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The Friday Catholic

Growing up a Catholic, Fridays were spent eating mac 'n cheese and something called a fish stick, which resembled fish in name only.

A Fish Tale

Is there a difference between fasting and abstaining in the practices of the Catholic Church? Are Catholics still required to follow those centuries-old rules? Did the Church really create that policy to bolster the fish trade?

These questions and more can be answered by examining the laws and practices of the church which have been instituted and changed and sometimes changed again, over a couple millennia.


In The Beginning

The requirement to fast and abstain from eating meat or "warm-blooded flesh" on Fridays dates back to the first century A.D. The idea was to observe the day that Christ died by engaging in some sort of penance. Along with that, the practice established solidarity with all other Christians during a time when persecution was the greatest threat to both their belief and often, their lives.

Around the thirteenth century, the ruling Bishops decreed that Fridays and other Holy Days of Obligation, be meatless days but that fish could continue to be consumed. Today that list includes; among other things, shrimp and shellfish, beaver, muskrat, and alligator.

Individual Bishops had the power to decide which species could be included or substituted for meat in their local diocese. So varied were the options that during the 1600s Bishops in France determined that the Puffin, a seagoing bird, could actually be considered a fish.

Rumor has it that the Pope of Rome a thousand years ago, saw that the fishing industry needed some propping up, so he established a relationship with possibly the first lobbying group in history.

This conspiracy theory although interesting and persistent, has never been proven to be true.

The Fisher King

The first real instance of a ruler using this custom for political gain occurred after King Henry VIII of England broke away from the Catholic Church, in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

Then, he established himself as the King of the English Anglican Church and proceeded to abolish the requirement to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. This no doubt was another way to take a jab at Pope Clement VII who had refused his request for the annulment of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Henry, who had a wanton desire for female companionship, and, no lack of women willing to oblige him, failed to conceive a male heir with Catherine and subsequently had her convicted, of all things-adultery. She was then beheaded, no doubt to save all that messiness of a divorce. He then married wife number three, I think.

Later on, however, his son Edward VI did re-instate the requirement to abstain from meat "... to spare flesh, and use fish for the benefit of the commonwealth where many be fishers, and use the trade of living."

The fishing industry to fulfill the needs of Catholic and Anglican consumers, continued to expand westward into the North Atlantic in search of Cod which was tastier and could be better preserved than the typical herring species that was available.

Thus the fishing industry grew and prospered and was carried to North America and subsequently, to McDonalds and its Filet-0-fish, with or without cheese.


Why it's Important

Biblical historians agree that the fish was a universal symbol of penitence and sacrifice. Meat was not readily accessible to the masses because of the cost to own and raise livestock, so it was only eaten on special occasions or during celebrations.

In the case of Friday abstinence, it was determined that by eliminating the consumption of meat and the associated celebrations, would serve a fitting way to recognize the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Jewish culture also included the fish as both a readily available and penitent food source dating back to long before the birth of Christ. That tradition continues today through the practice of eating gefilte or "stuffed" fish on the Sabbath.

As the church grew so did the rules which governed the eating of meat on Fridays until The Second Vatican Council in 1966 clarified the requirement.

Pope Paul VI and Vatican II, did not abolish the practice of eating only fish on Fridays but did change the wording to reflect a choice by parishioners to make some sacrifice on Fridays while obligating meatless days on Fridays and Ash Wednesday during The Lenten Season.

The whole idea was intended for followers to grow closer to Jesus through sacrifice and what amounts to symbolic suffering on a Friday. What little pain this observance caused, paled in comparison to being nailed to a cross.

The Church reminds us, it's the conscious action that counts and after all, who in our western culture couldn't benefit from occasional fasting or skipping that bacon cheeseburger once a week?

The 1983 Code of Canon Law of The Latin Catholic Church continued to require that all practicing Catholics follow the requirement to abstain from meat on all Fridays but especially those during Lent.

As it stands today, practicing Catholics over the age of 14 are required to abstain from eating meat on each Friday during Lent, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Fasting, another species entirely, refers to the practice of not eating anything at times and on certain days. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to eat only one full meal and two smaller meals which together do not constitute a full meal. No snacks are allowed in between meals. Fasting for one hour before receiving communion is still a requirement.

Exceptions are made for age, health, pregnant or nursing women and some others.

Back to Fishing

I remember growing up, that Fridays were not so much for eating fish which were pretty expensive unless we caught them ourselves. Our meatless meals consisted of macaroni and cheese or tuna casserole.

School lunches back in the day included more fish sticks that I could count. These soggy mashed strips of breading resembled real fish in name only. Grilled cheese and tomato soup also became a staple of Friday meals.

So, I will, during the remaining days Lent, continue to suffer the absence of cream and sugar in my coffee, head out for Friday fish or whip up a batch of mac'n cheese for supper.

I might even try a fried alligator po'boy the next time we visit Mississippi.

Probably skip the Puffin muffin.


'Are Meatless Fridays Still a Thing? Does it Matter?' by Steven D. Greydanus

'Lust, Lies And Empire: The Fishy Tale Behind Eating Fish on Fridays'by Maria Godoy

'Fast and Abstinence' by Colin B. Donovan, STL

'Musings of a Pertinacious Papist' by Michael P. Foley

'Gefilte Fish in America' by Tamara Mann

'5 Delicious Animals You Can Eat During Lent' by Danny Gallagher