No Meat Please


No Meat for Me Please, I’m Catholic – Arch McKay

Have you ever heard this conversation?
“What would you like on your hamburger?”

“Nothing for me thank you.”

“What’s the matter? Don’t you Like hamburgers?”

“No, it’s Friday; I don’t eat meat on Friday.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m Catholic.”

“Oh, why don’t Catholics eat meat on Friday.”

“I don’t know. We just don’t.  Ask my priest”

This may be a bit of a hyperbole or maybe you are thinking, “Hey I resemble that remark!” But when it comes to many of our practices and traditions in the Catholic Church, it is not uncommon for people to be a bit hazy on the laws and purposes of what these outward signs are meant to express.

Let us first look at some basic terminology.

During Lent, does one ‘fast or abstain’

There are three rather significant terms in that last question.  The first, is “Lent”.  Most of us have a pretty good grasp on what Lent is.  It is those 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending at Easter.


Well, kind of?

Lent, in the Christian church, is a period of penitential preparation for Easter. In Western churches it begins on Ash Wednesday, six and a half weeks before Easter, and provides for a 40-day fast (Sundays are excluded), in imitation of Jesus Christ’s fasting in the wilderness before he began his public ministry (Encyclopedia Britannica).

The word “Lent” itself does not translate easily into other languages spoken by Catholics through out the world. Lent roughly has its origins in old English or Germanic tongues simply as “Spring”, the season in which Lent often occurs. In other languages this season of the church is called a word similar, to “Fast”.

We understand the seasons of Advent and Christmas. We celebrate Christmas on December 25 (Jesus’ birthday [well that’s not quite accurate but that is a topic for a whole other discussion]) and Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas. The season of Lent, however, does not begin on a specific date but rather during a specific set of Biblical and historic events. We celebrate Mass in a special way on Sundays (Mass can be offered everyday of the week).  The reason we do this is because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, but it was not just an ordinary Sunday. To discover which Sunday, we must go to the Bible and see why Jesus was in Jerusalem on that special time.

As was the custom of devout Jews at the time, Jesus would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, the day that commemorates the event when the Angel of Death passed over the children of Israel and freed them from their bondage in Egypt. The date of the celebration of Passover is prescribed in the Book of Exodus.  Exodus 12:18 commands that Passover be celebrated, “from the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.” Jesus, we are told in the Gospels, was observing Passover according to His Jewish tradition.   But in Christianity the Jewish Passover and Easter do not occur exactly at the same time.

Jesus died during Passover.  Easter is the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, with Good Friday remembering his death.  In that case one would think that Easter and Passover should occur on the same day.  At first the early church did celebrate Easter on the same day as the Jewish Passover, but in 325 CE the Christian Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after equinox on March 21.  This changed how Easter was calculated, moving it off from the Passover date.  Easter and Passover now are usually very close in the calendar, usually just a few days apart.

Lent begins forty days before Easter. Why forty days? Again, we go to the Bible. Before Jesus began his ministry, he went in the desert (Matthew 4:1) “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights.”

Now if you were to present these facts to a curious group of young students, inevitably one curious soul would pipe up. “Hey, I counted the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter and I came up with forty-six days not forty”. That is because Lent ends on Holy Thursday. Good Friday to Easter is the Triduum.

What is the difference between fasting and abstaining?

Fasting, by definition, is the reduction of one’s intake of food; whereas, abstinence is the refraining from something that is good, but not inherently evil.  Common examples of fasting would be not eating or drinking anything an hour before receiving Communion or fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

An example of abstaining is the proverbial ‘not eating meat on Friday’.

But what is the purpose of fasting and abstinence?

The church teaches that all people are called to perform acts of fasting and abstinence as penance for their sins (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1434)

St Basil of Caesarea challenges us even further by saying “True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury.”

Fasting and abstinence is only one of three steps the church calls us to perform for penance for our sins; the other two are prayer and almsgiving.

