Friday, April 22, 2022

Fish on Friday: The One That Got Away

Edouard Manet, Still Life with Fish, 1864

One of the most recognizable markers of Catholic identity used to be the practice of abstaining from meat on Friday; one nickname for a Catholic used to be “mackerel-snapper.” A Protestant colleague of mine speaks of how in his youth he would hang out, Happy Days style, at a burger joint on Friday night. When the clock struck twelve, the Catholic teens who were there would let loose a cry that echoed through the parking lot: “Ham-burger!” My colleague was impressed by their self-discipline and piety: they obeyed the rules of their faith even though they were not under the watchful eye of their parents.

What those teenagers didn’t know was that they were honoring a discipline probably as old as Christianity itself. [1] Be it with fasting (having little or no food) or abstaining (refraining from food of a particular kind), the Church has always observed Friday with some sort of restriction on comestibles.
Surf ’n’ Turf No, Sushi Yes
Fish only made its way onto the ascetic’s dinner plate gradually. The earliest Christian fasts involved abstaining from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Beginning in the sixth century, the consumption of fish was allowed on days of abstinence and only in cases of necessity, but Pope St. Gregory the Great also forbade more delicate fish and “rich seafood,” presumably delicious creatures from the sea such as lobster and other shellfish. Only later on were all sea creatures allowed. In the mid-eighteenth century Pope Benedict XIV permitted meat to be consumed during Lent for the first time in Church history, but he also decreed that meat and fish could not be consumed at the same meal on days of partial abstinence. In 1866, the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore prohibited warm fish except as part of the main meal. (Readers interested in a more detailed history of abstinence should consult the writings of Matthew Plese.)
Broader Impact
Friday abstinence has had a ripple effect going far beyond its primary aim of personal sanctification. Contrary to wild theories about medieval fishermen lobbying the Church to create Friday abstinence, it was Friday abstinence that helped create the medieval fishing industry. [2] Professor Brian Fagan claims that the Church’s Friday discipline may have even led to the discovery of the New World, spurring Atlantic fishermen to push further westward in search of better waters and providing navigational precedents for Christopher Columbus. [3] By pushing the borders of the known world, Friday abstinence not only put fishing on the map, it helped make the map itself. Friday and Lenten abstinence prompted medieval monasteries to pioneer new techniques in pisciculture, including artificial fish ponds and artificial fertilization. [4] It was a Catholic nun who wrote the first fishing manual in English and a Catholic priest who invented the first spinning reel. [5] 
L. Prang & Co., Columbus Arrives in America, 1893
Nor has only distant history been affected by this ancient custom. Restaurants typically have a Friday seafood special of the day or a soup du jour such as clam chowder because of the power that Catholics once wielded as a united front. Even titans of global uniformity like McDonald’s were forced to take notice. The Filet-o-Fish sandwich was added to its menus in 1962 after Louis Groen, owner of the chain’s Cincinnati franchises, noticed that his restaurants experienced a sharp drop in sales every Friday. Even today, of the 300 million Filets-o-Fish sold annually, 25% of those sales come from the forty days of Lent.
Everyday language has been affected as well. So strong was the American association of Catholics with fish on Friday that “mackerel snapper” was once a common epithet for papists. “Meager” refers to something that has little flesh, and so the word came to be applied to days of total or partial abstinence in the Church calendar. A soup-maigre or “meager soup” was one that was not made from flesh meat or meat broth and was consequently suitable for “meager days,” while to “make meager” meant eating food appropriate for meager days. [6]
Of course, one of the curious things about all of these effects is that Catholics don’t have to eat fish on Fridays. This is a point impishly brought home in an essay by Fr. Leonard Feeney. [7] “I am one of those moderately good Catholics,” Feeney writes, “in whom the persuasive power of Canon Law has not developed a taste for fish either on Friday or any other day, and stands no chance of doing so.” [8] For Feeney, the reputation of Catholics as a queer sort of “Sixth Day Adventists” is a badge of honor to be worn in cheerful defiance of Protestant America.
