Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why we abstain from meat, but not from fish or wine

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.


Andrew said...

I always understood a reason to abstain from meat on Fridays was because Our Lord offered his flesh on Friday. This may have been derived from popular piety.

Seraphim said...

Eastern Catholics still fast from fish and wine as well as meat and egg/dairy products, though on mitigated fast days (such as Sundays in Lent) wine is the first thing to be permitted.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thanks for the info! I knew of the tradition in the East of fasting from wine, milk and eggs, but I didn't realize that fish are also included. That is a great witness to the West! :)

Also, I am particularly interested to hear that wine is permitted before eggs/diary.
Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Andrew, Thank you for this very pious explanation. Though it is probably not directly rooted in historical fact, I definitely think it is a good point to meditate on! Peace! +

Anonymous said...

Would pasta or bread made with eggs, be considered a violation of the egg prohibition of the ancient lenten fast?

Same question regarding milk.

Anonymous said...

He said to them, "Are you so foolish? Don't you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer."

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I myself am not much of an historian or canonist ... so I will simply give you what the Catholic Encyclopedia says (on "Lent") -- "None the less St. Gregory writing to St. Augustine of England laid down the rule, 'We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.' [...] This general prohibition of eggs and milk during Lent is perpetuated in the popular custom of blessing or making gifts of eggs at Easter, and in the English usage of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday."
The custom in some places to eat pancakes on Fat Tuesday seems to indicate that they couldn't eat them during Lent.

Thus, my inclination is to say that pasta or bread made with eggs would have been considered a violation of the ancient Lenten Fast.

Also, in the future, could you please leave a name, tag, id, or pseudonym with your comment [at least at the end]... Thanks! :)

- Reginaldus

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (3:53am),
First, I'm happy to see that you know how to quote the Scriptures ... if only you will learn how to present them to others in a reasonable manner.

Second, I cannot imagine that our Savior is claiming that zinc (as well as other minerals) has no effect on the body.
Perhaps the Lord means only to say that pork is no longer to be considered "unclean"...

And now, just to show that I too have read the Bible -- "But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast."

Finally, in the future, I would ask that you give a name, id, pseudonym or something ... at least at the end of your comment. Like so...

- Reginaldus

Nick said...

This raises a theological question on fasting from wine.

Since the wine becomes the Precious Blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, what should one use when fasting from wine? I know Sundays are breakfasts, but I mean more about daily Mass for our Eastern Catholic brethern.

crazylikeknoxes said...

Must disagree about the wine wearing off before the steak. For five years the wife & I tried to have a child. One Lent I give up drinking and, bam, we have our first son in November. Two years later I give up the drinking for Lent again and, bam, our second son is born in November. True story.

Anonymous said...


Fasting is different than abstaining. I have no problem with fasting, one of the reasons being the quote you listed above. Also, it may please you to note that I follow the church's law on both fasting and abstaining. I call myself a Catholic, therefore I follow the canons. My issue with picking and choosing which foods to abstain from is the very clear notion in all of the New Testament that abstaining from certain foods is part of the old law. Paul, Peter (what I have created, you call unclean) and Christ make that pretty clear. At the council of Jerusalem, the Apostles ask that the Gentile Christians to abstain from certain food, but the wording makes it sound as if it is simply good to do, not required. Christ fulfilled the old law. My bigger beef (pardon the pun) is with some Protestant sects who still abstain from pork and follow much of the Old Testament law, yet look down on me (and other Catholics) as being too tied down with Tradition.

I think it is okay to ask for clarification on the church's teachings. Remember, there was a time when 90% of the church's bishops were Arians.

I read the scriptures and early church writings quite frequently. Just so you know, since your first sentence appeared to be a tad sarcastic.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Matt (1:44pm),
Sorry about the sarcasm earlier -- I meant it to be a bit more light hearted. In any case, thanks for continuing the discussion.

