Most Catholics and people who grew up around Catholics know that eating fish on Fridays—especially during Lent—is somewhat of a tradition. What many Catholics and non-Catholics alike don't know but might have wondered is just how this tradition began.
Fasting and Abstinence in the Early Days of the Catholic Church
The traditions of fasting and abstaining from certain foods are ancient ones that many religions have practiced. In the early years of Christianity in Europe, the church instituted the practice of requiring the faithful to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in memory of Christ's death.
Lent and the Practice of Self-Denial Lead to No Meat on Fridays
During the season of Lent, a 40-day period of religious self-denial that spans from Ash Wednesday to just before Easter Sunday, the church called for abstaining from eating meat on Wednesdays as well as on Fridays. While the Church called upon all of the adult faithful to abstain from meat on these days, the rule really only applied to the rich, as the poor generally could not afford meat in the first place.
The Practicality of Abstinence
As many vegetarians and environmentalists point out, producing meat is a more costly way of providing the nutrition humans need, as it takes time for animals to grow to maturity and they must also be fed plant life to sustain them as they grow.
Humans, being omnivorous, are able to consume and digest both plant and animal life, which means it is more efficient from a production standpoint to produce and eat plant life directly rather than producing it to feed to animals and then eat those animals.
How Did the Catholic Tradition of Eating Fish on Fridays Begin?
It is important to note that the Church's directive called for abstaining from eating meat and did not mention (let alone require or even encourage) the consumption of fish on Fridays. The Church's objective in calling on the faithful to abstain from eating meat on certain days was to provide them with a simple exercise to aid in their spiritual development. Human nature being what it is, people usually react to new rules by looking for loopholes that enable them to comply with the letter of the rule but not necessarily the spirit.
In its abstinence rule, the Church simply required its members to abstain from eating meat with the idea that people would limit their food to vegetables and grains on Fridays. Meat is generally considered to be the flesh of warm-blooded land animals. Fish, on the other hand, are cold-blooded water-dwelling creatures. Using this technicality, people began consuming the flesh of fish instead of the flesh of animals on days of abstinence.
Thus, eating fish on Fridays became a tradition within the Catholic Church. People, of course, had been eating fish since the beginning of time, but consuming fish was typically limited to areas near water sources where fish were plentiful.
St. Peter and some of the other apostles and disciples of Jesus were fishermen. The New Testament describes Christ both accompanying them on a fishing trip and eating fish with them. However, this was due to the fact that they lived next to the Sea of Galilee where fish was a common food.
So, while the consumption of fish had nothing to do with the fact that some of the apostles were fishermen, the abstinence rule did begin the slow process of making fish more common among the Catholic population in general, and this slowly led to some other economic and cultural changes in society.
Economic Growth and the Emergence of a Middle Class
As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and began growing economically, a middle class began to form. Despite the fact the middle class lacked noble titles and aristocratic ancestors, they became the economic equals of the nobility, and their rising incomes meant that they could now afford to eat meat regularly as well. This, of course, made them consumers of fish, as they now had the means to follow the abstinence rules of their faith.
The Industrial Revolution caused the middle and working class to expand further as wages for factory workers began to rise. The economic growth produced by the Industrial Revolution also attracted swarms of immigrants to North America. Many of these immigrants came from Catholic countries in southern and eastern Europe as well as heavily Catholic countries of Ireland and Germany.
As the incomes of these immigrants rose, they too found themselves able to afford more meat in their diets—and as a consequence—found themselves substituting fish for meat on Fridays just like the aristocratic lords and ladies in Medieval Europe did in order to comply with the rules of their faith.
Soon, fish consumption by people living in America's interior cities like Louisville, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; and others equaled that of areas along the Atlantic coast whose fishermen ended up supplying much of the cod and haddock sold in the country's interior.
The Advent of the Friday-Night Fish Fry
This increased consumption of fish in the industrial cities of the interior soon gave rise to the tradition of the Friday-night fish fry, a custom that is still observed to this day in many areas. With the advent of the five-day workweek, Friday became the end of the workweek as well as the anniversary of the day on which Jesus was crucified.
Soon, restaurants began offering Friday fish fries as a relatively inexpensive way for working and middle-class Catholics to dine out with their families after the work week while abiding by the precepts of their faith.
Restaurants were soon joined by local Catholic churches, American Legions, VFW halls, and other organizations, which found inexpensive fish-fry dinners to be a good way for their members and community to get together and socialize while at the same time raising money for churches or organizations.
When Did the Catholic Church Stop Eating Fish on Fridays?
Things began to change following the Second Vatican Council, which met from October 11, 1962, to December 8, 1965. In early 1966, Pope Paul VI urged that the practice of fasting and abstinence be adapted to local economic conditions. Later that year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops relaxed but did not abolish the rules on fasting and abstinence.
