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Why can Catholic's eat fish during Lent?

Canisius | 27 March, 2006 04:29

A friend recently phoned in a question: Why are Catholics allowed to eat fish on Fridays? His co-workers were puzzled by the distinction drawn between meat and fish.

I did a little research on the subject. The practice of abstaining from meat on certain days goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, and nobody can really say exactly how it got started as far as I know. As far as why the distinction was made in the first place, all we can do is speculate.

For example, the 1966 USCCB directive on penance suggests that meat was singled out because it was considered a luxury item, something uncommon. It is true that meat was a special-occasion food, but this doesn't explain its separation from fish: after all, the early versions of abstinence also forbade milk, cheese, eggs, and similar animal products. While I don't have statistics in font of me, I don't think milk or eggs were considered uncommon--at least, not more common than fish.

St. Thomas Aquinas argues that meat, milk, eggs and so on were singled out for abstinence because they taste good. Fish just isn't as good! This makes a lot of sense (especially to someone like me, as I am not a sea-food fan), and is certainly the reason why the Church didn't drop the meat/fish distinction: giving up meat is harder than giving up fish.

I'll research more as the opportunity comes up. Meanwhile, if I had to answer this question for a co-worker, I would something like this: "Most people think meat tastes better and is more satisfying, so it's a better thing to give up if you want to make a sacrifice. When the rules were originally made, fish was not considered a luxury item. Of course, people who go out to a fancy sea-food restaurant on Fridays during Lent are not really following what the laws were made for, even if they haven't technically broken a rule."


comments

Comment Icon St. Thomas' Searing Intellect

Father Barry | 28/03/2006, 00:58

I love it when St. Thomas shows his practical, "down-to-earth" side. There are any number of speculative explanations one might pursue, but Thomas cuts right to the core of the matter.

"Well, it doesn't taste very good."

Brilliant.

Comment Icon A help to chastity and continence

Joseph | 29/03/2006, 17:08

The other reason St. Thomas gives for abstaining from certain foods is that these foods increase sexual desire, and therefore abstinence from these foods helps one practice continence (which was sometimes taken up also by married couples as a Lenten practice) for the sake of more intense prayer. And meat, at least red meat, does have this effect more than fish does. I think in his Commentary on the Sentences St. Thomas gives this reason for the distinction between meat and fish.

Comment Icon A Call for Research

Peter_Canisius | 29/03/2006, 21:56

Is that really true about meat? None of the spam e-mails I get on the subject mention red meat.

Seriously, there are two questions on the table. One is why, historically, the Church made the distinction between meat and fish; the other is why, currently, the Church maintains the distinction.

The meat-libido connection could have played a role in the original distinction, although there is no way to know that for sure. I very much doubt that it has a role in the Church's current adherence to the traditional distinction.

Nonetheless, it could be valuable to know if there is such a meat-libido connection. Does present-day bear out this view? Anyone?

Comment Icon Meat-Libido

Father Barry | 30/03/2006, 05:36

(That topic title just looks wrong. I'm going to try and stop thinking about it.)

I suspect the only way to determine this for sure would be to eat only fish for an extended period of time, and then see how that impacts certain other areas of one's life.

After giving the matter some thought, I have decided it's not worth it. I don't want to know that badly.

I prefer the "tasty/blegh" rational, myself

Comment Icon Modern research

Peter_Canisius | 30/03/2006, 15:32

Well, it turns out that eating red meat (as well some other rich foods) does boost testosterone levels in men and estrogen levels in women. At least, the folks who worry about prostrate and breast cancer recommend against eating red meat for that reason. Presumably this could translate into an increased libido, although the actual response would vary from person to person since each individual produces different amounts of those hormones to begin with.

 
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