Busted Halo
googling god
The Busted Halo Question Box
Ask our spiritual experts virtually anything!
This is the place where you can ask all of those burning questions that you wouldn't dare ask in person. We will post questions here (using your byline only with permission); we guarantee an answer to everyone.

Have your own question? Then pitch it to us!

Caitlin Kennell Kim
Fr. Rick Malloy, SJ
General Questions
Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP
Ecumenical, Interfaith
Neela Kale
Culture, Moral Theology
Ann Naffziger, M.A., M.Div.
Mike Hayes
Our readers asked:

Why do Catholics only eat fish on Good Friday?

Mike Hayes Answers:

Fried haddock and other items fill guest's plate at a Friday fish fry at Pennsylvania church(Catholic News Service photo/Bob Roller)

Fried haddock and other items fill guest’s plate at a Friday fish fry at Pennsylvania church
(Catholic News Service photo/Bob Roller)

Technically speaking, Catholics are firstly required to fast on Good Friday, meaning to eat only one full meal for the day and then to merely sustain themselves for the rest of the day — meaning two smaller meals that do not equal the one large meal.

To your question, Catholics are also required to abstain from eating meat on both Good Friday and each Friday in Lent (as well as Ash Wednesday). Fish is used as a substitute for meat-based meals. But of course with vegetarian diets abound in today’s day and age there are many other solutions besides fish.

Historically, since about the second century of Christianity, Christians abstained from meat on Friday as a kind of sacrifice and reminder that acknowledged Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross which we commemorate on Good Friday. It’s also why we proclaim the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary on Friday. About a century or two later, Lent came into being, as a season of intense preparation for Easter, so the fasting and abstinence was extended to much of Lent.

The Second Vatican Council simplified many Catholic customs and laws. There was too much of an emphasis on sin and sacrifice and some of the practices were rather involved. Many people believed that breaking Friday abstinence as a sin so serious it could land you in hell. They knew the whole thing had gotten out of hand.

So the bishops preserved fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and the Friday meat abstinence law during the more penitential time of Lent.

Some have said the Bishops were in cahoots with the fishing industry, but there is little to no evidence to claim that as truth.

The Author : Mike Hayes
Mike Hayes is the senior editor for the Googling God section at BustedHalo.com.
See more articles by (271).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.

    you can eat fish because Jesus gave fish.
    you can eat wheat because Jesus gave wheat.
    ideally you fast and not eat anything at all.

    Its symbolic and not asked by Jesus. This is human culture made as a way of honoring a sacrifice done for them by a direct son of the guy who made them, who in a way, is our big brother,.cuz we are all children of his father, right? We are all a family according to Christian logic.

    As for the church? The church is evil and at NO POINT act the way Jesus would want them to act, which is very clear because Jesus doesn’t mince words about acceptable behaviors. The fact that the Church has a bank and hords cash and has elaborate castles are clearly addressed by the contempt Jesus had for the rich and powerful.

    This is how i understand the situation and answer the q

  • Ken Reilly

    OK this is one of stupidest ideologies ever because fish is meat. If you want to abstain from meat you eat no meat including fish, eat veggies all you want but fish are living breathing creatures created by God.

    • hugosevilla

      Great, so you are the judge who determines what’s stupid and what isn’t. Thank you o great one full of wisdom. You forgot that our teacher, the One in whom we believe, the son of God, Jesus ate fish. We christians also eat pork because God did not create nothing profane. Our Lord also stated that we sin not for what we place in our mouths but rather by what comes out of it. I wonder what will vegetarians eat once it’s determine that plants also feel.

      • kernelfrugivore

        If you’ve never heard of fruitarians, welcome to the internet.

    • Cathy

      Fish isn’t considered meat because English and Latin are slightly different languages. For hundreds of years Catholics were not allowed to eat meat on Friday. But the language of the church is Latin, and what Catholics were not allowed to eat is ‘carne’ which is the flesh of creatures from the land or the sky. So fish was fine.