Another mackerel snapper, renowned anthropologist Mary Douglas, agrees. Douglas sees in the rule of Friday abstinence “allegiance to a humble home in Ireland and to a glorious tradition in Rome.” [9] These allegiances, she continues, are particularly important for a humiliated class. “At its lowest,” Douglas writes, Friday abstinence for a “bog Irishman” meant “what haggis and the pipes mean to Scots,” and at its most, “it means what abstaining from pork meant to the venerable Eleazar as narrated in 2 Maccabees.” [10] One wonders if the Church in Ireland and America today, which in both countries is being humiliated by the savagery of the press and the corruption of some of its clergy, is not in need of a similar morale-boosting sign of allegiance.
Exceptions Curious and Quaint
Fr. Feeney also remarks, “if we dared tell non-Catholics the number of reasons which will legitimately permit us to eat meat on Friday, they would be scandalized.” [11] There were numerous variations of the Friday rule based on local usage and the judgment of “intelligent and conscientious Christians.” [12] Special groups, such as travelers and soldiers, were occasionally exempted, and so were areas that either already had a seafood-rich diet or were smitten by epidemic or famine. And sometimes whole peoples got a free pass. In 1089, Spanish counts were granted a dispensation from the Friday rule by Pope Urban II for their role in the Crusades; after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Pope St. Pius V extended the dispensation to the entire Spanish dominion, including her colonies in the New World. Mexico, for example, was not instructed by the Holy See to observe Friday abstinence until 1950, and the following year bishops in New Mexico and Texas informed their flock that this applied to them as well. [13]
And then there are the curious local substitutes. During Lent the people of Venezuela can eat capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, a fact that has inspired the following doggerel:
You’ll enjoy capybaras to eat; Venezuelans proclaim them a treat. Those of Catholic bent May consume them for Lent If a fine rodent burger’s their meat.
Writing about the year 1188, Giraldus Cambrensis remarks that in “Germany and the arctic regions,” beavers’ tails are eaten during times of fast by “great and religious persons” because of their resemblance to fish meat. [14] This practice was carried to parts of the New World, especially Canada. Jesuit missionaries wrote to Rome to verify that the custom was permissible. Rome replied that not only were beavers allowable but so were most amphibious animals and even some species of wild duck. [15]
In the United States, some Michiganders have the dubious privilege of dining on muskrat for their Friday and Lenten observances. Several Catholic communities in the Wolverine State have claimed a dispensation to eat the aquatic rodent since the days of the French trappers. In 1987, Bishop Kenneth Povish of Lansing wrote that although such a permission could not be found in the Church’s records, the practice had been around for so long that it could continue as an “immemorial custom.” And there was another reason to allow it, the bishop added: “Anyone who could eat muskrat was doing penance worthy of the greatest of the saints.” [16]
Cooked Muskrat. Photo from Hour Detroit magazine, 2017
The Law No One Knows
After Vatican II Pope Paul VI took up the question of Friday abstinence in his 1966 Apostolic Constitution Paenitimini. The document masterfully reaffirms the traditional theology of penance and abstinence, and it resolves a longstanding inconsistency about which feast days should supersede Friday abstinence. [17] But Paenitimini also announces the Pope’s goal of reorganizing “penitential discipline with practices more suited to our times.” [18] Even so, Friday abstinence was explicitly reaffirmed.[19]
In November of the same year, the U.S. bishops responded to the call for reorganization with a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence.” [20] Whereas American Catholics were hereby released from a strict obligation under pain of sin to keep Friday abstinence, the bishops emphasized that Friday was still a mandatory day of penance: indeed, they wrote eloquently of Friday as a mini-Lent in the same way that Sunday is a “weekly Easter.” [21] And they made it clear: “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.” [22] The 1983 Code of Canon Law would later codify this teaching by stating that: Friday is an obligatory day of penance and abstinence is the standard form of Friday penance, although other forms may be done instead. [23]
If this is the position of the Magisterium, then why has it failed so miserably, with the majority of the world’s Catholics ignorant of any obligation to do anything special on Friday? Certainly, the media’s mishandling of the 1966 news (which made glib remarks like “you won’t go to hell anymore for eating a hamburger on Friday” instead of reporting all the facts), the minimalist mindset of the faithful who were happy to be free of one less duty, and the failure of the clergy to catechize on the subject all played a part in the overnight disappearance of Friday abstinence.