Okay so we know what Lent, fasting and abstinence are.  The next questions are who, when and why?

And now how about a few stories to illustrate?

It was the 1930’s in Saskatchewan. fasting and abstaining was being done by almost everyone, not for religious purposes but because food was scarce. For Catholics a common substitute for meat on Fridays in Lent was fish. But fish was impossible to get for many of the mostly rural population of the province. The local bishop asked and received special dispensation from the Holy See to allow parishioners to substitute acts of piety in place of fasting.

Moral: Abstinence is not intended to cause physical harm or place impossible barriers to people.

During the same time, it was Catholic fasting from meat that helped the economy of the Maritimes.

In 1962 Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchise owner in Cincinnati Ohio, noticed a significant drop in hamburger sales in his largely Roman Catholic populated areas of the city. A Catholic businessman himself, Groen knew exactly what the issue was. His patrons were not eating meat on Fridays. He came up with a very practical solution. “What if McDonald’s offered a fish sandwich?”

He brought up the idea to Ray Kroc, the owner of the McDonald’s franchises.  At the time Kroc was toying with the idea of adding a new food item of his own design, a Hawaiian themed pineapple and cheese sandwich.  Kroc proposed a little contest. Present the Hawaiian sandwich and the fish (filet) sandwich to the public and see which they preferred. Groen thought it would be a great idea, and how about introducing the sandwiches in early spring (as in Lent).

The results were obvious. Today the filet-o-fish sandwich is a staple of McDonald restaurants in the Western world.

Moral: Culture often plays a part in our attitude towards fasting and abstinence.

Other restaurants often relay stories involving Catholics and their habit of abstaining from meat during certain times of the year. The sale of fish dishes, shrimp, lobster, scallops and other sea food dishes sky rocket during the season of Lent. But the question arises, is this real abstinence; it certainly isn’t fasting.

Moral: Some people take abstinence too literally. They perform the physical requirements (ie: not eating meat) but miss the intention.

When it comes to fasting and abstinence there are many interpretations of what theses terms mean and what the church actually teaches.  For example, one may ask me, why is it that in my Catholic family I eat meat on Fridays and my wife and kids don’t? The answer is simple. I listen to our Canadian Catholic bishops and my kids listen to their mother, and she to her mother (etcetera etcetera). Let me explain.

The Church tells us that we have five major obligations (Precepts), duties that all Catholics are expected to accept in order to be considered a practicing Catholic (I always thought that I was a “practicing Catholic” because I still haven’t got it all right yet).

These Precepts are:

  1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
  2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
  3. You shall humbly receive your Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter Season.
  4. You shall keep holy the Holy Days of Obligation.
  5. You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence. (2041 Catechism of the Catholic Church)

Some of these precepts are black and white but there seems to be a few open spaces; for example, what are the Holy Days of Obligation and when are the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence?

Holy Days of Obligation are days involving special events in the life of our Lord. They include the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension of Christ, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Feast of Mary the Mother of God, the Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, the Feast of St. Joseph, the Feast of Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and the Feast of All Saints. (2177, 2043 Catechism of the Catholic Church)


Now you may be saying to yourself, “Okay so if these are the precepts that you follow I must be a better Catholic than you are because my mom told me I had to do a lot more than that.”

Depending on your cultural background you may celebrate some or all of these dates. Some of the events occur on specific dates such as the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (December 25) and others are celebrated during a Sunday liturgy such as the Epiphany (second Sunday after Christmas). Even this explanation will not satisfy all Catholics.

There are those of our faith that celebrate Christmas by another calendar or the Epiphany on January 6th.  Likewise, we have new Canadians who come to our country and tell us that we celebrate a lot fewer Holy Days of Obligation and days of fasting and abstinence then they did back in “the old country”.

There are variations of Holy Days of Obligation.  These are found in the Code of Canon Law (Can. 1246) “With the prior approval of the Apostolic See (the Pope), however, the conference of bishops can suppress some of the Holy Days of Obligation or transfer them to Sunday.”

