Q. Why is it OK to eat fish on Fridays during Lent, but not other animals? Isn’t fish meat as well? Is shellfish, like lobster and shrimp, considered fish, and does the church allow its consumption on meatless days? (It seems to me that lobster is extravagant and shouldn’t be eaten during a season when almsgiving and abstinence are encouraged.) (Canal Winchester, Ohio)
A. First, a clarification on the rule. The prohibition against meat on Lenten Fridays is not universally binding. National conferences of bishops, and even bishops of each diocese, have some discretion in applying the rules of fast and abstinence.
In the diocese where I live, for example, Catholics are asked to refrain from eating meat on the Fridays in Lent. However, the published guidelines specify that “by retaining these traditions for our diocese we do not intend that they be interpreted as laws binding under pain of sin, but as customs from which we will not hold ourselves lightly excused.”
Evidence from the church’s earliest centuries indicates that meat was already singled out as a particular type of food from which Christians occasionally abstained. Why meat? Because meat was associated with celebrations and feasts and was considered a luxury in some cultures. Fish, by comparison, was more often the poor man’s meal.
Your observation that fish is also meat is correct — technically and biologically. It is the flesh of an animal, but in many Western languages the term “meat” is used customarily to refer only to the flesh of mammals and fowl.
In his 1966 apostolic constitution on penance, Paul VI used the Latin word “carnis” in regard to abstinence, a word that refers specifically to mammals and birds.
As to lobster and shrimp, they are indeed fish, and so there is no prohibition against eating them on days of abstinence. But I agree with your point: The spirit of Lent is one of penance, in memory of Christ’s suffering, and of sharing our blessings with the poor.
To forego a hamburger on a Lenten Friday and substitute instead a lobster tail seems a bit hypocritical. As a matter of fact, the bishops of the U.S. agree; their website says, “While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not considered meat and can be consumed on days of abstinence, indulging in the lavish buffet at your favorite seafood place sort of misses the point.”
Q. In the church that I attend, there are several mothers who breast-feed their children during Mass. Is that, in the church’s view, appropriate? (Indianapolis)
A. There is, as you might suspect, no particular canon in the church’s code that covers this. To some extent, the appropriateness would depend on local culture and customs. But mothers who want to breast-feed discreetly during a church service now seem to have a new advocate — and one with considerable standing.
In January 2014, Pope Francis baptized 32 babies at a Mass in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. During a short and unscripted homily, he said this: “Some (children) will cry because they are uncomfortable or because they are hungry. If they are hungry, mothers, let them eat, no worries, because here they are the main focus.”
That matched what Pope Francis had told an Italian newspaper a month earlier, about a woman whose infant had been crying forcefully at a general audience: “I told her, ‘Ma’am, I think your baby is hungry.’ And she replied, ‘Yes, it would be time.’ I replied, ‘Well, please feed him.’ She was modest and didn’t want to breast-feed him in public while the pope drove by.”
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.
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In regard to abstaining from meat on a Friday. Didn’t this ruling become effective when the church wanted to help fishermen to sell fish?