Regarding the real difference between fasting and abstaining -- you may like an article I wrote on that (posted last Monday). The essential difference is that fasting is an act, but abstinence is a virtue.
Though it is true that in Canon Law the Church generally uses abstinence to refer to not eating certain food and fasting to refer to eating less of all foods.

In any case... My point is that Christ was speaking about the Old Law and the proscription of unclean foods -- the Church does not intend to claim that meat is unclean, only that it tends toward concupiscence (and this is also a scientific fact).

Finally, I think you are quite right that we are able to ask for clarifications on the Church's teachings ... That is part of what I was trying to do in the article itself ...
Why does the Church ask us to give up meat? Does it make sense according to modern science?
And the answer turns out to be very interesting (I think).

Peace and blessings ... and, again, please do feel free to comment and discuss. I'll try to be more gentle and less sarcastic! :)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If I understand your comment correctly ....
It was GIVING UP wine that led to the conception of children.
This would mean that wine REDUCES libido (which is my claim). So that, less wine, means less libido REDUCTION, which means more libido, which can lead to more babies.

Thus, it makes perfect sense why the Church would not ask us to give up wine during Lent -- since, more wine means less libido.
[though I think it is perfectly fine, of course, to give up alcohol for Lent]

As far as whether wine "wears off" more quickly than steak -- my point was that a steak dinner sits in your stomach and stays in your system longer than a few glasses of wine.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story from your family life! How good the Lord is! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Of course the Precious Blood would not break the fast ... however, it may be the case that in those Rites where the chalice is purified with wine and water (after Communion), they would use only water -- [I don't really know, just speculating].

In the Extraordinary Form, where wine is used to purify the chalice, the wine is omitted if the priest has to celebrate a second Mass immediately after the first (as may happen on All Soul's day)...

Peace. +

Brad said...

I comprehend and agree with the article but also agree with the more mystical understanding of the fast's significance as put forth by Andrew. I venture to say that the latter has more virtue, capital V. The reason I don't eat meat on all Fridays throughout the year is because I try to be mindful of what happened to (and through!) flesh on that day. I am a rank sinner and it is only through His grace that I even ponder Him.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your reply. This is all very interesting as is all of Church history.

It is great that we can get clarification around many of the Church's teachings. I have similar questions around the primacy of Rome...but that is another topic.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I would be very interested to find a source for the idea that the Friday fast from flesh-meat is related to the fact that our Lord offered his Flesh on Friday.

There is no reference to this in the Catholic Encyclopedia. It's not in the Summa. Nor is it in the Rule of St. Benedict. [just to pick important works from three ages of the Church]

I find it to be a very interesting reflection and I am inclined to agree with it -- as a spiritual interpretation, if not a literal/historical one.
But I would like to know of a solid source of Catholic doctrine or spirituality that speaks this way...

It is important for our piety to be rooted in the theology and spirituality of the saints (scientia sanctorum).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and informative post, particularly the quotes from St. Thomas. As a Traditional Catholic, we still observe a full Lenten fast as opposed to the "modern" version. (Yes, I know the law, but as a matter of discipline we do so anyway) It has changed the way we look at many things and it has helped us to have better control over our passions, so to speak. It has reminded us that sacrifice may lead to temporary suffering but in the long run we can conquer our sins and inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

Brad said...

Dear Reginaldus:

I too would like to find sources (time + google!).

Until then I rely on the sensus fidelium, which surely notices the Christ as new passover lamb parallel, wherein under Moses we were not allowed to eat any other flesh but the prescribed menu for that passover day: since the ultimate lamb was consumed on the historical Good Friday, and still is, in every host, that Lamb was our fleshly entree for Good Friday. No substitutions on this prix fixe menu! Thus, all subsequent weekly "little" good fridays echo the historical Good Friday and the Holy Spirit has prompted us to abstain, perhaps without many human mediums, shall we say. In essence, every calendar Friday is a little OT passover as fulfilled by the NT passover of Good Friday.

