Abstinence from meat is seen as a sacrifice which unites us with our fellow Catholics and helps us to identify more closely with the sufferings of the Lord. Abstaining from meat on Friday is a form of penance to honor the death of Jesus on Good Friday. This prohibition is very different from the dietary laws of the Old Testament or other religions today.
Fasting and abstinence laws have changed over time. In the early Church, and to a lesser extent still today, there were two fasts. There was the "total fast" that preceded all major feasts or sacramental events. The second fast was a fast of abstinence from certain foods, e.g., meats or fats. This was more an act of self-discipline. The total fast is still kept today prior to reception of Holy Communion.
So why is fish OK?
Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from warm-blooded animals such as chickens, cows, sheep, pigs, birds -- all of which live on land. The law excludes meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. So, foods like chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are technically not forbidden. (So, you can eat butter.) Fish are cold-blooded. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted.
There have been hundreds of theories suggested over the years as to why fish was appropriate to eat on Fridays, including an attempt by the Church to bolster the fish trade! However, there is no evidence of that.
Abstinence from meat has cultural aspects. Since meat has been usually the most valued and expensive part of the meal in many parts of the world, abstaining from it on Fridays has been seen as a true penance. In places where meat is so expensive or vegetarian diets more the norm, it may not be as meaningful. (Indeed, before the change in Vatican II, meat in the U.S. was inexpensive, but the fish was not. Those Friday fish fries became a traditional way to serve lesser cuts of fish, batter fried.)
Another theory is that a fish is a symbol for Jesus Christ and thus the fish represents the Body of Christ. The fish has plenty of theological overtones as the fish symbol was used by the Greeks, Romans and many others before Christians adopted its use. A fish symbol, unlike the cross, attracted little suspicion, making it a perfect secret symbol for persecuted believers. When threatened by Romans in the first centuries after Christ, Christians used the fish to mark meeting places and tombs and to distinguish friends from foe. This theory, too, seems to complicate what is an old Church tradition.
Older Catholics will remember that before Vatican II, Catholics were required to abstain from meat every Friday, not just during Lent. Many Catholics don’t realize that the Church recommends abstinence on all Fridays of the year. If we do not abstain from meat on non-Lenten Fridays, we are required to substitute some other form of penance. So Catholics who are vegetarian can still perform a penitential act every Friday and be within the rules.
The Rules for Roman Catholics in the United States (From the United States Conference of Bishops)
- Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.
- Every person between the age of 18 and 59 (your 59th birthday begins your 60th year) must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
- Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat on all other Fridays of the year, unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance for abstinence.
- Fasting on these days means we can have only one full, meatless meal. Some food can be taken at the other regular meal times if necessary, but combined they should be less than a full meal. Liquids are allowed at any time, but no solid food should be consumed between meals.
- Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.