Why Don’t Catholics Eat Meat on Fridays During Lent?

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Getty Pope Francis leads the Ash Wednesday mass

During the season of Lent, practicing Catholics are told to abstain from eating the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday. The current Lenten season began on Wednesday, February 26, 2020, and ends on Thursday, April 9 (Holy Thursday).

Where did the practice come from and why is fish acceptable to eat on Fridays?

Here’s what you need to know.


Abstaining From Flesh Meat is Considered a Form of Sacrifice to Honor Jesus Christ

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The Catholic Church used to forbid parishioners from eating meat every Friday of the year. Why Friday? Because that was the day Jesus Christ is said to have died on the cross in order to atone for the sins of mankind. Abstaining from eating the meat from a flesh animal is a symbolic way of honoring Christ’s flesh sacrifice.

Author Michael P. Foley, who has a Ph.D. in systematic theology, explained in his book “Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?” that abstaining from meat is symbolically a rejection of carnal behavior. “There is a certain theological appropriateness to abstaining from the meat of an animal whose blood has been shed on the day in which the blood of the Godman was shed, the absence of the former reminding us paradoxically of the latter.”

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis also explain that earlier in the Church’s history, meat was not a regular food item on the dinner table like it is in the modern era. It was associated with celebrations and feast days. Therefore, giving up something that correlates with feasting was viewed as a sacrifice.

Pope Francis alluded to this in a Daily Meditation in May of 2015, referring to the need to “abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals.”

The rules were technically relaxed beginning in 1966 and amended in the Code of Canon Law in 1983. But Catholics are encouraged to complete an act of penance or perform a good deed to make up for it.


Cold-Blooded Animals Are Acceptable to Eat on Fridays During Lent Because the Church Views Fish as Being  a Separate Category of Animal

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains simply on its website, “Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.” Food items that come from flesh-animals such as eggs, cheese, and milk are also acceptable to consume on Fridays, as Pope Paul VI explained in 1966:

III. 1. The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat.

2. The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom.

IV. To the law of abstinence those are bound who have completed their 14th year of age. To the law of fast those of the faithful are bound who have completed their 21st year and up until the beginning of their 60th year.”

Catholics view fish as a symbol for Jesus Christ. He is said to have cooked fish for his disciples after he rose from the dead. He also preached to his apostles that they would become “fishers of men” for God. The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of how Jesus called his first disciples:

“And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him. And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.”

As referenced above, the meat of warm-blooded animals was associated with celebrations and viewed as more of a sacrifice to give up, especially on the part of wealthier families. Fish was much more common and inexpensive in ancient times. Reverend Ken Collins, who is also a professor of Historical Theology, explained the theory as such: “Meat was a luxury food…On the other hand, anyone could grow vegetables or forage for them, and anyone could catch a fish in a lake or a stream. You could buy better fish and vegetables, but the point is that you could eat without money if you were poor. So meat was rich people’s food and fish was poor people’s food.”


There’s a Story That a Medieval Pope Wanted to Boost the Fishing Industry

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There is an enduring story about why fish is not grouped with beef, pork or poultry. The story goes that a pope during medieval times wanted to give the fishing industry a boost and may have even owned a fishing company.

But there is no evidence this actually happened. Professor of Canon Law Charles Reid of the University of St. Thomas Law School explained to CBS that the story is just urban legend. Author Michael Foley, referenced higher in this article, also described the theory as being “far-fetched.”

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