April 2, 2010

Fish on Fridays

Carroll Andrew Morse

Nothing symbolizes the supposed arbitrariness of religion to those predisposed towards skepticism towards religious belief more than does the Catholic practice of eating fish on Fridays during the season of Lent. I’ll admit to having asked myself, especially on Good Friday, what connection there is between fish and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And then there is the philosophical paradox. If my soul is lost after I’ve eaten meat on a Lenten Friday, does that mean I’m free to commit worse sins without making my situation worse? But if the rule doesn’t really matter, then why follow it? And on and on and on and on…

Here’s what I do know. With the choice of fish options available to a 21st century American, eating fish on Fridays is about as small a “sacrifice” in a material sense as can be asked for. But honoring the rule does require me to make some conscious choices that run contrary to what the surrounding culture tells me are cool and sensible. And if I am unable to make this small sacrifice, because I find it too inconvenient, or because I’m afraid to explain myself to others who don’t share my belief or who might think that I’m being just plain silly, then on what basis can I believe myself to be capable of taking a stand in more serious situations, when the choices might be a little harder and the stakes a bit higher?

Slightly edited re-post of an April 6, 2007 original.

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One of the things that is a little ironic about it is I believe the allowance to eat fish instead of red meat is because red meat was a luxury yet fish was so plentiful, anyone could get some. However nowadays, that's reversed a bit. We don't hear much about restricting the annual catch of steer like we do for the fish populations. And catch your own saltwater fish without a boat or just using a little dinghy and a net? Good luck with that.

When the price of fish is around $10 a pound and red meat is closer to $3-4 a pound, which one is the luxury today?

Posted by: Patrick at April 2, 2010 2:58 PM

I am not of the impression that "fish of Friday" is a matter of long standing. I also thought it was largely an Irish tradition. Cuban Catholics I have known had never heard of it.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 2, 2010 5:30 PM

I believe that abstinence from meat on Fridays has been a part of Canon law for at least 100 years (though by the standards of the Catholic Church, that may be considered brief.)

I am not sure exactly how what is written in the Canon results in an extra emphasis on Fridays during Lent; that's part of the reason why I refer to the "practice of" in the original post.

Posted by: Andrew at April 2, 2010 5:59 PM

I grew up in the 50's and the majority catholic structure in RI dictated- friday was fish day- and that meant quite simply - fresh fish in the markets on friday. So although my parents chose to steer clear of any religion for themselves and for their children ( we were free to explore whatever we wanted to), we ate fish on fridays. My father would buy the fresh fish in Fall River on his way home from Dartmouth. It never felt like a sacrifice.

Posted by: David S at April 2, 2010 6:59 PM

I believe that one of the Popes dispensed the Spaniards from the Friday fish obligation as a reward for driving the Muslims and Jews from Spain. This may explain why your Cuban friends never heard of the practice.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at April 4, 2010 10:59 PM
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