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Can Catholics eat faux meat on Fridays in Lent?
Debating the morality of eating an Impossible Burger on a Lenten Friday might be as Catholic as it gets.
“I mean, only Catholics could be having an existential crisis over aristotelian metaphysics as to whether something is actually a thing or not, or in this case, meat,” said William Patenaude, a Rhode Island civil engineer who blogs on Catholic ecology.
Patenaude told Our Sunday Visitor that he found it “hilarious” that Catholics on social media and elsewhere are discussing the ethics of eating plant-based products that are manufactured to taste and smell like real beef. Secular media outlets have asked canon lawyers and diocesan officials to weigh in on whether eating faux meat on Fridays during Lent constitutes a mortal sin.
“And everyone is pulling out their textbooks, looking up Aristotle, Plato and Thomas Aquinas,” Patenaude said. “It’s pretty hilarious, and so Catholic.”
For the record, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains in its Lenten guidelines that the Church’s laws on abstinence hold that meat “comes only from animals such as chicken, cows, sheep or pigs.” Birds are also considered meat.
“It seems to me that eating faux meat satisfies the letter of the law regarding abstinence from meat in Lent,” Father Andrew Menke from the U.S. bishops conference’s Secretariat of Divine Worship told Our Sunday Visitor in an email.
So, canon law will not require Catholics to confess the dubious choice of eating a soy burger that tastes just like a Whopper.
“Maybe someday if this kind of food becomes truly widespread and part of everyday life for many people, the Church will address the issue directly or propose some other penance instead,” Father Menke added.
However, as Father Menke also said, the question of whether it’s licit to eat fake meat overlooks the interior conversion and self-denial that Friday abstaining is intended to foster. “I think it goes without saying that it’s against the spirit of the law,” Father Menke said. “Everyone knows that!”
What is permitted?
Father Bryan Small, a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, told Our Sunday Visitor that “the whole point” of abstaining from meat on Fridays is not to do “mental or epicurean gymnastics.”
“It’s to place ourselves in solidarity with those who don’t have the luxury of ordering a triple bacon cheeseburger at the drive-thru or via DoorDash whenever the urge strikes,” said Father Small, who added that the Impossible Burger is OK to eat during Lent, on a technicality.
“I tell folks if they do the plant-based burger, fine,” Father Small said. “But however much that burger costs, the same amount should go into your CRS Rice Bowl.”
Father Stephanos Pedrano, a Benedictine monk and priest of the Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California, offers some straightforward advice, telling Our Sunday Visitor: “When it is time to abstain from meat, just do without. You have no obligation to substitute.”
Recalling Christ’s passion and death on Good Fridays, the Church holds all Fridays to have special significance and calls on Christians to enter into Jesus’ self-denial and sacrifice by forgoing food and doing acts of penance. During Lent, the Church requires Catholics on Fridays to abstain from meat, which historically was associated with celebratory feasts.
In its Lenten guidelines, the U.S. bishops’ conference offers practical advice to abide by the Friday abstinence, which does not pertain to meat juice or liquid foods made from meat. Chicken broth, consomme and soups cooked or flavored with meat are not forbidden. Eating meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat will not prohibit you from receiving Communion on Sunday. Neither will that meat-tasting patty that is actually made from kidney beans.
“What is the intent (of eating faux meat) though? To avoid suffering?” asked Deacon Kevin Gingras, a deacon in the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.
The bishops conference also notes that moral theologians have traditionally taught that Catholics on the Fridays of Lent should abstain from all animal-derived products except for foods that do not have any meat taste such as butter, gelatin, cheese and eggs.
Salt and freshwater species of fish, including shellfish, are permitted. So are cold-blooded animals such as reptiles, if you’re into that. But again, abstaining from meat but indulging in lobster or a hearty meal of fish and chips still defeats the purpose of Lent.
“It’s not meat, but it’s certainly not suffering, either,” Deacon Gingras said.
Sacrifice and solidarity
Of course, a little individual discernment goes a long way when deciding whether to eat a vegetarian version of a bacon cheeseburger for Lent.
“As any carnivore knows, faux meat is not real meat, and not only does not break the fast, but for meat lovers, in contrast to meat addicts, may even be a greater penance to eat than fish,” said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
Auxiliary Bishop Mark O’Connell of Boston, who is a canon lawyer, told Our Sunday Visitor that while he didn’t consider himself an expert on the matter, he doesn’t believe a veggie burger qualifies as meat.
“In my opinion it is a penance all in itself,” Bishop O’Connell jokingly said.
“This seems like a very silly question. Plus also, eating fake meat is always a mortification,” said Mindy Selmys, a former Catholic blogger.
But for Rachel Cecilia, a young Catholic laywoman in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, eating something that tastes like meat still feels to her like cheating, even if it’s technically allowed in Church law.
“I personally would feel like my motivation was wrong if I did it,” Cecilia said.
Michael Bayer, the director of evangelization and adult formation at St. Clement Church in Chicago, said fasting from meat during Lent is all about sacrifice as a means to solidarity. It compels him to reflect on and be grateful for his blessings while being mindful of the sufferings of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border and of refugees fleeing war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Said Bayer, “All of which is to say that I can’t be bothered to spend a single minute debating whether an Impossible Whopper breaks the rules.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.