Bring Back Meatless Friday
Matthew P. Cavedon
Meatless Fridays were once one of the most visible markers of Catholic identity. For most of the American faithful, they are now observed only in the special liturgical season of Lent. US bishops should impose it as a weekly matter once again. The pastoral hopes that caused them to do otherwise have gone unfulfilled. Meatless Fridays would powerfully call to mind traditional devotion to the Lord’s Crucifixion, contemporary interest in the future reconciliation of all creation, and modern society’s grave needs for human solidarity and ecological stewardship.
The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law states that every Friday, the day Jesus died, is a penitential day. It further provides that “[a]bstinence from meat . . . is to be observed on all Fridays.” The Code does allow national bishops’ conferences to “substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to do that in 1966. It issued a statement finding that abstaining from meat was no longer “always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance” because meat is so readily available in our society. It believed that “renunciation of other things would be more penitential.” “[F]ar from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays,” the bishops authorized individual Catholics to substitute “other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat.”
This did not happen. Notwithstanding the (important and holy) recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3 o’clock by some believers, Fridays hold little spiritual significance for most American Catholics. The great exception, of course, is during Lent, when abstaining from meat remains a duty. For those forty days, abstaining from meat remains so much a touchstone of Catholic identity that Chick-Fil-A even offers fish sandwiches as part of its seasonal menu. (Fish, reptiles, amphibians, shellfish, and, more creatively, beavers, muskrats, and capybaras are not considered meat by Church authorities.)
Aware that removing abstinence had not borne spiritual fruit, and that modern Catholics would benefit from “a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity,” the bishops of England and Wales made Fridays meatless again in 2011. The Americans should do the same. As evidenced by the vitality of Lenten observance, giving up meat remains a premier means of practicing penance. Contrary to the expectations of 1966, it may be precisely because meat is available by default that it is a good penance. Going to a pizza party and sticking to cheese is a minor sacrifice in the grand scheme of things. But it can require explaining to others, forgoing greater pleasure, and making conscious effort. That makes it as apt an occasion for remembering Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross as it was before the 1960s.
Meatless Fridays can also meet newer spiritual priorities. They can be a way for Catholics to bear witness to the reconciliation of all creation in the End Times. The Book of Genesis tells us that before the Fall, God gave humans and every other creature plants – not each other – as food. Only through sin did enmity between people and animals begin. Disharmony in the created world is, if anything, more obvious now than it has been in a long time, and people yearn for transformation. Scripture promises that sin and the alienation it brings will not have the last word. The Prophet Isaiah foretells a time when children and snakes, wolves and lambs, and cows and bears will live peacefully together – and, significantly, “[t]he lion will eat hay like the ox.” It would be a beautiful development for modern meatless Fridays to connect remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice with anticipation of the cosmic reconciliation that His return will bring.
All of these reasons are strictly spiritual, so why argue for meatless Fridays on Canopy Forum? Because they would also contribute religious strength to important social efforts. Going meatless would strike a blow against consumerism, especially in the form of food waste. And it would be an opportunity to cultivate empathy. One American Muslim reflecting on Ramadan put it this way: “The core of fasting is empathy, to cultivate the ability to feel someone else’s pain. As we regularly feel the discomfort of hunger and thirst, we gain a glimpse into what it is like for those who have no choice but to be hungry and thirsty every single day.” Such a sense of empathy can be converted quite directly into active solidarity. In college, I knew several Catholic students who would get food from the dining halls on Lenten fast days, then send it to a local homeless shelter. This echoed the action of the Ethiopian saint Moses, who famously prepared a meal for visitors during a fast he had proclaimed. Fellow monks accused him of hypocrisy at first, but then lauded him for breaking a human rule in order to fulfill the divine one of hospitality. God grant that the whole Church were full of Friday abstainers working to satisfy others’ hunger!
Together with the “the abandoned of our world,” Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, overconsumption has caused “sister earth . . . to cry out, pleading that we take another course.” He continued that “ethical decisions, rooted in solidarity between all peoples,” and in the responsibility of those living now for future generations, are needed to combat climate change. Cutting down on meat-eating would do that. More than 14% of artificial greenhouse gases have been traced to livestock. Rates of full-blown vegetarianism in America plateaued over twenty years ago. But between an explosion in meatless frozen foods and the invention of plant-based burgers and wings, the proportion of meatless meals has gone up significantly. It would rise even higher if Catholics abstained from meat one day a week. And surely some of those who tuck into tempeh to fulfill a Friday obligation would find it equally edible on Tuesday.
In 1966, the end of meatless Fridays may have seemed like a spur to deeper spirituality. It turns out to have left many Catholics indifferent about the day God’s Son died. Ironically, the timing also deprived Catholics of an immediate connection to ecological and anti-consumerist trends that were about to become major social forces. English and Welsh bishops have realized that restoring meatless Fridays is a timely aid to spiritual devotion and social needs. The Americans should do the same. In the meantime, lay Catholics can read the signs of our times for themselves and start living out the hope the bishops stated in 1966, “that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.” We certainly have enough reasons old and new. ♦
Matthew P. Cavedon is the Robert Pool Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and a senior lecturer in law, at Emory University. He is a former public defender and was a law clerk for a United States district court and the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Cavedon, Matthew P. “Bring Back Meatless Fridays.” Canopy Forum, November 9, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/11/09/bring-back-meatless-fridays/