Written by Fredrik

Modified & Updated: 30 May 2024

Jessica Corbett

Reviewed by Jessica Corbett

plate of grilled fish, why do catholics eat fish on friday

One of the most distinctive practices of Roman Catholics is a preference for eating fish on Fridays, especially during Lent. Traditionally, devout Roman Catholics would not eat meat on all Fridays of the year. In recent decades, however, rules have relaxed, and today most Catholics only abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. Now, have you ever wondered why Catholics have this tradition, as well as how and why it developed?

The Reasons For Only Eating Fish on Fridays

Traditionally, Lent (the period between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday) is a time for Christians to reflect on the life and works of Jesus. Friday, in particular, has a special status according to the Gospels, it was on a Friday when Jesus was crucified. Thus, Friday would serve as a day of reflection, to allow for people to ask forgiveness for their sins.

silhouettes of Jesus Christ carrying his cross on Calvary hill
Image from Adobe Stock

For much of history, meat, particularly red meat, was considered a delicacy and a pleasure. As Lent was a time for Christians to show penance, it became a form of personal sacrifice for not eating meat on Fridays. In addition, followers believed that abstaining from meat would serve as a form of self-control. And by that, a person could also grow spiritually.

How Did Eating Fish Among Catholics Develop?

According to a 2012 NPR article, fish-eating among Catholics may have had practical considerations in addition to theological ones. Before the development of Christianity, many people already had a ritual attachment to the consumption of fish. In fact, because meat abstention days became so common, the demand for fish increased. In Europe, herring was the initial dominant source of fish meat, before cod became more popular.

Interestingly, at one point the consumption of fish took a political turn. During the reign of Henry VIII of England, he separated the local church from Rome. Then, he created what is today’s Anglicanism. Early on, Catholicism developed a negative reputation in Britain. The negativity reached a point where eating fish became an act of “popist” or a show of loyalty to the Pope. Thus, fish-eating in Britain declined, to the point that economic issues arose. Due to the decreased demand for fish and the economic hardships of the area’s fishermen, Henry’s successor Edward VI revived certain fasting days partly to encourage the consumption of fish.

In the United States, American Catholics were obliged to not eat red meat on Fridays. The rules relaxed in 1966, and Catholics started to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Later on, they were also encouraged to practice abstention during Ash Wednesday. In lieu of not eating meat on all Fridays of the year, Catholics were instead encouraged to show penance in other ways, such as donating financial support to the needy. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest among some American bishops to return to year-round meat abstinence.

Fun Facts About Catholics Eating Fish

Not eating meat on Fridays has led to interesting dietary habits in some predominantly Catholic countries. For example, in the Philippines, it is common for restaurants to offer or promote fish-based or non-meat menu items during Lent. Perhaps the most popular example is Jollibee’s Tuna Pie. The pie was originally sold only during Lent but is now offered year-round due to its popularity.

In the 1960s, McDonald’s, then a fledgling burger chain in the process of expanding throughout the United States, noticed that profits decreased on Fridays. Such drops were particularly pronounced in areas with large Catholic populations. Ray Kroc, then-CEO of the company, proposed a “burger” known as the Hula Burger, which was a slice of pineapple sandwiched between two buns. Meanwhile, Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchisee from Cincinnati, Ohio, invented a sandwich consisting of a fish fillet between two buns

filet o fish burger

On Good Friday 1962, McDonald’s held a competition for both burgers. Some restaurants would serve the two items side-by-side, with the winner becoming a permanent item on the menu. The fish fillet sandwich easily outsold the Hula Burger. The Hula Burger disappeared from McDonald’s menu afterward. Whereas the fish fillet sandwich, today better known as the Filet-O-Fish, remained and is now a popular item among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Should You Avoid Eating Meat on Fridays?

Now the question is: should you avoid eating meat on Fridays? Consider it to be a personal choice. As a Christian, Catholic or not, it’s up to you if you want to do it or not. However, it may be worth following as a way to deepen your faith. Making a small sacrifice even just once a week can make you become aware of the problems of the world and realize how lucky you are as a person. It can allow you to appreciate what you currently have and be thankful for it.

In conclusion, avoiding meat on Fridays has a long history among Catholics and while it is no longer as strict as in the past, it remains one of the most distinctive Catholic practices today.

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