Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why do Catholics abstain from meat?

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.


Father S. said...

Dear Father,

You wrote:

“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.”
Please compare this to Canon 1253:

“Episcoporum conferentia potest pressius determinare observantiam ieiunii et abstinentiae, necnon alias formas paenitentiae, praesertim opera caritatis et exercitationes pietatis, ex toto vel ex parte pro abstinentia et ieiunio substituere.”

How can one interpret what you have to say in light of Canon 1253? Are this sentence and that canon opposed?

Kind Regards,
Father S.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Fr S,
I would say that my statement is in "tension" with that particular Canon, but not wholly opposed to it.

In any case, it is Canon Law which mandates that pastors explain the true meaning of the fasting and penance ... hence, there seems to me to be some "tension" within the Code itself.

Obviously, bishops have the authority to change the particular law in their diocese regarding abstinence.

Peace to you! +

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father Ryan,

'Tis with a smile that I compose my thank-you! You must write the book! And if it's already written, please provide the title and author. Something like, "Theology of the Body for Joe Six-Pack". Of course, your subject isn't ToB here, but it sure makes me think of the tie-in.

At least, write the homily, so other priests can use it, and we can read it!

I have to confess this one, because except for that very infrequent fish-fry, I'm afraid I forget to abstain from anything, even if I remember some time during the day that I should.

So your good counsel has saved me from possible damnation yet again, Father, I owe you bigtime! God bless you, Father.

James Joseph said...

I onced worked for several years with a young Muslim fella, of a particularly rare stripe whose sect did not use Arabic historically and believed their particular messiah already came and went.

He spoke of fasting from meat for exactly the same reason; passions of the flesh. Interesting, non e vero?

Perhaps, it is prudent during this time of year when Spring is sprunging and libidos become more potent as the Sunshine grows stronger.

Father S. said...


I don't think that I understand. Please tell me if I am mistaken, but it seems like your logic is as follows.

You seem to have three givens:

1. Bishops who understand fasting and penance would never substitute the traditional practice.

2. They have the obligation to teach the true meaning of the traditional practice.

3. They have the authority to change the traditional practice within their jurisdiction.

I'd call that more than "tension." If your givens are correct, it is tantamount to saying that the law gives a proviso whereby ignorant bishops can exercise their will as they see fit. Is that a fair estimation of what you are saying?

I’ll refrain from giving my opinion yet at this point. I really am interested in understanding what you have said.

Kind Regards,
Father S.

voice said...

Other than St. Thomas', is there any basis that meat and the other products listed cause lust and anger? With all due respect and charity, this appears to violate reason, which does not contradict faith. In fact, this article seems to reduce the practice of Friday abstinence to mere superstition.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'd request that you re-read the article and notice that modern-day scientists and nutritionists confirm what St. Thomas and all Christians (and observant people generally) have believed -- meat, milk and eggs are the most common foods in an ordinary diet which cause an increase in libido through the large amount of zinc.

Are you saying that zinc in superstitious?! Or are you just one of those who refuses to accept both ancient wisdom and modern science?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@James Joseph, thanks for pointing out the Muslim practice as well!

Indeed, any reasonably observant society would come to this conclusion. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Father S.,

To be very clear:
I am saying that those who permitted this substitution rule were mistaken ... that they either fail to understand what penance is really all about (since, a major part of penance is the avoidance of future sin) or they fail to realize the reason why Christians have traditionally abstained meat (together with milk and eggs).

Now, I am quite sure that the bishops understand what penance is all about ... so, I presume (in charity) that those who wrote this portion of the Code and those bishops who allow for other foods to be substituted simply do not realize why Christians have traditionally abstained from meat.

It is an ignorance of history and of physiology ... and they ought to learn the truth ... but it's hardly a significant moral error.

[also, it is likely that many bishops would like to switch back to the older tradition, but must move gradually ... and this is a good example of pastoral prudence]

Gille-Iosa said...

Just a comment on a veryinformative piece.

The Lenten fast in the Eastern tradition, at least as I was taught, callsfor abstention from all seafood, not just shellfish, and also abstention from oil. The exception was (and is) the permitted use of shellfish on the feast of the Annunciation. Such is the practice of some Melkites I have known, as well as some Ukrainians, both Catholics and schismatics.

Anonymous said...

About a dozen years ago, while visiting a church in a neighboring state, the church secretary offered to me a bit of the wisdom that had been imparted to her from a liturgist she had a conversation with.

