It isn’t just on Good Friday – Catholics were once obliged to eat fish every Friday of the year. While that may sound weird and confusing to some, there’s a pretty good reason behind it. Find out what that is and why it’s not in practice anymore in this article.
Catholics eat fish on Friday as penance – to express our desire to be forgiven for our sins and be closer to Jesus. It’s a small sacrifice that shows our obedience and willingness to suffer with Him during the day on which He died for us. This practice also brings us closer together as His followers.
So why Friday and why meat? Moreover, why is it not in practice anymore? Continue reading below to know the answers to all these questions.
Are Catholics Supposed to Eat Fish Every Friday?
All members of the Roman Catholic Church ages 14 and older are required to abstain from meat on Fridays. This is according to the Code of Canon Law (1251-1252), which states that:
“Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.”
Now, you’re probably wondering why Fridays. Well, firstly because the Catholic Church says so. In the Code of Canon Law, all Christian faithful are obliged to do penance as it is God’s will and as part of a community, it follows that we adhere to common forms of penitential acts and do it during the “prescribed penitential days.” As such, the Church says that: “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.”
Secondly, Friday is a day of penance for Christians as it is the day that Jesus died. It’s just like how every Sunday is the Lord’s Day as it is the day that Jesus has risen. Think of it this way: All Fridays are like mini-Lent seasons, preparing us for Sundays, which are mini-Easter seasons. So before we rejoice in Jesus’ resurrection, we should first reflect on His crucifixion and suffering – and one little way to do that is by abstaining from meat.
Not eating meat on Fridays is a sacrifice and shows that we are willing to suffer with Jesus Christ so that we can be glorified with Him one day. This is at the heart of this tradition. Aside from that, it’s a practice that has been observed in the Catholic Church from time immemorial. This means that it has been passed on to us and is something that unites us. Moreover, it’s one of our traditions that makes us Catholic. It’s similar to praying five times a day while facing Mecca, how Hindus abstain from beef, and how Jews keep to kosher.
So why fish? Well, the tradition doesn’t exactly say fish. Instead, it says to “abstain from meat or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference”. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be fish. In fact, eating vegetables will suffice.
Technically, what Catholics are not permitted to eat is flesh from a warm-blooded animal. So if you think about it, it’s only right that you abstain from such an animal that would need to give up its life for you on the day that Jesus himself sacrificed himself for you.
That said, meat used to be a luxury, which is especially true during ancient times. However, in modern times, this isn’t true since meat has become so common. Most times, seafood is even more expensive than, say, a cheeseburger. So if you’re thinking of trading pork for lobsters and fried shrimp, then the practice of abstaining from meat won’t make sense.
When Did the Catholic Church Start Eating Fish on Fridays?
The practice of abstaining from meat has been observed by the Catholic Church as early as the first century. Fasting and abstinence were common during the time of the apostles, the early Christians, and even in later times in Rome.
Now, there’s a tale about a medieval pope making a secret pact to help certain fishermen, which then resulted in the “Fish on Fridays”. However, this is not true.
Again, take note that Catholics are not required to eat fish. Instead, we are told to abstain from meat. Taking it from its Latin origin, Christians should avoid “carnis”, which in ancient times only meant the meat of things walking on the ground. This means that vegetables and all cold-blooded animals are fair game.
Why Is Abstaining from Meat on Friday Not Practiced Anymore?
No matter how meaningful abstaining from meat on Fridays all year round was, this practice was made limited only during Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by the Catholic Bishops of the United States in 1966. According to their statement, it says that:
“Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.”
With that, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says that “our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence.” However, they maintained that abstinence from flesh meat should still be observed during Lent and that Friday itself remains a “special day of penitential observance throughout the year.” This means that we still have to reflect on our sins and treat Fridays as a “day of self-denial”.
It should be noted that in their statement, while they stopped making the practice of abstaining from meat mandatory, they still recommend Catholics do it by “free choice”.