It’s not because meat tastes better than fish. It’s not because meat is (or ever was) a delicacy. It’s not because the apostles were fishermen. It’s not even because Christ offered his flesh upon the Cross on a Friday (at least, that isn’t the first reason).
Christians fast from meat in order to overcome the passions of the flesh. We have always believed that flesh-meat causes an increase in temptations to lust and anger, and this is why we abstain from meat rather than from fish, wine, or other foods.
No matter what anyone may tell you, a full plate at the Friday Fish Fry is in no way contrary to the true spirit of Lenten abstinence (though gluttony should, of course, be avoided).
From what foods have Christians traditionally abstained?
It may be somewhat surprising for modern-day Christians and Catholics of the West to learn that the traditional practice of the Church has included abstinence not only from flesh-meat, but also from all dairy products (e.g. milk and cheese), eggs, and even shell-fish.
During the season of Lent, Christians abstained from these foods not only on Fridays but every day! It was the forty-plus days without eggs which gave rise to the joyful egg-hunts on Easter Morning (also, read how St. Mary Magdalene gave us the Easter Egg, see [here]). And, since without milk one cannot make pancakes, the English often celebrated Shrove Tuesday with a pancake supper.
These details of our history will be a great help to understanding why it is that Christians abstain from meat, rather than wine or fish.
Folk-lore about abstaining from meat
Some will say that we abstain from meat on Fridays (especially Fridays of Lent) because fish was common in the early Christian communities of the Mediterranean, but meat was a delicacy.
We note that sheep and cattle were no rare commodity. After all, this people understood the Lord as their shepherd – indicating that pasturing of livestock was quite common.
Some will say that we abstain from meat because Christ offered his flesh upon the Cross. In honor of this sacrifice, they claim, we refrain from eating the flesh of land-animals and birds.
We respond that this is a very good spiritual explanation of the practice, but is not the first or literal reason. While it is true that the abstinence on Fridays is in honor of our Lord’s suffering on the first Good Friday, this is not the specific reason why Christians do not eat meat on Fridays. After all, how would this bit of folk-lore explain the fact that Christians have traditionally abstained on every-day of Lent (and not only Fridays), and also that they would abstain not only from meat but also from milk, eggs, and (at least in the Orient) shell-fish?
We abstain from meat in order to quiet our passions
St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes the traditional position well:
“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. 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 breath the air and their products, such as milk and eggs.” (ST II-II, q. 147, a.8)
The Angelic Doctor tells us that meat, milk, and eggs incite lust in the soul. In order to quite the passions and to help the Christian faithful grow in the virtue of chastity, the Church required that such foods be abandoned during the whole of the season of Lent.
Over the years the discipline has been relaxed, so that we (Latin Rites Catholics, at least) may now consume both milk and eggs even on Fridays of Lent, and need only abstain from meat on Fridays rather than on every day of Lent.
But the traditional logic remains the foundation of the current discipline. And, though you may be surprised to hear it, the traditional logic is proved true by modern science.
Meat, dairy, and eggs really do cause lust and anger
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 (explaining the ancient Eastern practice of abstaining from shell-fish), 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 Christians 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.
It’s not about developing a zinc-deficiency
While the traditional practice of abstaining from meat, dairy, and eggs throughout the whole of Lent did indeed physiologically reduce libido through bringing about a zinc-deficiency in the Christian faithful, I am not advocating the same for today.
The point isn’t really about running low on zinc, and it’s not contrary to the spirit of Lent to take zinc vitamins to avoid a cold. Abstaining from meat alone (and not from dairy and eggs), and doing so only on Fridays, wouldn’t be enough of a dietary shift to cause a zinc-deficiency anyways.
The real point is to recognize that there is a logic to the traditional practice of the Church. The Lenten discipline isn’t just something “made up”, but corresponds to human nature and science.
We might even go so far as to say that abstaining from meat on Fridays of Lent has a certain symbolic meaning, which is yet not pure symbolism (because, after all, it is rooted in good science).
And this is why we ought not be too cavalier in our approach to abstaining from meat. All foods are not created equal. Some really do have more zinc than others. And, thus, some foods are more aptly singled out as a reminder of the true spirit of the Lenten law.
Why we shouldn’t ever eat meat on Fridays
Canon Law states that abstinence from meat is to be observed (by the faithful who are fourteen and up) on all Fridays throughout the year, unless the Episcopal Conference substitutes some other food [cf. Can. 1251, 1252].
In the United States, and in many parts of the world, the bishops have allowed the faithful to make some other sacrifice on Fridays outside of Lent (rather than having to give up meat, they may abstain from some other food). Still, the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays is maintained throughout the season of Lent.
The Church requires by law that, “Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.” [Can. 1252]
Now, when was the last time you heard a priest or parent explain the true meaning of abstinence from meat? Why aren’t people being taught the tradition of the Church?
While it is certainly true that it would not be fitting to speak to a child of zinc’s impact on libido, would it be too much to say that not eating meat helps a person to be “more at peace”?
In any case, a Christian who knows the real reason behind Lenten abstinence would never claim that a large plate of fish at a Friday fish-fry is contrary to the spirit of the law. [No matter how much fish you eat, you’re not going to get enough zinc to cause an increase in lust.]
And a bishop, or Episcopal Conference, who understands the true meaning of abstinence would never allow Christians (on Fridays outside of Lent) to substitute the traditional practice by giving up some food other than meat, dairy, or eggs.