In Canada, there are only two Holy Days of Obligation.  They are Christmas and the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God (January 1).Other countries such as the United States, have eight Holy Days of Obligations, though two or three have been transferred to Sundays, depending on where one lives.

These transferring of dates also apply to days of fasting and abstaining.

In Canada, in accordance with the prescriptions of canon 1253, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops decrees that the days of fast and abstinence in Canada are: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fridays are days of abstinence, but Catholics can substitute special acts of charity or piety on this day.

But if you want to get technical and specific here are the rules for penitential days under present Church law.

In 1966, Pope Paul VI promulgated a new set of regulations for fasting and abstaining by his apostolic constitution, Paenitemini. These new rules are listed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canons 1249-1253 and all Roman Catholics are bound to strictly observe them (other than the exceptions stated below).

There are two sets of laws that apply to the Church’s penitential days:

  1. The law of abstinence refers to abstaining from meat.
  2. The law of fasting refers to the quantity of food taken, thus also refraining from eating between meals.

Not every living Catholic is bound by these laws. The law of abstinence only binds Catholics, beginning on the day after their 14th birthday. The law of fasting binds all adults (beginning on their 18th birthday) until the midnight which completes their 59th birthday. So, kids and seniors needn’t worry about their diets.

 Finally, the question arises, what exactly is forbidden to eat?

Finally, the question arises, what exactly is forbidden to eat?
The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat. This does not apply to dairy products, eggs, or condiments and shortening made from animal fat. The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day and two smaller meals (snacks). The two smaller meals should not equal the quantity of the main meal (which in Canada is customarily observed as supper or as some people call it, the evening dinner).

When fasting, eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids are allowed, including milk and fruit juices. In some places defining what is not meat can be even more specific as identified by the United States Conference of Bishops.  “On fast days, fish and all cold-blooded animals may be eaten (e.g., frogs, clams, turtles”, etc.[gross]). (Q&A About Lent and Lenten Practices USCCB, Jan.2016)

A Fast before Holy Eucharist also exists. In the pre-Vatican II church, Catholics were expected to fast for three hours before Communion.  In earlier days the fast was even longer. Pope Paul VI reduced it to one hour. Which for the most part means you should not eat anything during Mass (depending on the length of the homily),

The current Code of Canon Law states,

Canon 919: one who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception only of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.
Those who are advanced in age or who suffer from any infirmity, as well as those who take care of them, can receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have taken something during the previous hour.

The Eucharistic fast is before Holy Communion, not the Mass. It is a fast from food and drink, water is acceptable, as is medicine. The moral theology tradition teaches that to be food it must be

  1. a) edible,
    b) taken by mouth, and
    c) swallowed.

Let’s get even more technical, in addition to fasting from breakfast, lunch and supper (dinner), candies, breath mints, lozenges and anything that is put into the mouth and consumed meets the condition of “food” once they are dissolved are swallowed. Chewing gum does not break the fast, but it is disrespectful of the Sacred Liturgy and downright rude. Furthermore, once the juice is swallowed the fast is broken. The tradition also teaches that the fast is strict – one hour, 60 minutes, 3600 seconds. Given that until recently the fast was from midnight until communion, this seems rather little to ask of Catholics.

Three very important points must be understood about these rules and laws.

  1. The purpose is to express respect and piety to the sacrifice of Christ.

The church gives us clear instructions as to who should fast and abstain. How we should fast, from what we should abstain, and when it is appropriate to fast and abstain. One must remember it is the intent of the sacrifice that is important, not so much the literal definitions. I can not imagine a person who has died and found himself in hell; when surrounded by the greatest sinners in history and is asked, “Why are you here?” He responds, “I forgot and had a hamburger on Ash Wednesday!”

  1. Enforcement of these laws is between you and God.

The best advice comes from Jesus himself

Matthew 6:16-18

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

  1. When in doubt, be like Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana – listen to your mother.