For about 1700 years, Roman Catholics have observed the holiday of Lent for the six weeks before Easter. During this holiday period, the eating of meat on Fridays has been forbidden. The reason is given in the Code of Canon Law regarding the Days of Penance. Canonical Law 251 reads as follows.
“Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.”
That’s the reason why you see McDonald’s, Arby’s, and other fast food restaurants promoting their fish sandwiches so heavily this time of year. Because for 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world, the prohibition from eating meat has been ingrained since the very first days of catechism.
Saint Patrick’s Day Traditions
Then, you have Saint Patrick’s Day, celebrated annually on March 17. This holiday is celebrated with some bits of excess, including beer that’s been tinted green and traditional Irish foods, such as cabbage, soda bread, and, of course, corned beef.
Of course, because of the way the calendar works, March 17 falls on a Friday during Lent in certain years. The last time this happened was in 2006. Before that, it was 2000. The next time Saint Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday will be in 2023. So, you can see that this intersection doesn’t happen that often. But when it does, it creates a small problem for Roman Catholics the world over.
Does this mean that a devout Catholic cannot eat corned beef on Saint Patrick’s Day?
Well, thankfully, there’s a provision in Canonical Law that allows the Episcopal Conference to change the rules and make exceptions. Law 1253 states the following.
“The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.”
In the United States, almost every Catholic has a dispensation from their archdiocese and bishop. According to one archbishop, Gregory Aymond, the head of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, everyone in the region can partake of meat on Saint Patrick’s Day. If someone eats corned beef on March 17, they must choose another day of the week to abstain from meat or perform an act of penance that is a larger sacrifice.
We said almost every Catholic. According to the Catholic News Agency, two regions have expressly announced that they will not be granting a dispensation. If you live in the Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado, or the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, you are out of luck and need to wait until Saturday to eat your annual corned beef and cabbage feast.
Other Alternatives to Meat
At least, however, during modern times, Catholics only have to suffer through meatless Fridays during Lent. There was a time when meatless Fridays were a year round trial. So, this isn’t the first time that the needs of the common man have butted heads with canonical law. According to traditional Catholic law, meat comes from animals who live on land, such as chickens, cows, sheep, or pigs. Birds are also included in the list of meat. However, other delicacies have found themselves at odds with canon. For example, in parts of South America, the capybara is a traditional Lenten feast. The capybara is essentially a large partially aquatic rodent which is related to the guinea pig. But, the capybara is considered a fish according to Catholic law.
That’s because of an argument put forth in the 17th century when the bishop of Quebec convinced Rome that the beaver counted as fish because it spent most of its time in the water. Now, in modern times, the Archdiocese of Detroit counts the muskrat as a fish as well.
At least this proves that in some things, the Church moves with the times.
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