However, the media and much of the laity interpreted these actions as abolishing the Church's requirement that the faithful abstain from meat on Fridays during the year and on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. So technically, the Catholic Church never formally told people to stop eating fish on Fridays.
Exceptions and Local Modifications
There were also exceptions to the general rule. Children under the age of 14, elderly people, pregnant women, people who were ill, travelers in certain circumstances, etc. were not required to follow the abstinence rule.
Further, as the church grew and expanded beyond Western Europe and as society changed due to economic growth, the church in Rome gave national bishops' conferences and even individual local bishops the power to modify the rules to make them compatible with local customs.
Thus, in the United States, Catholics were allowed to eat meat on the Friday following Thanksgiving (which is always on a Thursday) in recognition of the fact that most households had a generous supply of leftover meat from the feast the day before. Similarly, whenever St. Patrick's Day (March 17th), a major Irish-American holiday that occurs during Lent, fell on a Wednesday or Friday, American Catholics were not required to follow the abstinence rule.
Finally, local bishops would provide dispensations to secular groups hosting a meal on a day when Catholics were required to abstain from eating meat. This was in recognition of the fact that America is a secular nation made up of people of different faiths and that Catholics are active participants in secular society.
Thus, whenever a secular organization with Catholics among its members planned an event that included a meal and fell on a day that the Catholic Church required its members to abstain from eating meat, the organizers simply requested a dispensation from the local bishop that would excuse any Catholics attending the event from having to abstain from eating meat.
The Abstinence Rule in the Modern Day
The actions by Pope Paul VI and the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in 1966 relaxed but did not remove the church's rule requiring Catholics to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. However, the confusion surrounding the relaxing of the abstinence rule led the vast majority of Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere to stop abstaining from meat on Fridays. In recent years, the church in the U.S. has managed to get many practicing Catholics to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent.
Still, many Catholics either ignore or don't know that the church continues to require that practitioners between the ages of 14 and 60 fast and abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. Some choose to perform some act of charity and sacrifice once a week in place of fasting and abstinence.
Sources and Further Reading
- Lust, Lies and Empire: The Fishy Tale Behind Eating Fish on Friday
- Why Don’t Catholics Eat Meat on Fridays?
- Catholic Responses to Industrialization
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: It is true that the Catholic church pushed the eating of fish on Fridays to help the fishing industry?
Answer: First of all the Catholic Church didn't "push" the eating of fish on Fridays, the Church in the past required the faithful to abstain from eating meat on Fridays and, during the season of Lent, and on Wednesdays as well. Fish was an allowable substitute for meat on those days but eating fish was not required. When I was a freshman in college, an acquaintance from Latin America (I think she was from Panama) said that in her country Catholics were no longer required to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. When I checked with a priest, I was told that the Church had left the decision as to whether or not to forbid the eating of meat on Fridays up to the Bishop's Conference in each nation. I do remember when the rule was changed there were reports of fish industry trade groups supposedly having lobbied with Bishops to retain the rule
Question: Is eating eggs acceptable on Fridays during Lent?
Answer: As far as I know, there was never any rule in the Catholic Church against eating eggs on Fridays. I do remember one of my history instructors in college during a discussion about the Reformation citing some of the legal hair-splitting by canon lawyers, citing one dilemma which involved a person opening an egg on a Friday during the Middle Ages and finding a chicken embryo rather than egg inside. The question was, should he throw the embryo away thereby committing the sin of wasting food, or should he eat it thereby committing the sin of eating meat on Friday? There apparently was no agreed-upon answer but many hours were spent in that era debating this and other trivial questions such as how many angels could stand on the head of a pin.
Question: I know practicing Catholics no longer abstain from eating meat on Fridays except during Lent. What is not totally clear is the “official” stance of the Church on this practice. Please advise?
Answer: According to the website of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, American Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent.
Question: What is fish meat categorized as? If Beef is meat and chicken is poultry? I know it has its own group in Catholic religion.
Answer: Meat, such as beef, tends to be associated with livestock while poultry is a term used to refer to the meat from warm-blooded animals with wings. Both 4 legged livestock and birds are warm-blooded while fish are cold-blooded and this seems to be the loophole members of the Church found when the Catholic Church began requiring its members to abstain from eating meat on Fridays and during Lent. Fish along with meat from animals and birds have always been a part of the human diet as it is a source of protein. While people don't need to consume protein everyday people in the habit of consuming meat every day probably found fish to be a good substitute for meat on Fridays. Plants are a less expensive source of protein so the Church's requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays probably affected the wealthier classes more than the poorer masses.