I know you know this, so please realize I'm just clarifying my own thoughts here with no inner monologue -- how gauche!

Scott Hahn has an excellent CD out called The Fourth Cup.

dcs said...


The issue with that interpretation is that for centuries the faithful did not receive Holy Communion on Good Friday, only the priest did. In fact I believe that particular change was as recent as 1962. Before then, the faithful did not receive Holy Communion at the Mass of the Presanctified. Also the sacrifice is not offered on Good Friday, so the analogy between receiving Holy Communion on Good Friday and the eating of the Passover lamb is not a strong one -- less strong, I think, than receiving Holy Communion at any other celebration of Mass.

Dr. Hahn's speculations about the Fourth Cup are just that -- speculations. We don't know what the structure of the Passover seder was like in the time of Christ. Furthermore our current Pope holds that the Last Supper was not even the Passover seder but rather a todah meal.

Anonymous said...

sapiens said:

Lenten hot cross buns are made without eggs or butter.
There is a wonderful story about the German Advent "log" called Stollen.
In the Middle Ages a German nobleman was prepared to make a large donation for the building of a great church. He had a condition, however. He asked that the use of butter be allowed for breadmaking in the penitential season. He argued that a ban on using butter was little penance for those in the south because they could then use rich olive oil. Those in the north had only the oil of the rapeseed at hand (canola oil, which means Canadian oil). Rome granted the permission he sought, and so we have the rich Advent break called Stollen.

Anonymous said...

sapiens said:

Indeed, I have wondered if we would not then do well to give up the eating of fish as well on Fridays. I realize that this would be disastrous for parish fish fries UNLESS some VERY tasty substitute could be found.
My thought continues that on Good Friday we might give up the wearing of leather as well. We see how the priest goes to the sanctuary unshod on that day. On the Day of Atonement, Jews refrain from wearing leather belts and footwear; you will see them dressed to the nines on their way to the synagogue/temple but wearing tennis shoes or running shoes or sandles made of materials other than leather.

Brad said...

Hi Sapiens, as I read your last post I am eating carefully chosen salmon guiltily! Thanks!!!

But seriously, I think the fish has such special significance to Christians, surely there is in a way a reason TO eat it during Lent, specially if one ponders the many allusions to it while eating it. I can't explain it well. It's sentimental I guess. I feel close to our Lord somehow. Silly, I know.

To be said on Fridays: the Fishy Mysteries! (More than 5 could be created!)

Nick said...

"I would be very interested to find a source for the idea that the Friday fast from flesh-meat is related to the fact that our Lord offered his Flesh on Friday."

It's in Saint Augustine's work, who cites the connection between fasting and the Passion as tradition; though whether he meant Sacred Tradition or popular piety is beyond me.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The problem is that (as you know) St. Augustine is an incredibly prolific writer... hence, saying "it's in Saint Augustine's work" really doesn't help anybody.

Moreover, it is one thing to say that we fast because Friday is the day of the Passion; it is another to say we fast from flesh meat because Christ's Flesh was offered in the Passion.

Marcelo C. said...

The ancient physiological reason for not eating meat is sound and confirmed not only by modern science but also by revered medicinal systems such as Ayurveda and TCM.

But there is another reason for not eating meat, and that is not shedding blood. The Bible tells us that man originally did not eat meat (although he occasionally sacrificed an animal). The Divine permission to eat meat came only after the Flood. It must be understood as a special grant given by God in view of the greater fragility of later humans. The reason for not shedding blood is intuitive. All killing, all death is in principle a bad thing. Not shedding blood is, in a way, a going back to the primordial non-violence of Eden.

The reason for the distinction between the meat of land animals and fish is that the latter are cold-blooded. The same ancient science that recognized the link between meat and lust also postulated that cold-blooded animals do not feel pain in the same way as warm-blooded animals do. As such, their killing is less of a violence and less conducive to violence than the killing of warm-blooded animals.