But there may also be a more fundamental reason. The removal of a symbol, or in this case the removal of a law protecting a symbol, can give the impression that the reality to which the symbol points is likewise being rejected. “To take away one symbol that meant something,” notes Mary Douglas,
is no guarantee that the spirit of charity will flow in its place….We have seen that those who are responsible for ecclesiastical decisions are only too likely to have been made, by the manner of their education, insensitive to non-verbal signals and dull to their meaning. This is central to the difficulties of Christianity today. It is as if the liturgical signal boxes were manned by colour-blind signalmen. [24]
And there are other complications. Paenitimini and Canon 1253, which allow an episcopal conference to designate other forms of penance such as works of charity for Friday, divorce for the first time in Church history Friday penance from food abstinence. Yet even this latitude is honored more in the breach than in the observance, for few episcopal conferences have made any decision about what form of Friday penance its flock may follow. The signalmen, it appears, have fallen asleep at the switch.
Confusion reigns even in the capitol of Christendom. When my father-in-law, who was a member of a pontifical academy, was invited to dine at the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV on a Friday night several years ago, he and the other guests were served horse meat!
Abstaining from the Alternatives
Regardless of the available options, there are at least seven reasons to keep the traditional sixth-day penance:
1. It is corporate. Having everyone do his own form of penance lacks the marvelous unity of almost the entire Catholic world performing the same act on the same day. This is not only spiritually constructive, it is socially edifying, building up solidarity and deepening our awareness of joint membership in the mystical Body of Christ.
Munich Fish Market on Good Friday, 1924
2. It is ancient. A single practice unites all the living, but when it is ancient it also unites them to their forebears. If tradition is, as Chesterton put it, the democracy of the dead, then Friday abstinence is the veritable apple pie of Catholic life. In the words of the American bishops in 1966: We show “out of love for Christ Crucified…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.” [25]
3. It is testimonial. Friday abstinence bears powerful witness to the distinctiveness of the Church. My Protestant friend whom I mentioned earlier knew little about Catholics when he was young, but he knew they stood for something when he watched his papist peers exercise self-discipline even away from the watchful eyes of their parents.
4. Abstinence is efficacious. Ancient authors taught that abstinence from food and drink was useful in dampening “the ardor of lust.” [26] Bodily passions are not bad per se, but left untrained they can become the occasion of sin. Trimming the body’s food intake, as modern studies have confirmed, can lower lustful proclivities. [27]
5. Abstinence is appropriate. The Church still teaches that every human being is required to do penance by virtue of divine law (Can. 1249), and Friday abstinence is an especially appropriate way to do this. It was on a Friday in Eden that Adam and Eve transgressed the first law of abstinence. [28] And, of course, it was on a Friday that our Lord was crucified in order to undo the effects of that transgression. It is therefore appropriate to make abstinence our Friday penance, in sober memory of the Fall and “in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.” [29]
6. Abstinence from meat is particularly appropriate. Catholicism ingeniously teaches both through presence and through absence. Usually, the Church employs physical signs to convey invisible realities; but sometimes, she temporarily withdraws something as a way of arresting our attention and heightening our awareness of what is missing.
Hence, the suppression of the Alleluia during Septuagesima and Lent effectively demonstrates that we are in exile from our true Home, where the angels sing Alleluia without ceasing. Veiling sacred images in church during Passiontide—when we would most expect to gaze upon a crucifix—paradoxically heightens our awe of Christ’s Passion. And prohibiting the sacrifice of the altar on Good Friday draws us in an inverted way to the sacrifice of the cross made that day.