Question: Does the following scripture have any inspirational insight that the masses could eat fish? "Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do." - John 6:4-6, English Standard Version (ESV)
Answer: This is a good question however, the first verse in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John states that the crowd had followed Jesus to the Sea of Galilee which is where Peter and some of the other Apostles made their living fishing before being called by Jesus to follow him. In Verse 9 of this chapter, the Apostle Andrew came over to Jesus saying that there was a boy there who had 5 loaves of barley bread and 2 small fish. Jesus then gave instructions to have the crowd sit down after which he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Given that this event took place by the sea I don't see a connection between this and people later substituting fish for meat on Fridays. I still see the best evidence for substituting fish for meat on Fridays was the fact that meat is associated with warm-blooded animals while fish are cold-blooded. Throughout history, people have eaten both meat and fish but I have never seen fish being considered meat - even today fish is referred to as "seafood" and is usually sold in the Seafood department of stores rather than the meat department. Further, in times past before the rise of supermarkets meat was sold in butcher shops, fish in fish markets (or by fishermen at the seashore) and vegetables in a green grocer or similar market. Further, both meat and seafood both tend to be more expensive to produce which makes them more expensive than fruits and vegetables. This meant that the rule to abstain from meat probably affected mostly wealthier people who, being better educated and better connected, were able to latch onto the loophole when the Church required that they abstain from consumption of "meat" rather than from "flesh" as "flesh" would have included the flesh of any living creature regardless of whether the flesh was from a warm or a cold-blooded creature.
© 2009 Chuck Nugent
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 04, 2020:
pwjbrick - Abstaining from meat or other foods is a common practice found in many religions and cultures and pre-dates Christianity. The early Church probably instituted the practice as a way for its members to pause once a week to reflect on and strengthen their faith. Since Friday was the day Christ was crucified avoiding meat on that day would remind them of Christ’s sacrifice. As I mentioned in the Hub, like all laws and rules many people looked for a loophole for a way to minimize the impact of the rule on them while still following the rule. While it is true that abstaining from eating meat on Fridays affected the rich more than the poor this may or may not have been a consideration. Much of the leadership of the Church in the Middle Ages came from wealthier families and may not have realized that the poor generally couldn’t afford meat. On the other hand the rich may have been the target of the rule as the Church felt that they needed a regular reminder of the need to focus on their faith. The New Testament in the Bible contains a number of references to the need for the rich to focus on their faith. In Mathew 19:24 Jesus says “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Thanks again for your comment.
pwjbrick on October 18, 2019:
To me the significance of meatless Fridays is touched on slightly in this article but not really explored. It is the thought the burden of sacrifice should fall primarily on the rich. This article tells how poor people didnz't consume meat but ate fish. That's why the sacrifice was meat.
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on October 26, 2018:
Rochelle - thank you for your interesting and informative comment.
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on October 25, 2018:
Dietary rules and restrictions in religious practice sometimes seem arbitrary, but in certain times and places they had some credible reasons for physical as well as spiritual health.
I always thought the practice of saying grace before meals was meant to to teach us that we should be aware that we need spiritual nourishment as well as physical. Bread and wine was also an everyday experience in the time of Christ. It was linked to the recognition of spiritual principles. I am not Catholic, but I understand the link.
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on June 30, 2013:
Marie - thanks taking the time to comment. Thank you especially for your comments on whether or not violating the abstinence rule was a mortal sin. This had been brought up and debated somewhat in the comments earlier and your comments certainly help to clarify this isssue.
Marie on June 26, 2013:
Fabulous and comprehensive. Much of what your article details is not known or understood by tons of American Catholics today, I read through waiting for some of the common misunderstandings or light slanders to pop up, not a jot, just solid info.
Regarding whether eating meat on Friday would have been a mortal sin, in the Church for something to be a mortal sin it must be serious (usually the ten commandments are referenced), you must know it's a sin, and you must freely choose to commit the sin (can't be coerced into it). I can see eating meat falling into this category if someone, for example, purposefully ate meat even though he truly believed the Church directed him to abstain in following the will of God. Then that person wouldn't be damned for eating meat -- he'd be damned (if not repentant before death) because he was disavowing God himself, which is the definition of damned. But just forgetting and eating a hamburger? Venial at most. Personally, I think we had a few strains of Jansenism still running through the Church in the 50s in America and probably some Catholics were misinformed by priests in error, as happens today with other heresies.
Brian Weekes from Queensland, Australia on November 17, 2011:
I was raised a Catholic, though I now attend a different church.
In Australia the only requirement that the Catholic Church has in regard to meat is that it not be consumed on Good Friday. (The Friday directly before Easter).
This is accepted practice in the Catholic Church in Australia, and Catholics on a regular basis, can be seen at BBQ events on a Friday evening cooking a t-bone over a roaring fire.
Supplex on November 15, 2011:
Regarding a question of what would a Catholic Vegetarian eat, a Catholic vegetarian can eat for example, the blandest meal possible or just choose to do a penance.