It is only fitting that in celebrating the death of the Redeemer, who had to shed his blood for our sins and the sins of all humans, we also abstain from shedding the blood of other beings. Shedding blood was the prototypical sin after the Fall and, as such, stands as the epitome of sin in general. By not shedding blood, we make manifest our intention to love our fellow beings, including animals.

Any thoughts on this? Best,

Marcelo - from Brazil

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Macrelo, Your point about the pre-lapsarian state (indeed, the state before the flood) is well taken. It is true, there is some sense in which refraining from meat calls us back to a lost innocence.

You mention that "all killing, all death is in principle a bad thing." Just to qualify that statement (which I agree with) -- we would say that all killing/death is a physical evil, though not necessarily a moral evil.
Hence, in heaven, none will need to eat and none will die.

The difference between warm-blooded and cold-blooded is also interesting -- I wonder if all warm-blooded have more zinc? This would link the medieval science with modern science.

In any case, there much to think on here! +

Anonymous said...

For what its worth, mollusks (particularly oysters) contain substantially more zinc than any other food.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

MM, Thank you for the note...this is why I said in the article that oysters are among the foods highest in zinc.

Nevertheless, in general, meat has more zinc than fish. Moreover, meat, milk-foods, and eggs are the most common high-zinc foods in the normal western diet.

Fernando said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt Beck said...

So, do people who unknowingly continue to take their multivitamins obviate the usefulness of their Lenten fast?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I suppose we might consider not taking zinc supplements during Lent ... but, on the other hand, zinc is really helpful for not getting colds...
[myself, I do take zinc in the cold months]

I would say that simply not eating meat on Friday's already does a little something...whether or not we take zinc supplements, we will still probably be getting less zinc than usual (since we won't have as much of it in our meals).

Mostly, I was hoping to show in the article that there is a reason to the prohibition of meat on Fridays. What we do from there is a matter of personal prudence.

Peace! +

Anonymous said...

About oysters, at least formely in the East, on many days shellfish was prohibited even when fish was not.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are quite fact, in earlier times (both east and west), shellfish, eggs, and dairy products were all prohibited.
I seem to recall hearing that, at least for some monks, there was even a custom of abstaining from certain lentils and beans (which also have a lot of zinc, as it turns out).

Thanks for the info! +

Seraphim said...

In answer to Nick (above):

"Since the wine becomes the Precious Blood in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, what should one use when fasting from wine? I know Sundays are breakfasts, but I mean more about daily Mass for our Eastern Catholic brethern."

In Great Lent and other fast-days we also practice a Eucharistic fast, so no Divine Liturgy is celebrated then (as Roman Catholics do on Good/Great Friday). So we don't have "daily Mass" on days when we fast from wine. We do intensify our prayers, though, during Great Lent, and although daily Liturgy is typically not celebrated on weekdays (we have a tradition of married priests, and a rule prohibiting a priest from engaging in conjugal relations the night before Liturgy - you can probably guess how our reasoning works on this one!), we do say a "Liturgy of the Presanctified" in which commmunion consecrated the previous Sunday is administered. We do administer communion as normal then, including the Precious Blood. Once it's consecrated it's not wine any more.

Anonymous said...

I hope comments are still open on this post! I am late to the conversation, just finding this while researching the reasons behind our Lenten menu.

For me, at my current stage in life (homeschooling mom of five), I can't say that lustful temptations are something with which I struggle. As for anger, I have room for improvement. Lack of sleep, cloudy days, wacky hormones, and too much sugar seem to be more likely culprits than the consumption of zinc-rich foods such as flesh meat. I feel the most stable when I eat a diet high in meat protein and low in sugar.

Could it be that the practice of abstaining from meat is geared more for men than women?

I am curious, but willing to give this a try by planning meat dishes only once a week this Lent.

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