Many people wonder why it is that Catholics cannot eat meat on Fridays of Lent. We also mention that few understand why the Church asks that we abstain from meat on all Fridays throughout the year (though this can be substituted by another fast if the bishops allow). Certainly, it would seem to most people that giving up meat on a Friday would be pointless, if we then ate a nice fish dinner and had a glass of wine.
There is however an inner-logic to the Church’s law. There is a reason why we fast from meat and not from fish or wine. If only more Catholics (lay and clergy alike) knew this reasoning, the Lenten Fast would be much more profitable.
Popular lore about abstaining from meat
According to the popular explanation of the Catholic custom, the reason we abstain from meat on Fridays is deeply rooted in the historical circumstances of the ancient Mediterranean diet. As the story goes, the early Christian communities (being Mediterranean) had fish as a major part of their diet. Meat, on the other hand, was less common and more expensive. Thus, it was thought to be more appropriate to fast from meat than from fish, since this inclined to a certain degree of simplicity. Moreover, meat is generally considered to be more tasty than fish; hence, abstaining from meat meant also sacrificing something of the delicacy of the meal.
There may indeed be something to this popular lore. Certainly, fish was (and is) very common in the Mediterranean diet. Moreover, it may also be true that meat was more expensive than fish and was therefore considered to be a bit of a luxury. However, we must also recall that pasturing was also very common to the ancient world – it is hard to believe that sheep and cattle were a rare commodity. Hence, while there is probably some truth to the lore, it may be based as much in myth as in history.
More important than an historical question about the ancient Mediterranean diet, is the question of what the early Christians themselves thought about the reason for their fast. On this point, we notice that the Church Fathers (and even secular philosophers) held that meat excited the passions of the flesh. If we were to ask the early and medieval Christians why we should abstain from meat on Fridays, they would tell us, “Meat leads to concupiscence. Therefore, we abstain from meat, that our fleshly passions may be calmed.”
Meat fuels the concupiscence of the flesh
There are three reasons why we fast: to prevent future sin, to atone for past sin, and to direct our minds to the spiritual realities. To put the matter quite simply – fasting is about curbing the concupiscence of the flesh, so that the soul will be more open to heaven.
It is this internal logic of fasting which directs the Church to require her children to abstain from meat on Fridays – and, in times past she also included eggs and milk-foods in this discipline. The Church has believed for centuries that there is a real connection between meat (as well as eggs and milk-foods) and the concupiscence of the flesh. The idea is that abstaining from meat really does physiologically aid the faithful in freeing themselves from the flesh and directing themselves to worship of God. Now before any judge too quickly that this connection between meat and fleshly desires is just some hang-over from the middle ages, consider what modern science tells us.
Nutritionists have found that zinc is a major factor in building a person’s libido and exciting the concupiscence of the flesh. While it is true that oysters, crabs and lobster are all high in zinc, the main sources for zinc (in a common diet) are red meat, eggs, lentils, beans and whole grains, as well as lamb, chicken, pork, milk and cheese.
The general rule is that most fish and most vegetables do not have much zinc and, therefore, do not tend toward the concupiscence of the flesh; whereas most meats, eggs, and dairy products do. Here we see that modern science corroborates what observant people have known for centuries: meat, eggs, and milk-foods tend to increase the concupiscence of the flesh.
We note that the Church’s law is based on generalities; hence, though there are indeed certain foods beyond meat, eggs and milk-foods which excite the passions, the general norms of the Church are given for the more common cases. Therefore, abstaining from meat on Fridays (and especially on Fridays of Lent) will help the Catholic, both spiritually and physiologically, to be free from sin and to direct the heart and mind to the things of heaven.
We turn to the Angelic Doctor
St. Thomas gives us a most interesting take on this question in Summa Theologica II-II, q.147, a.8. Certain elements of his reasoning may no longer apply (on account of scientific advancement), but much of what he says is still helpful to us today. We will copy the whole article, supplying our own commentary in colored italics.