    • Nyaira

      That is stupid because fish is not meat hello it says fish and doernt fall under the meat category. Like go back to school

  • Bob Faser

    And there are similar practices in other churches as well.
    Many Episcopalians/Anglicans and Lutherans will abstain from meat on Good Friday, as will some members of middle-of-the-road “Protestant” churches, including myself. (I actually prefer to “go vegetarian” on Good Friday.)
    The Orthodox are expected to maintain an essentially vegan diet throughout Lent.
    At some time during the Middle Ages, the decision was made within the Catholic West that the eating of fish was an exception from the Lenten fast. The theologian in me likes JohnTheAcademic’s explanation, but the historian in me suspects that this may not be the only reason.

    • JohnTheAcademic

      Bob, agreed about the theologian liking the poor identification while the historian being a little suspect. As with many things in the Church, it seems that over time practices that start for one reason are endowed with spiritual significance later, which seems like a perfectly natural thing to do. For instance, priests initially wore black (so I’ve been told) because it was simply the cheapest material, but now many varied theological reasons have been woven into it.

      So, prompted by your comment, I’ve been poking around a bit more. The most plausible to me seems that the church fasted from “carne” which is latin for red-blooded animals that walk the earth. Thus fish are not “carne” even though we now translate “carne” as “meat”. A Christian living then would be told, “fast from carne on Friday” and there wouldn’t even be a question as to whether they could eat fish or not and if you asked “is fish ok” people would look at you crazy. Its as if we are told to fast from fruit and in some future language the same word, say frutis, denotes both fruits and vegetables so that the church in that language has to say for the purposes of this fast broccoli are not frutis. It may seem crazy to the speakers of the language that have one word the denotes both fruits and vegetables, but wouldn’t even be a question for us. (Source on the carne claim, for instance: http://whycatholicsdothat.com/why-is-fish-not-considered-meat/ though they do not cite any ancient sources). Part of this seems to have to do with the fact that we are commemorating Jesus’s blood being spilled and so abstain from spilling it ourselves.

      I also found Aquinas talking about the practice. He had some theory about eating red meat being more pleasurable and increasing libido than other foods (It does actually increase testosterone production, so probably the ancients knew something it took us longer to “discover” scientifically. This appears to be somewhat common in the history of Western thought.) (cf. http://taylormarshall.com/2014/03/why-is-seafood-allowed-on-fridays-in-lent-st-thomas-aquinas-provides-the-theological-answer.html)

      Finally, it does seem that even though there are various reasons (none of which involve the fishing industry) for the institution of the practice and the allowance for fish, now it has been endowed with the spiritual significance that I pointed to, as evidenced by things like capybara and beaver being allowed simply because they were the things that poor people were eating in Catholic regions in the Americas. As I noted before, practices such as this often develop in spiritual significance, and I think this is pretty natural and good. And then there is this:

      “Historically, there has always been a close relationship between fasting and almsgiving. The Shepherd of Hermas calls the one fasting to give to the poor what would have been personally spent on food (3.5.3). Origen agreed: fasting “nourishes the poor” (Homily on Leviticus 10.2). Chrysostom argued that it failed to be fasting unless there was almsgiving connected to it (Homily on Matthew 77.6). Augustine even went further by teaching that fasting without giving what was saved to the poor literally represented avarice (Sermon 208).”

      (from https://www.stthomas.edu/mcdc/topics/fasting/)

      Which I take to show that the fasting-poor connection is probably partly woven through the practice even from early times even if it is not the sole reason.

      But take all this with a grain of salt, I am not historian. :)

  • JohnTheAcademic

    What is missing in this article is why fish is allowed even though “meat” is not. The reason is that meat, meaning beef, goat, sheep, chicken, etc. was expensive and was not eaten often by poor people. (This is still the case in many economically depressed areas of the world. When I lived in Uganda, people pretty much only ate meat like this on special occasions.) This is because livestock requires land ownership to raise and killing one animal requires significant replacement costs, so you don’t do it often. However, anyone can walk to the local stream or river and cast a net, and so in the ancient world eating fish was not associated with the rich in the way the rest of “meat” was. The point in having people abstain from meat was to have rich Christians remember the poor among the brethren (and also remind themselves that in relation to God they too are poor and in need of charity). This hopefully helped to increase charity in those with means. However, the church did not want to further hurt the poor while trying to remind the rich to be charitable (that would defeat the purpose!) and so it did not deprive the poor of what they had access to, namely fish. This is also why in certain parts of the Americas eating capybara and beaver was allowed on Fridays, because only the poor at capybara or beavers. Again, the principle is 1. remind the rich that they are poor in the eyes of God and must be charitable with the economic goods they have been given and 2. do not hurt the poor in the process.

