Is it a sin to eat meat on Fridays during Lent or just a suggestion?

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As early as the 2nd century, the Didache notes the practice of abstaining from meat on all Fridays of the year as a penitential observance recalling the crucifixion. There is no corresponding insistence on eating fish. (Some members of my family consider seafood a form of poison, so not everyone shares your enthusiasm for it.) It was Pope Nicholas I (9th c.) who made this practice binding under pain of mortal sin—and not because his family owned a fish market, as is sometimes suggested. Pope Innocent III (12th c.) made an exception for when Christmas falls on a Friday.

Thomas Aquinas considered meat, milk, and eggs all foods that incite desire. Fasting and abstinence were meant to bridle "the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex.” Vegans might find incidental common cause with this doctor of the church.

It wasn't until 1966 that Pope Paul VI advised local church officials to modify the abstinence rule as they saw fit. That same year, U.S. Bishops issued the Pastoral Statement On Penance And Abstinence allowing a substitution of some other form of penance in place of abstinence on all Fridays except for those that occur in Lent. However, persons in good health between the ages of 14 and 59 must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and lenten Fridays.

Some bishops or pastors make exceptions for St. Patrick's and/or St. Joseph's Day when they fall on lenten Fridays. In 2012, the U.S. bishops reconsidered reinstituting abstinence for all Fridays of the year, but preferred to make it optional to abstain on Friday for the intentions of life, marriage, and religious liberty. In 2010 the bishop of New Orleans reclassified alligator as a non-meat item on the menu.

The practice of abstinence from meat is intended as a penitential practice. Obviously, if you're wild about fish, that may not be the best substitution with which to observe the sacrifice. While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not categorized as meat and can be consumed without violating abstinence, indulging in a seafood buffet isn't in the spirit of a penitential act. 

Scripture: Pss. 69:11; 109:24; Isa 58:3-12; Dan 9:3; Joel 2:12-17; Neh 1:4; 9:1;             Tobit 12:8; Judith 4:13; Esther 4:3; 9:31; Matt 6:16-18; 9:14-15; Lk 2:37; Acts 13:2-3; 14:23

Books: The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity - Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)

The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovery of a Christian Practice - Charles M.Murphy (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2010)

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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