ST II-II, q. 147, a. 8. Whether it is fitting that those who fast should be bidden to abstain from flesh meat, eggs, and milk foods?
Objection 1. It would seem unfitting that those who fast should be bidden to abstain from flesh meat, eggs, and milk foods. For it has been stated above (Article 6) that fasting was instituted as a curb on the concupiscence of the flesh. Now concupiscence is kindled by drinking wine more than by eating flesh; according to Proverbs 20:1, "Wine is a luxurious thing," and Ephesians 5:18, "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is luxury." Since then those who fast are not forbidden to drink wine, it seems that they should not be forbidden to eat flesh meat. In some places, wine was forbidden as well. This custom, however, fell from common practice fairly early in the Church’s life.
Objection 2. Further, some fish are as delectable to eat as the flesh of certain animals. Now "concupiscence is desire of the delectable," as stated above (I-II, 30, 1). Therefore since fasting which was instituted in order to bridle concupiscence does not exclude the eating of fish, neither should it exclude the eating of flesh meat.
Objection 3. Further, on certain fasting days people make use of eggs and cheese. Therefore one can likewise make use of them during the Lenten fast.
On the contrary, stands the common custom of the faithful. It is noted that the custom of the faithful has been modified over the years.
I answer that, As stated above (Article 6), fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Fasting not only atones for past sins, but helps us to avoid future sins. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Modern science may lead us to modify this language to some degree, but it does seem that meat does contribute to libido – thus, St. Thomas may not be so far off after all. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods.
Reply to Objection 1. Three things concur in the act of procreation, namely, heat, spirit [Cf. P. I., Q. 118, 1, ad 3], and humor. Wine and other things that heat the body conduce especially to heat: flatulent foods seemingly cooperate in the production of the vital spirit: but it is chiefly the use of flesh meat which is most productive of nourishment, that conduces to the production of humor. Now the alteration occasioned by heat, and the increase in vital spirits are of short duration, whereas the substance of the humor remains a long time. Indeed, a glass of wine wears off much more quickly than a helping of steak. While it is true that the intensity with which alcohol affects man is greater, it is also true that the duration is short. Hence those who fast are forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables which are flatulent foods. In fact, it is quite likely that alcohol actually reduces libido, over time.
Reply to Objection 2. In the institution of fasting, the Church takes account of the more common occurrences. Now, generally speaking, eating flesh meat affords more pleasure than eating fish, although this is not always the case. Hence the Church forbade those who fast to eat flesh meat, rather than to eat fish. Thus, it is permissible to eat a nice fish dinner on a Friday of Lent; for although salmon may be a delicacy, it is not flesh meat and does not have the same affect on man as, for example, beef.
Reply to Objection 3. Eggs and milk foods are forbidden to those who fast, for as much as they originate from animals that provide us with flesh: wherefore the prohibition of flesh meat takes precedence of the prohibition of eggs and milk foods. This regulation had been gradually relaxed over the centuries. Today it is permissible to eat eggs and drink milk during the Fast, even on Fridays. Again the Lenten fast is the most solemn of all, both because it is kept in imitation of Christ, and because it disposes us to celebrate devoutly the mysteries of our redemption. For this reason the eating of flesh meat is forbidden in every fast, while the Lenten fast lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods. As to the use of the latter things in other fasts the custom varies among different people, and each person is bound to conform to that custom which is in vogue with those among whom he is dwelling. Hence Jerome says [Augustine, De Lib. Arb. iii, 18; cf. De Nat. et Grat. lxvii]: "Let each province keep to its own practice, and look upon the commands of the elders as though they were the laws of the apostles." Here we see an acceptance of the fact that the Fast is dictated largely by custom (as witnessed even by St. Thomas’ Sed Contra). Thus, it is entirely within the power of the Church to modify the Lenten Fast – but we also recognize that there is an internal logic to abstaining from meat. The custom of the Church is not mere human fancy, but is a reasoned practice rooted in a profound understanding of the human condition.