I was told that the reason why the Church instituted meatless Fridays was to give a boon to the fishing industry at the time. I had never heard anything so ludicrous in my life. However, since that time, I have read and heard the same thing said.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Given that this practice is spread by the Church throughout the whole world, and has been a practice for nearly 2000 years, I can guarantee that the Church adopted it out of care for souls rather than for businesses.

While I do not doubt that this idea has been written and spoken of by many, I can assure you that boosting the fish industry had nothing to do with the institution of the practice.

Now, it may be true that, in particular times and places, the practice of the Fish Fry has helped the industry ... but that wasn't the original goal of the Church by any means.

Peace and blessings to you always! +

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

In relaxing the strictures of Fast and Abstinence, Holy Mother Church brought a curse down upon herself in the form of relative restriction of Grace granted unto her by God, and as, Dom Prosper Gueranger (The Liturgical Year), the problems we have with clerical queers is due to our laxity...

It was with this intention, that Pope Benedict the Fourteenth, alarmed at the excessive facility wherewith dispensation were then obtained, renewed, by a solemn Constitution, (dated June 10, 1745,) the prohibition of eating fish and meat, at the same meal, on fasting days.

The same Pope, whose spirit of moderation has never been called in question, had no sooner ascended the Papal Throne, than he addressed an Encyclical Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic world, expressing his heartfelt grief at seeing the great relaxation that was introduced among the Faithful by indiscreet and unnecessary dispensations. The Letter is dated May 30th, 1741. We extract from it the following passage: “The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it, we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it, we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it, we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted, but that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.” [Constitution: Non ambigimus.]

More than a hundred years have elapsed since this solemn warning of the Vicar of Christ was given to the world; and during that time, the relaxation, he inveighed against, has gone on gradually increasing. How few Christians do we meet, who are strict observers of Lent, even in its present mild form! The long list of general Dispensations granted, each year, by the Bishops to their flocks, would lead us to suppose that the immense majority of the Faithful would be scrupulously exact in the fulfilment of the Fasting and Abstinence still remaining; but is such the case? And must there not result from this ever-growing spirit of immortification, a general effeminacy of character, which will lead, at last, to frightful social disorders?

Me said...

To say that eating meat causes lust is an extreme position. This directly contradicts what Jesus said in Matthew 15:10, that it isn't what goes into a person's mouth that defiles him, but what comes out of it ( indicating what is in his heart). Nor have I ever personally been sexually tempted because I ate a hamburger

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It's a biological and scientific fact ... zinc causes an increase in libido (especially in men) ... meat, milk, and eggs are the most common source of zinc in the human diet ... therefore, abstaining from meat physiologically causes a decrease in zinc which causes a decrease in libido.

Jesus wasn't denying biology when he spoke of all foods being clean ... he was talking about ritual purity ... not saying that that the body is not affected at all by what we eat.

Only a fool would claim that nutrition has no affect on the human body.

Minerals and vitamins, etc. make the body to react in different ways ... the modern science corroborates the ancient wisdom of the Church.

James Zahler said...

Zinc does in fact play a role in increasing libido, but I hesitate to believe that regulating our consumption of Zinc will significanly decrease libido. First, because the body regulates the distribution of nutrients in complex ways. An increase or decrease in zinc may not affect how much zinc is distributed to the relevant parts of the body. Second, in complex chemical reactions, the reaction is always controled by the 'limiting reagent.' For instance, if there are 6 hydrogens and 3 oxygens, at most one could create three water molecules. If you increase the number of hydrogens present by 100 while keeping the number of oxygens at 3, you will still only have, at most, three water molecules because water is the limiting reagent. Not every decrease in zinc consupmtion will decrease libido, but only a decrease significant enough to cause zinc to be a limiting reagent. Depending on how much zinc is required, one might not even be able to impact libido without serious complications from malnutrition.

Of course, the testimony of people through out the ages and from very different cultures (Muslims) provides good evidence that it is the case that a lower zinc consumption decreases libido. I, however, hesitate until I see statistical data.

I would also add to Fr. Erlenbush's explanation that at most zinc could increase temptation, which doesn't defile a person like guilt defiles. Jesus, therefore, is saying that guilt is primarily in the will, not exterior actions.

Seraphim said...

I have never been tempted because I ate meat. I am more tempted with things like that when I fast - because I am physically weaker. If the purpose of fasting is to quiet the passions, then I should never fast at all.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Just so I understand ... are you saying that the tradition of the Church is wrong ... or simply that you refuse to admit what modern science tell us? It seems to me that you reject both.

In any case, it is true that temptations can increase when we fast ... but that doesn't change the fact that a zinc deficiency would cause problems for the reproductive system and thereby decrease libido (and temptation).

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