The History of Lenten Abstinence

The history of Catholics abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent provides an interesting story

It is a commonly held notion that during the Middle Ages, the church clerics instituted the practice of not eating meat on Fridays in Lent to help the Italian fish industry. From Catholic priests to Eastern Orthodox priests, internet resources to printed texts, this theory seems to hold no water.

During the season of Lent, the Catholic tradition, along with other various Christian denominations, observe the practice of not eating meat on Fridays, and often opt for fish instead.

While a large number of people adhere to this tradition, it has a history that is somewhat ambiguous, given the varying answered offered by different sources. The question has often come up as to why fish is acceptable, but meat is not.

Father Lam Le, Catholic Priest of St. Paul’s campus church at Ferris and St. Mary’s in Big Rapids, shared a variety of resources to explain why Catholics practice this tradition.
Lam feels, as a Catholic, that this practice is important during Lent. He quoted a copy of a 2009 statement by Pope Benedict XVI that says, “fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning…it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God.”

A source Lam referenced was, “The Liturgical Year,” by Adolf Adam. It said, “Abstinence from meat and wine was added later on, as was abstinence from dairy products (milk, butter, cheese and eggs), in many countries, until the Middle Ages and beyond.”

The practice of abstaining from meat during Lent used to include not only flesh, but also things that “came from flesh.” This included eggs, milk and any other dairy product. However, rules have become more lax in recent years.

Catholics fast and abstain in honor of when Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. The spiritual meanings of fasting vary by person and denomination, but the history on how some traditions began is more objective.

Andrew Gallavan, a senior in the technical and professional communication program, believes that the reasons for this can be both biblically and historically based.

“I was told that fish was acceptable for two reasons. The first being when Jesus blessed a couple fish and loaves of bread, he was miraculously able to feed 500,” said Gallavan. “The second was due to the fact that it wasn’t practical to ask people to give up such a significant part of their diet.”

Father Daren Zehnle, pastor of St. Patrick parish in Girard, Ill., believes there is a historical context for why fish is acceptable. He referenced a statement from the fifteenth century by John Myre in his Liber Festivalis which said, “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.”

Resources such as newadvent.org give credence to the fact that meat is not acceptable because it is flesh, and dairy products were not be allowed because they “came from flesh,” here is a reason given as to why fish is acceptable. Because eggs used to be prohibited as well, this is also the reason why eggs are a common gift on Easter, because it is the first day in 40 days that Catholics can eat these.

This practice is not exclusive to Catholics. Eastern Orthodox Christianity has a similar practice of fish being allowed, but meat seen as unacceptable. This suggests that this practice pre-dates the East-West Schism, which took place around the eleventh century.

Father Alexander Kutcha, an Eastern Orthodox priest, said, “[fasting rules] predate the Schism and really even the birth of the Church. Fasting has always been a part of our human religious experience.”

Gallavan also said that he finds that only giving up meat during Lent is very easy, so he practices “David’s Fast,” which includes meat and any wheat based product.

While historical texts and biblical references leave room for interpretation for this practice, those who practice it often do so for spiritual reasons, not historical ones.