As of right now, fish on Fridays except for Good Friday and Lenten Fridays are not obligatory in the U.S., but traditional Catholics tend to abstain on Fridays and sometimes even Wednesdays.
eatingright on October 07, 2010:
That's an interesting historical perspective on why eating fish becomes the norm for Catholics on Fridays. I wonder what will a Catholic vegetarian eat on Fridays?
Joy56 on August 30, 2010:
this was a very interesting hub. We always had fish on friday at school, i hated it.
VintageTidbits on February 20, 2010:
Interesting and informative hub. My grandparents never ate meat on Fridays and we still eat fish on Fridays.
Jan Charles from East Tennessee on February 19, 2010:
I love the history of food - and I thought your take was awesome!
ciidoctor on November 20, 2009:
very good hub
Merriweather on November 16, 2009:
Very interesting! The historical context is particularly enlightening.
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on September 27, 2009:
Auntie M - good point. Thanks for sharing.
Auntie M on September 27, 2009:
It too was commented to me, being raised a Catholic and attending parochial school for 12 years, that the church made rule was directly created to boost the fishing industry of Italy. But, if one takes a moment they would realize that Italy is a peninsula and fish has always been a main part of its diet. There really was no need to boost an industry that already was doing well.
Tom Vogler from The Shenandoah Valley on September 24, 2009:
Thank you for doing this article. I think people would be more accepting of the Roman Catholic Church if they understood the reason behind the traditions and the teachings. You help provide that. Keep up the good work.
lrohner from USA on August 28, 2009:
Good Lord, my Mom passed away a few years ago at the tender age of 86. Throughout her entire life, she never, ever once ate meat on Fridays!
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on August 23, 2009:
Thanks for your comment clarifying that violating the no meat rule on Fridays was a mortal sin. I couldn't remember from catechism class just what this was and in my research on the Internet in writing the Hub did not clarify this either.
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on August 23, 2009:
maven101 & Seabastian - Thanks for your comments.
I had heard theories about helping the fish industry being a motive for this practice. However, not only was the eating of fish not mentioned in the rules surrounding this but the point was to get people to give something up and not to substitute one thing for another. Also, Orthodox Churches in the East came out with a similar rule about the same time and they were too far away for their fish consumption to benefit the Italian fishing industry which, as I stated in the article, was limited to people living by the sea who fished to augment the diets of themselves and their neighbors.
Where economics came into this was in 1966 when the rule was changed. Here is a link to a Time Magazine article that I used in researching this Hub and you can see from this article that there were concerns about what the effect of removing this rule would have on the U.S. fishing industry:
I also remember in the news media at that time that there were discussions and comments about the negative impact that the change in the abstinence rule would have on the U.S. fishing industry.
However, the U.S. fishing industry in 1966 was a large industry that, as I pointed out in the article, sold fish to people in areas far from the sea, as well as one that consisted of large corporations with legions of professional lobbyists skilled in lobbying legislators in the political arena. And, as I recall, there was talk in the media speculating about the industry lobbying the Church not to make the change - but as I remember this was just speculation.
I have also seen references to an economic study that was done after the change which showed that there was something like a 10% drop in seafood sales that could be attributed to the relaxing of the abstinence rules. However, I have not been able to find a copy of the study itself.
Again, everything that I have found about lobbying to help the fishing industry referred to 1966 when the rules were relaxed and not in the Middle Ages when the rules were first released.
Thanks again for your comments.
jkfrancis on August 23, 2009:
It wasn't just a "rule." Eating meat on Fridays for Catholics was a mortal sin for which you could roast along with your meat in hell for all eternity.
Seabastian from Raleigh on August 23, 2009:
A great hub. I learned a lot about the Catholic church and the origins of some modern customs which is always interesting.
I was also reminded that economics plays a larger role than almost any other force in shaping ideas and customs.Maven also brought out the point that there is also always a "special interest" appealing to the reigning authority for economic help. I wonder if Gm's management has an appointment scheduled with the pope.
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on August 23, 2009:
advisor4qp - Thanks for your comments. In addition to the Greek Orthodox, other Orthodox Churches also have rules requiring members to abstain from eating meat on certain days, including Lent. The Anglican (Episcopal church in U.S.) also has or had some rules in this area as well.
Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on August 23, 2009:
As a " mackerel snapper " I always understood the imposition by the Roman Catholic Church to eat meat on Friday was issued on purely economic grounds...The mediterranean fishing industry appealed to the church hierarchy to impose the requirement to increase their market share during the middle ages...the religious connotations were simply window dressing making the edict more palatable to the flock...
Very well written and informative Hub...Thank you...Larry
advisor4qb from On New Footing on August 23, 2009:
Very interesting hub! The Greek Orthodox method of observing Lent is also very interesting, yet stricter.