    I have wondered the same as Doris below, if the church shouldn’t make we Americans eat at McDonald’s on Fridays or something since now fish is generally an expensive rather than a cheap food.

    • D.P.

      Thanks so much. I never thought about it this way. I am embarrassed to admit that though I am Catholic, I always accepted the now pervasive belief that “the bishops were in cahoots with the fishing industry”.

    • hugosevilla

      Thank you so much for your insight

  • Emily

    Why isn’t fish considered to be meat? I’ve always wondered.

    • JohnTheAcademic

      See my post after yours.

  • Darren

    My wife is a convert to the Catholic faith, and in my opinion has brought into the discussion a good point. Eating Fish on Friday for the one full meal is not much of a “sacrifice” considering how desirable it is, as well as the fact that it actually costs more than most red meats. She has chosen to abstain from meat in a more unique way in my opinion. We will generally have a meal of something like plain cheese ravioli with red sauce with no meat. This is a very plain bland meal which seems to better encompass the spirit of “sacrifice” in honor of the sacrifice Jesus made for us.

  • Mike

    many ot not so many years ago everybody even in schools ate fish on fridays, the secular would took that away slowly. now it is done mostly during Lent. but the real question is do we really know what Jesjs and his Dicepels really ate for the “Last Meal”? he could have had a rack of lamb for all we know. just like the apple is said to have been the forbidden fruit. whereas the furit that was indigenous to that area was the fig. then the irony of the fig is it was Jesus favorite snack.

  • joe zavala

    Bishops got free fish for life, kick backs have been around forever.

  • Steve Challenger

    In England and Wales, Catholics are now required to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, not just Lent. If the person is not a meat eater, then some other kind of “sacrifice” should be made.

    • Jack Florenz

      Catholics in England & Wales are required to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, but they’re NOT told they will commit a mortal sin and go to hell if they don’t. So, it’s not a return to the old days.
      The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia stated: “The law of abstinence on Friday embodies a serious obligation whose transgression ordinarily involves a mortal sin. The unanimous verdict of theologians, the constant practice of the faithful, and the mind of the Church place this point beyond doubt.”

    • JohnTheAcademic

      That is technically true of America as well, except the bishops allow the faithful to substitute another penance for abstaining from meat when it is not lent, but the ordinary rule is to abstain from meat on all Fridays.

  • http://www.facebook.com/veronica.zamarron.16 Veronica Zamarron

    Good explanation of the whole fast/abstinence requirements! I’ve had friends and family tell me that they LOVE seafood so they don’t see it as a sacrifice. But it IS a sacrifice!! So now I can point that out to them. And although there’s no “Church-fishing industry conspiracy”, it’s interesting to see the increase of fish and seafood selections at most national fast food chains…nice to have more options!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/webgeekstress Doris Smith

    Exercise for the reader:
    Which more truly represents the spirit of Lenten abstinence?

    A) Going to a fancy fish restaurant, ordering a half dozen oysters on the half shell, followed by half of a grilled lobster, accompanied by a glass or two of nice white wine, (but no dessert – this *is* Lent, after all) or

    B) Going to McDonalds for a Big Mac, calculating the difference between the cost of the McDonalds meal and that of the fancy lobster dinner, and sending a donation in the amount of that difference to your local community food bank.

    P.S. “Some have said the Bishops were in cahoots with the fishing industry…” – Hah! Good one!

    • FedUpJoe

      McDonalds has the fish filet sandwich during Lent and it is usually discounted to a lower price than a Big Mac. So you can still save at McD’s and make your food bank donation and not eat meat. :)

powered by the Paulists