When we think of religion, we normally don’t think about food. However, there are exceptions. One of the most discussed exceptions being the Catholic traditions concerning meat.

Why do Catholics give up meat? In modern times, meat is not eaten by Catholics on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, or the Fridays during Lent. Because Jesus, in essence, sacrificed His flesh for us, we refrain from eating flesh to honor Him and His sacrifice.

Roman Catholics traditionally abstained from eating red meat on all Fridays to honor the day of Jesus’s death- which is honored on Good Friday, with Easter the following Sunday representing the day that He rose again.

In the 80’s, rules changed to now allow Catholics to offer other types of penance on Fridays- meaning Catholics could, once again, eat meat regularly. We are required to continue abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays of Lent.

Though the rules have changed throughout the years, Catholics are still held to the standards of abstaining as it is tied to the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the cross. So why all of the changes?

Changing Church Laws

When looking into reasons behind fasting and not eating meat, it is important to point out that there is no Biblical directive that guides Christians on a specific diet or fast during these times. This is not a mandate outlined by Jesus. This was an actual man-made ruling that came down from the Catholic Church.

In fact, simply eating a certain diet has no spiritual value and does not guarantee drawing a person closer to God. Fasting is beneficial, and if done for the right reasons can continue to bring you closer in your relationship with the Holy Father. However, Jesus actually uses these words, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them” (Matthew 15:11).

What this means is that these diet restrictions were created AFTER the death of Jesus and the writing of the Bible as a way to honor His sacrifice. Restricting the eating of red meat, the flesh of a warm-blooded animal, reminds us of the blood that Jesus spilled and the flesh that he sacrificed for us all.

Rules stating that Catholics cannot eat meat on Fridays during Lent is much more lenient today than in past centuries. Originally, the Catholic Church had a law that kept parishioners from eating meat on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Three Days a Week!

The rule was then relaxed somewhat to abstaining from meat only on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays. The new rule still kept individuals from eating meat at least once a week.

In 1966, the rule was further simplified, then once again in the 80’s. Each change in the law gave more power to the parishioner and took away some of the restrictive qualities. Many older Roman Catholics today continue to stand by the more restrictive laws.

Today’s Catholics are only prohibited from eating red meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Fridays that fall during the 40 days of Lent. Of course, some Catholics still retain stricter rules for themselves.

 It is also important to point out that there are no “Catholic meat police” and your consumption or abstaining is a personal choice and one that you will have to make for yourself. Just as you are in control of your honesty during confession and living your life in a Christ-like manner, sticking to the meat free mandate is something only the individual Catholic has control over.

Eating Fish Instead

The church mandate that we should not eat meat includes meat that is referred to as “flesh”. This refers not only to red meat, but meat of mammals as well as poultry. This includes such things as pork, beef, chicken and turkey. This mandate does not prohibit non-flesh products. That means that milk, cheese, butter and eggs are allowable.

Many Catholics substitute fish in place of “flesh” during days where they are abstaining. Fish falls into a different category of animals, and this is laid out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. According to the Conference, only the meat of warm-blooded animals is prohibited.

We get the words carnivore, or carnivorous from the Latin word for meat, caro. This word applies strictly to flesh meat. It is also known that this type of meat was more expensive and not eaten on a regular basis by those of standard income, eaten only on special occasions, if even then.

Fish was cheaper and eaten regularly in these families. Therefore, when faced with this mandate, it was the affluent who suffered more over the lack of meat. Turning to fish as opposed to a vegetarian alternative was more palatable and nutritious.

Jesus’ Sacrifice

Penance expresses sorrow and contrition for our sins. Abstinence, in whatever form, shows our intention to turn away from sin and back to God. This can be a way to pay the penalties we have incurred through our behaviors.

Abstinence is also a form of asceticism- which is a practice of self-denial which allows us to grow in our relationship with the Lord. Jesus repeatedly asked his disciples to deny themselves and take up the cross. Abstinence is a way to deny the cravings of our flesh and to honor the Lord, who Himself practiced the ultimate self-denial on the cross.

Giving up the flesh of warm-blooded animals on Fridays but having a Seafood feast instead defeats the overall purpose of abstinence. If we are feasting on Friday, even though we are not eating meat, we are allowing our feasting to fly in the face of the nature of the abstaining. Truly abstaining on Fridays should mean a simple, modest meal- including fish or a substitute to meat.

Simple Friday meals may include a vegetarian offering, a simple fish course, or other meatless dinners. Some families look at Fridays as “easy night” offering items like Soup and salad, tuna fish sandwiches, cheese pizza, or breakfast for dinner- such as eggs and toast or pancakes. Meal simplicity keeps within the spirit of abstaining. Of course, young children do not understand the reasoning- and keeping it positive is important so as they grow they will be able to understand the sacrifice- but not have it tied to unhappy memories.

Abstinence to honor the sacrifice of Jesus extends beyond not eating meat on specific days. During the 40 days of Lent, or during other periods where Catholics feel a need to further honor God or draw closer to him- they may abstain or “fast” from other items as well. This may also include an increase in prayers or devotions.

Fasting for some Catholics may look very different from meat-free meals. They may decide to abstain from secular music for a period, they may take a break from social media, deny oneself chocolate, or stop drinking coffee for a time. Whatever they stop is something they feel difficulty in letting go of.

During the course of fasting, these individuals will also increase prayers and devotions. Fasting outside of the mandated periods is a very personal decision and process. It will look different for each Catholic based on their individual walk and relationship with the Lord, their upbringing, and their current needs.

So, when asking why Catholics give up meat, it can be a varied explanation that goes back to the beginnings of the Catholic church, but all coming down to being a sacrifice that is meant to honor the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross. Though the rules have changed through the years, relaxing the stringent days of fasting, the spirit and purpose of the abstaining is still in place.

Learn More

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