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Why You Should Consider a Vegetarian Lent

On cheese pizza and fish fries.

It should go without saying that the Church is experiencing a painful identity crisis. Basic assumptions about what it means to live the faith are being challenged by extremists on all sides: extreme conservatives, extreme progressives, and the extremely apathetic. As Catholics struggle to define themselves in a world of lukewarm commitment and ever-encroaching homogeneity, religious practices meant to unite us through traditional disciplines are essential to setting internal priorities and deciding how we present the faith to outsiders.

This is as good a reason as any to consider taking Lenten fasting more seriously, for example, and cutting out meat entirely might be a good place to start.

Outward expressions of faith are crucial for cohesion in religious communities. Specifically, dietary practices such as abstinence from pork and alcohol have played undeniable roles in defining Muslim and Jewish communities, including within wider Christian societies. Minority religious communities’ sense of solidarity is in many ways defined by these shared rules and the institutions that surround them—from kosher delis to halal markets. Through the popular foods they abstain from, they forge a tangible standard through which they and others can view the religious community. Dietary restrictions force communities to consider both why they are denying themselves and what it means to be a member of the community that abstains.

Why, then, have Catholics abandoned what were once our comparatively strident norms related to fasting? One important factor is historical—the Church once had no need of differentiating herself from the wider community. Lenten fasting, instituted when the Western Christian communion was still unshattered, has never been about separating the Church from the world. It was a simple act of devotion meant to cleanse oneself of unhealthy attachments and appetites. This remains the most important aspect of Lent—letting go of that which you fear you cannot go without.

For most of us, Lenten sacrifices tend to involve foregoing the licit pleasures we will miss most—beer, say, or social media. But until recently (relative to the lifespan of the Church) expectations for fasting included quite serious dietary changes as well.

Fasting for Lent was far from uniform in the beginnings of the Church. In the earliest days we find little evidence of widespread prescriptions for dietary considerations leading up to the Easter festival. In a letter to Pope Victor on the nature of the Easter celebration, Saint Iraneus wrote: “Some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days, and others even for several, while others reckon forty hours both of day and night to their fast.”

This would indicate that Irenaeus, who died in the second century, was not familiar with the forty-day fast we celebrate today. In this same vein, we find other early Christian leaders remarking on short but intense fasting periods. Tertullian writes of Montanists observing a fortnight-long fast; Saint Dionysius of Alexandria similarly mentions a paschal period of fasting, but fails to record anything comparable to a Lenten season. After the Council of Nicaea, Easter-related fasting seems to have developed rapidly. Saint Athanasius in 339 wrote to his own church in Alexandria that they must begin fasting for forty days leading up to the celebration of Easter “to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughingstock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days.”

Following a course far too lengthy and complex to discuss in a short essay, fasting gradually degenerated from long-term abstinence from food to a thoughtful curbing of one’s daily consumption, to abstinence from meat to abstinence from meat only on Fridays. And perhaps we are now on the brink of even that being somewhat optional. Many a joke has been made about the kabuki theater of Catholic fasting during Lent—to compare Islamic fasting to the modern Catholic “no meat on Fridays unless you forget” brand of fasting is downright embarrassing.

What is being gained by swapping a steak for cheese pizza on Friday? What is being sacrificed? What is being offered up to God by making Friday the day for crab cakes? What statement is the Church making at what (for the professional classes anyway) is now the end of the work week?

As abstention from meat has become less relevant to Latin Christianity, vegetarianism has become increasingly prominent, indeed almost ubiquitous, in the secular world. Restaurants—eager to tap into the market—now widely cater to vegetarians or risk losing business. Grocery stores in an ever-diversifying country such as the United States offer aisles of meatless options and entire sections dedicated to a no-meat diet. Catholics find themselves at a bizarre inflection point: a hitherto inconceivable variety of vegetarian options are available, yet the Church’s expectations for Christian self-discipline in this area is so low as to be functionally non-existent.

Which is why I suggest that it might be worthwhile for Catholics to sacrifice meat for Lent—all of Lent. Even keeping the exemption for fish (a symbol of Christ and at this point a food culturally associated with Catholicism) would be acceptable if it were during an actual forty-day fast. But the beef, pork, and chicken simply could be put away for a few months.

Vegetarianism would be a perfect first step in a long journey towards recapturing the devotion early Christians showed in their rigorous efforts to do away with what was unnecessary. Meat is ambient to the wider culture without being unavoidable. It takes regular consideration and contemplation to avoid it, but its absence does not meaningfully worsen one’s life or hold one back. In fact, vegetarianism is the subject of widespread moral approbation from groups to whom the Christian worldview is otherwise alien at best and at worst opprobrious. For this very reason, a vegetarian Lent does not risk becoming a cudgel or a source of snobbery. It is a gentle, unassuming sacrifice unworthy of particular praise. After all, who could seriously boast and find harmful self-righteousness in a diet that millions of their secular, atheist peers live every day of their lives?

Some may, of course, object to the use of religious fasting as a cultural identifier. “Does this not,” some will ask, “risk turning a spiritual, internal purification into a cheap performance of Church membership? Is this not simply gatekeeping?” To which I respond that Catholics are already compelled by the Church to practice fasting in this country (on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and abstinence even as they attend weekly seafood dinners or fish fries. The expectation for some form of externally evident discipline is an inescapable feature of our religion.

To the extent that the Church’s identity is reflected in Her disciplines, what do the faithful want the wider world to see when it looks at Her? It seems that the faithful have three options—continue pretending that our pizza Fridays are an act of self-denial; drop the pretense altogether and admit we are not interested in making further sacrifices (who am I to judge?); or to consider the possibility of holding ourselves to a higher standard.