered -- sins and virtues both.

Banshee said...

Re: fasting

Fasting does call up strong emotions. You get people who want to prove you don't know why you're doing it, people who don't like you doing it, and people who get all nose in the air about how lax Catholic fasting is, compared to their church or cause's total fast or vegetarianism.

Most of the time, I don't mind. I do find myself getting edgy if people move from talking about "this is what I'm doing this year" to "this is what you should do!". (Or the ever-popular "tell Father Z he shouldn't eat nice things on Friday", which shows up like clockwork.)

However, if you'd talked to me about 5:40 PM today, talking about fasting would have found me to be cranky and sobbing like a baby because my blood sugar dropped a little too far before I got to eat dinner. Sigh. Ah, the opportunities I get for mortification without fasting hard at all! Phear the Phasting! :)

(Must plan better....)

Rachel said...

I've never heard that we "have" to eat fish; that we are required to. It's an option for people instead of eating "meat". The only thing that bothers me about eating fish on fridays is that we're not supposed to eat meat, but people eat fish. Fish IS meat. Meat is the flesh of an animal, and therefore fish IS meat. The reason that I think we are allowed to eat fish is because it is a way of cheating when we fast. No one would follow the rules if all meat were excluded, so we find an exception and say "well, if we just say meat is only mammals, then it's okay, and we get around it. Personally, I go vegan on fridays in Lent.

Mary N. said...

Interesting post. Funny, too :) Personally, I never eat fish on Fridays. Actually, I never eat fish...can't stand the stuff. Once in a blue moon I'll force a few bites down to see if it still tastes disgusting and it always does.

Moniales said...

In Florence, Italy in the 1500's (I don't know if this was common other places) the Dominican Nuns of the Monastery of St. Vincent in Prato used to make special sweets that were sold DURING LENT. These were to HELP with the fast!
Now, we think giving up sweets is the ultimate meaning of Lenten penances! I bet that the idea was that it helped keep the blood sugar up when you weren't eating any protein.
I'm all for reviving Lenten practices from the 1500's! :-)

PITtravelgirl said...

I know this post is two years old, but I've been scouring the internet for an explanation for why Catholics don't eat meat on Friday and this is the best one I've found! Thank you, Adoro!

Adoro said...

Thanks for your comment, PITtravelgirl!

Haven't looked at this post and I see several grammatical errors. Always good for growing in humility. :-)

In all seriousness, glad this has been helpful for you. Be sure to click on the links I provided within to other experts - they really do explain it better than I!