April 22, 2011

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.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

I am sympathetic to your point, having had an Irish Catholic mother and believing in self-discipline as honorable. But "honoring" the rule requires accepting that it is a rule, which requires accepting the authority of the Church. And that is something that many of us see no need to do.

That said, if the weather holds this afternoon, some swordfish or tuna steaks on the charcoal grill would be a great choice for tonight's dinner.

Posted by: BobN at April 22, 2011 12:20 PM

I believe that Good Friday is one of those days calling for fasting, not just eating fish.

Posted by: John at April 22, 2011 1:22 PM

When I was a student at Providence College, the Junior Ring Weekend dance was scheduled for one Friday during the lent season. No one had checked the calendar before ordering the menu and sending out the tickets. About a week before the event, someone realized the rubber chicken we were going to be served was going to damn us to hell. They couldn't reorder the food because the cost would be too high, so the Bishop had to give us a special dispensation to allow us to eat the chicken.

There is that story and when St. Patrick's day lands on Friday in lent, the Bishop allows corn beef.

See the rule for what it is, a bunch of fishermen needed a boost in their economy back in the day and the church decided to help out.

Posted by: Swazool at April 22, 2011 2:01 PM

Actually, I do see the rule for what it is, which involves both Andrew's point and Bob's: It's an illustration of a willingness to accept the authority of the Church in spiritual matters. Eating meat out of ignorance or necessity won't damn one to Hell, and if the Church's appropriate authority (e.g., the bishop) offers a special dispensation, then the same is true.

There isn't a magical, mystical force in the universe that zaps Catholics who eat meat on Fridays, but there is an internal corruption among Catholics (and non-Catholics, truth be told) who take the Church's authority so lightly as to willfully ignore such a simple show of faith.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 22, 2011 4:35 PM

Justin, I have to ask: What is the connection between internal corruption and a non-Catholic's non-acceptance of the Church as an authority?

Would your statement apply to a Buddhist?

Posted by: BobN at April 22, 2011 4:39 PM


I agree that the specific Catholic tradition discussed in the post only makes sense in the context of someone who has chosen to practice the Catholic faith. How well the notions involved, e.g. self-discipline and asceticism, generalize to other contexts would be a interesting though different discussion.

Also, I hope you won't think me to be terribly pedestrian, if I admit that I am likely to have something deep-fried this evening.


Records of Christian fasting and abstinence rules for Fridays, the day of the crucifixion, extend as far back as the first or second century AD, when 1) the fishing industry didn't really need a boost and 2) the Church wasn't really in a position to provide one. The fishing economics folk-tale is a classic example of how a belief that everything in life must have a simple Marxist explanation will lead one down many blind alleys.

Posted by: Andrew at April 22, 2011 4:52 PM

Isn't "fish on Friday" a recent addition? It seems to me that it is only subscribed to in Western Europe. What do all those Coptic Christians trapped in the desert do. Are they supplied by Prestor John? Why can African priests marry?

Isn't it really about "abstaining" from meat? Not a requirement that fish be eaten.

Ah well, my nominal religion recognized "talking in tongues" for the longest time. Thinking about it, I believe the Catholics still recognize "talking in tongues" as a strong indicator of "demonic possession".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 22, 2011 4:58 PM

The Spanish, and especially the Portuguese combine meat and fish in many dishes. As I recall the Spaniards were dispensed from meat on Friday as a reward for driving the Moors out of Spain. Consequently, the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula developed fish/meat dishes.

For an opposite look see public pork eating festivals held in Spain as a means of "outing" Jews and Muslims. That practice, I know, went on for years.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at April 22, 2011 8:10 PM

The first half of OTL's comment takes us back to a bygone age, where we could all stand side-by-side and say "if it's published in Time magazine, it must be true".

From the June 18, 1951 issue of Time (tinyurl.com/yd3qddp)...

It will be fish on Fridays for Roman Catholics of New Mexico beginning next September, decreed Santa Fe's Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne last week. The order will end a special privilege, long shared by Catholics of onetime Spanish colonies, of ignoring the regular rule of abstinence from meat.

The original dispensation was granted to Spanish counts in 1089 by Pope Urban II, in recognition of Spain's valiant services in the Crusades. It was later extended to all Spanish peoples by Pope Pius V after the victory of the Christian allies at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Last year the privilege was withdrawn in Mexico, in response to a Vatican recommendation that Friday abstinence be made uniform throughout Christendom as soon as practicable.

Posted by: Andrew at April 22, 2011 9:49 PM


Sorry for the slow response. By "internal corruption," I'm referring to a corrupted understanding of reality within the individual person. To one who believes that reality points toward Christianity and some legitimate authority in the claims of the Catholic Church, the fact that somebody else is not a Catholic would obviously not make his beliefs non-corrupted.

I should probably stress, here, that I'm using "corruption" in about as neutral a way as possible. I just can't think of a term that expresses the idea without similar risk of offense.

So, yes, even a devout Buddhist is operating under a corrupted theology/philosophy. He or she could be a wonderful person --- a better person, to be sure, than many others who are avowed Catholics --- and he or she may have an even more direct path to Heaven, in the afterlife, than many Christians. But neither adjustment changes the fact that, to those who believe differently, his or her beliefs are erroneous.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 24, 2011 8:52 PM

So viewed through the lens of a follower of the Church of Rome, a non-Catholic, or certainly a non-Christian, is somehow in error for not being of the faith.

While I can understand that, having been drilled in it as a kid, I can't accept it as a rational judgment of another human. For a great many people, reality doesn't point to Christianity; in fact, it quite specifically does not point to Christianity (or Islam, or Greek polytheism, for that matter). But that is the paradox of faith, isn't it?

Posted by: BobN at April 25, 2011 1:05 PM

I don't see a paradox. I believe reality to be a certain way. Inasmuch as I believe relativism of the "nobody's wrong" variety to be an insidious working of evil, it follows that those who believe reality to be a different way must be incorrect. That a great many people don't functionally believe in the laws of economics doesn't mean that such laws are incorrect.

Frankly, I'm surprised that you're disagreeing with me, on this point. (Not the point that Catholics are correct, but the point that believers are rational for considering non-believers to be incorrect.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 25, 2011 1:45 PM

I disagree with you on this point because I do not believe that my refusal to accept the Catholic faith or the authority of the Church of Rome is one of my many sins.

Unlike a Leftist, I will not condemn, belittle or fault you for your beliefs.

Posted by: BobN at April 25, 2011 1:50 PM

It doesn't condemn, belittle, or fault you to say that your understanding of reality is in error. Whether it's a culpable or innocent error is not for me to judge, but God, and the extent to which it impedes the disposition of your soul is not in my control, but yours.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 25, 2011 8:03 PM
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