April 6, 2012

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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Actually, the rule is not that one must eat fish, it's that one must abstain from meat.

And the Code of Canon Law (Canons 1249 to 1253) actually mandate that every Friday throughout the year is a day of penitence, when one must abstain from meat.

Canon 1253 allows a national bishops' conference to provide a different form of penitential observance for Fridays outside of lent, which might substitute works of charity or exercises of piety for abstinence from meat.

I believe that the U.S. Bishops adopted such a substitute in the late 1960s.

So U.S. Catholics should be observing every Friday (not just in Lent) as a penitential day.....wish I could say I've been obeying that rule!

Posted by: brassband at April 6, 2012 12:38 PM

I have no idea of the age of the rule. But assuming it is of medieval origin, meat was already a scarce commodity. I wonder how many people regularly ate meat every other day of the week. Perhaps it was the porridge, which usually contained scraps of meat and other left overs, that had to be abstained from. I should think there were many parts of the known world where fish were scarce.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 6, 2012 3:36 PM

Personally, I'm not religious, but I respect religion as a broad concept. I do insist that followers remain internally consistent.

One of my pet peeves is how people have taken the laws of kashrut in Judaism and warped them over the centuries into something unrecognizable that dominates their lives in completely arbitrary ways. Look for separating milk and meat in the Torah - you won't find it in there. Some rabbis decided later on that it would make a neat rule and it stuck, but there is absolutely no justification for it. I wonder if eating fish is the same way - just arbitrary nonsense that now keeps the religious communities separate by attacking their eating habits.

Posted by: Dan at April 6, 2012 4:01 PM

Here is a quote from a tract on Catholic Answers:

Finally, we should mention why Friday abstinence was imposed. The Church recognizes that, since meat is a chief part of most meals served in most places, and since meat is usually the most valued or expensive part of a meal, abstinence from meat on Fridays is a good way for Christians to unite themselves more closely to the sufferings of their Lord (Rom. 8:16-17, 1 Pet. 2:21) by denying themselves something they enjoy. Abstinence from meat is a sacrifice which unites them in penance and strengthens the solidarity of the Church through mild suffering. It's also a good form of mortification, which disciplines the soul and strengthens its resistance to concupiscence. Paul practiced and recommended mortification: "I drive my body and train it, for fear that after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27).
So, Paul practiced mortification! There has always been a rumor that Mother Teresa was a flagalant.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 6, 2012 7:45 PM

Thanks for that Andrew, something else to think about today. I've ridiculed that particular tradition (fish on Friday's) since '75, when I was a dishwasher at a popular restaurant and the place would be full on Good Friday, everybody ordering the "famous" seafood platter. The place was packed with good christians stuffing themselves with stuffed lobster, fried clams and shrimp. It was such an absolute insult to sacrifice I lost a lot of faith. It's never too late to get it back.

Posted by: michael at April 7, 2012 11:11 AM


Thanks for the compliment.

My most important personal experience with fish-on-Fridays involves a Dunkin Donuts breakfast sandwich. I'd adhered to the abstinence rule off-and-on through my adult life (if you're willing to consider long stretches of off as part of an off-and-on pattern). Six or seven years ago, during the drive to work on a typically disorganized morning, I stopped for a bacon, egg and cheese on a croissant at a Dunkin Donuts drive through. It wasn't until after I had ordered that I remembered it was a Lenten Friday. My first thought was the reflexive one -- it's a silly rule anyway. But then there was a second thought; regardless of however little rational sense there may be in a rule against eating meat, on one day of the week, for a part of the year, had I really reached a place in life where needing a piece of bacon, right now, was more important to me than anything else at that moment? I've tried to observe the Lenten abstinence rules since then.

Posted by: Andrew at April 7, 2012 4:42 PM

Michael --

It's sad to think that your lost your own faith upon seeing the imperfect observances of others.

As Jesus said (Lk 6:42), don't worry about the speck in your brother's eye; first remove the log from your own.

Having revisited this issue in responding to Andrew's post, I hope to commit more to penitential sacrifices on Fridays through out the year.

Posted by: brassband at April 7, 2012 6:01 PM

Brassband, I was 14 at the time. Happy Easter!

Posted by: michael at April 8, 2012 9:22 AM
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