This is why Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. As a Catholic in town, have you noticed that only during Lent, every single restaurant advertises one item on their menu: fish! Even major fast-food chains point out on their fliers the date of Ash Wednesday! All of a sudden everyone cares about the Church’s liturgical season!
So why is it in the Church’s instruction for Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays (as well as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), but gives the “go ahead” for Catholics to eat fish? That sounds fishy to me!
Firstly, we must ask the question, “why Friday?” The USCCB gives a succinct explanation:
Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.
Considering the core belief that Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross on a Friday, Christians from the very start have set aside that day to unite their sufferings to Christ. This led the church to identify each Friday as a “proper Friday” wherein Christians can commemorate christ’s passion via supplying up a designated sort of penance. For plenty of the church’s records meat was singled out as a worthy sacrifice due to its association with feasts and celebrations. In many old cultures, meat was taken into consideration as a delicacy, and the “fattened calf” was not slaughtered until there was something to commemorate. Considering that Fridays had been notion as a day of penance and mortification, ingesting meat on a Friday to “have a good time” just didn’t seem proper. (As a note, some bishops have chosen to lift the ban when Saint Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday during Lent, as it is considered a “solemnity” for many Irish Catholics.)
Then why is fish not considered “meat”?
According to the USCCB, the laws of the Church classify abstinence from “land animals.”
Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs — all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat.
As we all know, fish, on the other hand, are not in that same classification.
Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.
In Latin, the word used to describe what kind of “meat” is not permitted on Fridays is carnis, and literally relates to “animal flesh” and never included fish as part of the definition. In addition, fish in these cultures was not considered a “celebratory” meal and was more of a penance to eat.
Resolving the difference between penance in our current times
In our current times, things are different as meat no longer has the cultural connection to celebrations and is generally considered the cheaper option on the menu. This leaves many people confused about the regulations, especially those who love to eat fish and do not consider it a penance.
Finally, the Church’s intention is to encourage the faithful to offer up a sacrifice to God that comes from the heart and unites one’s suffering to that of Christ on the cross. Meat is proposed as a very basic penance, while the purpose of the regulation should always be kept in mind. For example, it does not necessarily give a person the license to eat a lobster dinner every Friday in Lent. The major goal is to make a sacrifice that draws a person closer to Christ, who out of love for us made the ultimate sacrifice a person can make.