Up Front and Personal

Abstaining from Meat Can Be Transforming

By Father Frank Mann

First in a series

A current discipline in the Roman Church is for Catholics to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays in Lent and Good Friday. But Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York would like to make the “no meat on Fridays” a year-round regulation. At their recent meeting in Baltimore, the Catholic bishops of the United States were asked by Cardinal Dolan to help sell the “idea” to the faithful.

On his Internet blog, Cardinal Dolan discusses the issue of meatless Fridays, saying: “What about us Catholics? For God’s sake, I trust we are recognized for our faith, worship, charity, and lives of virtue.

“What are the external markers that make us (Catholics) stand out? Lord knows, there used to be tons of them: Friday abstinence from meat was one of them.”

In 1967, Pope Paul VI relaxed what was once the year-round meatless Fridays rule.

Interestingly, the Catholic bishops of Great Britain recently reintroduced the discipline of abstinence from meat on all Fridays in the calendar year.

It is worth noting that much of what has been handed down to us in the Church’s discipline regarding such abstinence finds its roots in the monastic tradition. For example, the vegetarian diet of many monastic houses complies with the vow of poverty and the intent to keep meals simple, less tempting and more in keeping with an ascetic lifestyle.

“When Saint Benedict compiled his ‘rules,’” according to Father Mark Scott, a monk of New Clairvaux Abbey, editor of Cistercian Studies Quarterly and executive editor of Cistercian Publications, “he based his dietary restrictions upon the food eaten by the poor who lived in the area of Italy from where he came.” In many locations in the world, this is still a stark reality.

Meat, which has always been a dietary staple for most peoples, can often be cost prohibitive. One might argue that abstaining from meat may “move” us — we, who are blessed by abundance — to meditate on the plight of those who have less. Perhaps this identification with the ‘anawim’ of the world, can be spiritually transforming for we Catholics. Such a discipline can offer an empathetic and motivating catalyst in helping one appreciate what it means to make a “sacrifice.” Likewise, the Catechism of the Church states that such abstinence can “help us acquire mastery over our instincts and obtain freedom of heart.”

However, the primary reason for a meatless diet within many monastic traditions, Father Scott states, “… is the belief that meat eating, particularly of red-blooded animals, may stimulate the passions — most notably that of lust. The aim of a monastic lifestyle is to attain a quieting of such disruptive passions. Any practice considered to bring about such a state of spiritual well-being was practiced alongside those of contemplation, fasting, vows of silence, manual labor and of course the abstinence from meat.”