27 February 2015

Fish on Fridays: A remembrance of God's mercy and the promise of the resurrection of the body

N.B.: The title to this post has been corrected

Although Catholics are not required to eat fish on every Friday, it has long been customary to do so. Indeed, the custom of eating fish on Fridays and not meat earned Catholics in some parts of the world the disparaging title of "fisheaters."

In the United States of America, such has practice has not been customary since November 27, 1966 when the then-National Conference of Catholic Bishops removed the penalty of sin from the eating of meat on Fridays:
Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law. Our expectation is based on the following considerations:
  1. We shall thus freely and out of love for Christ Crucified show our solidarity with the generations of believers to whom this practice frequently became,especially in times of persecution and of great poverty,no mean evidence of fidelity to Christ and His Church.
  2. We shall thus also remind ourselves that as Christians, although immersed in the world and sharing its life, we must preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world. Our deliberate,personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.
Every Catholic Christian understands that the fast and abstinence regulations admit of change, unlike the commandments and precepts of that unchanging divine moral law which the Church must today and always defend as immutable. This said, we emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that "no"scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience,confessions, or personal decisions on this point (Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, 23-25, emphasis mine).
That being said, the Bishops also expressed their hope that every Friday of the year would find Catholics in the United States of America substituting the non-eating of meat with some other form of perhaps, such as
doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends,our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith (27, emphasis mine).
Each of these are worthy, pious, and holy things to do, but, regrettably, this hope has not born great fruit over these past forty-seven years as Catholics generally treat Friday as any other day of the week, if not as a particular day of celebration, in keeping with the secular culture, with little recognition of Christ's love poured out for us on the Cross.

Even so, Catholics in the U.S.A. are still bound by the requirement of canon 1251 to abstain from the eating of meat - in Latin, carnis - at least on the Fridays of Lent.

There is a linguistic reason as to why Catholics are allowed to eat fish on Fridays - even during Lent - and not meat, as Jimmy Akin explains: 
The most fundamental reason, however, is that in Latin and in the major European languages (French, Spanish, etc.), the word for “meat” never includes fish. Since the custom, for the Latin Rite of the Church, arose in Latin and Romance-language areas, it reflects this fact.
In fact, in English at the time arose, the same was true. The word “meat” at that point signified any and all food. To denote what we today call meat, the word “flesh” was used, and it too excluded fish. The system of classification that was used in English divided “meat” into “flesh, fish, and fowl.”
Since that time, the term “meat” has become restricted to what you find attached to the bones of mammals (flesh) and the bones of birds (fowl), and sometimes to what you find attached to the bones of fish, but that use is not universal even today.
In any event, the custom of eating fish but not flesh on Friday stems from this word usage in Western languages, in which there was a division between fish and what we today call “meat.”
For this custom, minimal as it is, Catholics in some parts of the country are still criticized or at least questioned, though they are rarely any longer derogatorily referred to as fisheaters. Sadly, most Catholics do not know how to respond to questions about why we do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent.
The most common objection given against this Catholic practice is that the custom began solely in order to benefit the fishmongers of Rome some centuries ago. This claim, of course, is sheer rubbish, both because Catholics are not required to eat fish (and so such a decree, if there was one, would not really benefit the fishmongers) and because no one who makes such a claim can point to a historical connection or decree. What is more, too, Catholics have been abstaining from meat on Fridays long before anyone attempts to make the fishmonger assertion.

But surely there is more than a linguistic reason as to why we are allowed to eat fish on Fridays? Of course, there is, though - in my estimation - it likely came later.

I've shared before that in his Liber Festivalis [Book of Festivals] (later 1400s), John Myre offered one reason - and to me a convincing one - as to why can eat fish on Fridays:
For when God, for Adam’s sin, cursed the earth and the land, he cursed not the water; wherefore it is lawful for a man to eat in Lent that which cometh of the water.
This has long seemed a good enough reason to me as to why Holy Mother Church permits us to eat fish on Fridays, even on the Fridays of Lent. But if this reason does not convince you, consider this explanation given by Saint Isidore of Seville (d. 636) in his De Ecclesiasticis Officiis:
We are certainly able to eat fish, because the Lord accepted one after the resurrection. Neither the savior nor the apostles have forbidden this (1.45[44].2).
The penances we take up on Fridays are, after all, intended to help us recall the sufferings the Lord willingly endured for us. His suffering, of course, did not end with his Death, but culminated in the Resurrection. The time of our resurrection, though, has not yet come, and so we now willingly take up some form of penance to join our sufferings to his.

If we, then, eat fish and not meat on Fridays as we remember the Lord's death, it can be an opportunity for us not only to give up the pleasure of a steak or a pulled pork sandwich (one of my favorites) but also an opportunity to remember the Lord's mercy and the promise of the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. Amen. 


Barb, the Franciscan Mom, told me I should include the recipe for a delicious tuna pasta I found in one of Mr. Food's cookbooks:
  • 1 lb rainbow rotini (any pasta will work, but this one gives it some color)
  • 1 can (6 1/2 oz) solid white tuna, packed in water, drained (I usually use two cans)
  • 6-7 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice (freshly squeezed is best, and a little more never hurts)
  • 1/2 cup chopped freshly parsley (or 6 teaspoons dehydrated flakes)
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (a little more never hurts)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper (a little more never hurts, but not much more)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed (the secret ingredient; again, a little more never hurts, though too much goes too far)
 Not only is it delicious, but it couldn't be easier. In fact, it's maybe too good for Lent!


  1. Thanks for putting this in here! I think it's perfect for Lent! It's very budget-friendly, so it's a great "put the savings in the Rice Bowl" kind of meal.