Similarly, when we “make meager,” we withdraw from our table the flesh of an animal whose blood was shed for us on the day in which the Blood of the God-man was shed for us. [30] The absence of the former paradoxically reminds us of the latter; not having a bloody victual backhandedly alerts us to the Bloody Victim.
7. It is Christ-like. Jesus Christ consumed nothing on Good Friday except the gall He tasted shortly before His death. With fasting or abstinence on the day of the Crucifixion, Catholics in some small way “suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday.” [31]
How the Church can best recover its former Friday integrity remains an open question. [32] In the meantime, there is ample reason to fulfill Paul VI’s and the American bishops’ 1966 wish that what was once done in obedience be now done by free choice. The weekly abstinence from flesh meat is rich in history and meaning, bringing us closer to God and to each other. Living the Catholic tradition, even on days of deprivation, is anything but a meager existence.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the 2010 Summer/Fall issue of The Latin Mass magazine. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for its inclusion here and to Matthew Plese and Tyler Gonzalez for their helpful suggestions.
[1] The custom of fasting on Friday is mentioned in Didache 8, a book believed to be written around A.D. 75.
[2] Brian Fagan, Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World (Basic Books, 2007), pp. 25ff.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Michael P. Foley, Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 111.
[5] See Foley, pp. 46, 69, and 109, resp.
[6] “Meagre/Meager, adj. and n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, A.3. and B.2.
[7] Leonard Feeney, S.J., “Fish on Friday,” in Fish on Friday and Other Sketches (Sheed & Ward, 1934), pp. 3-16.
[8] Ibid., p. 3.
[9] Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (Routledge, 1996), p. 37.
[10] Ibid., pp. 37-38.
[11] Feeney, p. 6.
[12] J.D. O’Neill, “Abstinence,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
[13] See “Friday Abstinence,” in the Religion section of Time Magazine, June 18, 1951.
[14] The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales, 2.3.
[15] Daniel Wilson, “Early Notices of the Beaver in Europe and North America,” in the Canadian Journal of Industry, Science, and Art (1849-1914), Vol. 4, p 386. The scoter, for example, was consumed on Friday in parts of France (see Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucian Bonaparte, American Ornithology, Vol. 3 [Constable and Co., 1831], pp. 212-13).
[16] Kristin Lukowski, “Muskrat love: A Lenten Friday delight for some Michiganders,” CNS News, March 8, 2007.
[17] Prior to Vatican II, only holy days of obligation suspended abstinence from flesh meat on Friday. The problem with this arrangement was that different nations had different days of obligation. The difficulty was resolved by giving all [first class] solemnities in the universal calendar priority over Friday penance.
[18] III.C.
[19] Chapter 3, II.2. [20] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,” November 18, 1966. This is an outstanding document.
[21] Ibid., 23.
[22] Ibid., 24.
[23] See Canons 1251-1253.
[24] Douglas, p. 42.
[25] “Pastoral Statement,” 24a.
[26] See St. Jerome, Against Jovinian 2.6; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II.147.1.
[27] Flesh meat, for instance, is high in zinc, which raises testosterone levels. For a summary of modern dietary research, see Theresa M. Shaw, Burden of the Flesh (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998), pp. 126-27.
[28] Adam and Eve sinned on the same day they were created when they ate the fruit from which they were commanded to abstain. Dante gives the First Couple about six hours in Paradise before they were expelled.
[29] “Pastoral Statement,” 23.
[30] Cold-blooded animals such as fish and amphibians also “shed their blood for us” when we use them as food, but because of the similarity of our physiology to that of other warm-blooded animals, our symbolic association with the latter is greater.
[31] “Pastoral Statement,” 18.
[32] For an interesting discussion on this, see Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s blog for April 23, 2009, at

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: