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Considering Catholics, the spiritual benefits of meatless Fridays and taking a smaller bite out of our natural resources

What’s the point of a meatless Friday? More than you might think
Kevin Woster
What’s the point of a meatless Friday? More than you might think

As many of you already know, Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat from mammals and poultry on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent.

Actually, we’re still technically required to skip meat every Friday of the year. Sort of. More on that in a minute.

Last Friday was the second Friday of Lent. And after noon mass a Catholic buddy and I stopped for lunch at a Taco John’s close to our church. As we waited to order, I noted a promotional poster on the window.

“Alaskan flounder fish tacos, two for $6.50,” I said. “That’s what I’m having.”

My buddy, who was buying, replied: "I'm 83, so to hell with your fish tacos.”

Have you ever noticed how age can brings both wisdom and stubbornness? If asked, my wife might note that she has seen both in me, perhaps more of the second.

But back to Taco John’s and my 83-year-old buddy, who is a good man and a good Catholic. There are exemptions to the meatless-Friday rule, even during Lent. My understanding is that they apply to those under 14 years of age and those who, because of health issues, should not mess much with their diet.

I’m no expert on the rules, or laws, of the church. But I couldn’t find any clear language that says being 83 lets you off the, um, no-meat hook. It gives some breaks for older folks on actually fasting, but not the meatless-meal thing. I think.

But sometimes I’m confused by all our church laws. So I checked with my pastor before mass yesterday. When I told him the Taco John’s story, he shook his head and said that, no, we don’t age out of the meatless-meal requirement.

Where’s the beef? Not in my fish tacos

Then he smiled at my friend’s Friday lunch choice and said: “He shouldn’t make a habit of it.”

Setting aside Catholic rules, my buddy’s cardiologist might tell him that a meatless meal from time to time might be a good thing for his heart. A couple of tacos with deep-fried fish inside might not be the ideal healthwise alternative, of course.

Either way, I wasn’t about to make the meatless argument with a hungry octogenarian standing at the Taco John’s counter with his billfold open and his stomach growling.

So my buddy — without being hit by a single lightning strike — ordered a taco burger and a beef-and-something burrito of some kind. And he seemed delighted as he hungrily consumed them both.

I was satisfied with my fish tacos, too. They were tasty, even though I'm not 100 percent certain there was actually any flounder in there. Which was fine. I didn’t want them to be so good that I’d end up chewing my way around the larger intent of the meatless-meal rule, which is to offer some degree of sacrifice or self- denial.

After lunch last Friday, I got to thinking about the meatless Fridays and wandered back a ways through recollection, as old men are inclined to do. Actually, I wandered back quite a ways, in fact, to a time before the Second Vatican Council in Rome, when I was still a kid and Catholics rigorously observed meatless Fridays every week of the year.

That’s how, of course, we got nicknames like "mackerel-snappers" and “fish-lickers.” And it’s why Friday fish fries have long been popular fundraisers for Catholic churches and organizations.

My Catholic childhood lament: “Oh, no, not salmon loaf”

Meatless Fridays were how our family and many others ended up eating more fish sticks and tuna salad and salmon loaf (my least-favorite meatless option back in the day) than we might otherwise have preferred. It’s also how some of us discovered that peanut-butter-dill-pickle sandwiches were actually a pretty decent substitute for meat sandwiches, when meat was off the menu.

The more common peanut-butter-banana sandwiches were a popular option, too, of course. And I still like them.

On one of those strictly observed meatless Fridays of my youth, my parents and four siblings and I ended up eating just french fries and hamburger buns at a restaurant booth somewhere in one of the western states during a summer vacation. We had just started to dig in when one of us remembered — at about the first burger bite — that it was Friday. It seems like there was an “Oh, no!” issued by someone, but I can’t remember who.

I do remember sliding that juicy beef patty off the bun and onto my plate and eating the pickles and bun, heavy on the catsup and mustard, along with the fries. It wasn’t terrible. Still, I thought it was a sacrifice of monstrous proportions.

Of course, that was a waste of good food that also was probably in its own way sinful. Seems like there were sins waiting in all directions back then.

A few years after the restaurant scene, we could have eaten those burgers in good faith. Or at least fairly good faith. Things change, after all, even in the Catholic church, although it tends to take a while.

Things didn’t change quite as much on meatless Fridays, however, as many Catholics today tend to think. The year-round meatless-Friday rule remains in place. But outside of Lent it is more of a hope and a prayer than an edict.

It’s not a sin outside of Lent, although meat on Fridays still discouraged

Eating meat on Fridays outside of Lent is no longer considered a sin. After Vat II, U.S. Catholic Bishops made meatless Fridays outside of Lent optional, with a caveat that some other form of abstinence should be substituted.

Want a cheeseburger for lunch on Friday? Give up your coffee and cream. Fried chicken dinner after work? Skip your noon basketball game at the Y and go to mass.

There are lots of other substitute options for Fridays outside of Lent, none of which most Catholics — including me — have been following.

Now, let’s be serious. These days with options like grilled salmon or baked walleye or broiled shrimp as alternatives, it’s pretty hard to call a “meatless” Friday much of a sacrifice. That’s true, at least, for those of us who can afford to eat pretty much what we want when we want.

And meatless days are certainly not much of a sacrifice for vegetarians or people who typically eat very little meat anyway.

Compare going meatless on a Friday to spending more time in prayer or attending daily mass, going out of your way to be kind to someone or to apologize to someone, dishing up food at a soup kitchen or driving meals — meatless or otherwise — to the elderly or others who need them.

It’s fair to argue that such actions matter more than skipping a turkey sandwich now and then.

But meatless Fridays still matter, I think. If you have a spiritual life shaped around Jesus Christ, it’s important to acknowledge and consider on a regular basis the way Christ died, the day he died and the reason he died.

Obviously, Friday is an especially appropriate day for that, any time of the year.

Giving up something like meat for a few meals a week is a small sacrifice compared to the one on the cross, but it’s still meaningful. And it’s more meaningful when it’s shared by others. Many others.

And how about skipping that that monster burger of materialism?

It’s a reminder, too, or should be, that others beyond our comfortable lives suffer terribly in the world today — in Ukraine, in Afghanistan and Iran, Syria or Turkey, Myanmar or Guatemala, on our southern border, on nearby Native American reservations and in our own communities among the homeless and destitute.

Skipping meat for a day is a reminder that there are things more important than that next juicy cheeseburger. Things, perhaps, that are worth our contributions in time or money, and prayer.

We could consider the cheeseburger we’re skipping to be symbolic of the monster burger of materialism and desires that can get in the way of our spiritual lives — or of our non-spiritual lives — and of our relationships with others.

It is also, perhaps, a way to consider our relationship with the earth and the way we hungrily consume natural resources, often without regard for the impacts. You don’t have to be a Catholic or a Christian or a believer in anything but common sense and a sustainable future to benefit from such consideration.

In his widely read Encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls upon Catholics and others to care for the Earth as our “sister” and our “common home.” He points out that previous popes — John Paul II, Paul VI, Benedict XVI — made similar calls to care for the Earth and conserve resources for all.

Maybe the most logical, effective way to care for “our sister” and “our common home,” is to place some limits on our appetites, whether they hunger for cheeseburgers or unchecked use of fossil fuels in ways that pollute and worsen the damage from climate change.

Writing in America magazine in August of 2021, Doug Girardot — a Boston College history graduate then working as an O’Hare Fellow at the magazine — noted the impacts of beef production throughout the world. He wrote about the millions of acres of tropical forest being lost to make way for cattle grazing and the impact of agriculture, particular beef production, on greenhouse gas production that accelerates climate change.

And he suggested that meatless Fridays every every week of the year would be an appropriate spiritual and environmental sacrifice, individually small but significant en masse.

I was raised on a farm that produced beef as well as grain. I’m grateful for that. People I know and care about continue to produce beef. I wish them and the industry well. They matter. But so does our sister the earth. So does the fight against climate change. And so does the idea of taking a smaller bite out of the earth’s resources, in part, perhaps, by taking fewer bites of meat.

Not just beef. Pork and chicken, too.

I think it’s good for the spirit and good for the Earth.

Maybe with an argument like that, I might even sell my 83-year-old buddy on those fish tacos.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.