Why Do Catholics Abstain from Meat on Fridays?

As a society, American Catholics tend to give up meat on Fridays in Lent… and that’s it. That’s not good. We’re called to give up meat or something else on every Friday, not just those during Lent. Here’s the relevant part of canon law:

Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Can. 1251 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.

Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

Can. 1253 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 US, we’re permitted to substitute something else in place of meat.  Unfortunately, we Catholics are terrible about actually doing it, partly because most Catholics are unaware that they’re even supposed to be giving anything up.  The bishops in the UK are actually restoring No-Meat Fridays starting next month, and I hope that the US bishops follow suit — or at least get serious about enforcing the rule which exists now. That seems quite possible: Archbishop Dolan of New York wonders aloud if they’re on to something, by restoring some externally-visible sign that we’re Catholics.  Making Catholics distinctively, visibly Catholics (through ashes, meatless Fridays, and the like) helps create a Catholic identity, and builds some roots for when times get tough.

But there are a few other reasons for the practice, in addition.  I just read a great reason in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, in which the priest explains the practice like this: “Discipline is necessary.  Drills may be no good in battle, but they form the character.”  That’s a good way of thinking about it.  St. Paul, in Ephesians 6:12, says:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

If we take St. Paul seriously, then one of the jobs of the Church is to prepare each of us for spiritual warfare against the forces of Hell, as well as to fend off the spiritual temptations of this world.  The Church can’t just send us off to fight with good intentions. Spiritual discipline is absolutely necessary.  I don’t need to tell you what happens when She totally relaxes that discipline – we’ve already seen, and it’s been a disaster.

But there’s a reason that it’s important we specifically do No-Meat Fridays, and there’s a reason that the Early Church Fathers, like Tertullian and Clement, testify to this practice from the beginning.

What’s given up isn’t technically “meat” but the Latin “caro,” which means “flesh.”  This is why fish is allowed: their meat isn’t considered “flesh.”  So why do we give up flesh on Fridays?  Two reasons.

First, “flesh” is often the term the New Testament writers (particularly St. Paul) use to describe our sinful appetites.  So in Romans 8:13, Paul says, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.”  We give up “flesh meat” to symbolize putting to death the deeds of the flesh.

Second, Christ Redeemed us by offering up His Flesh for our salvation on Good Friday.  St. Paul explains in Colossians 1:19-23:

For it pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell, and having made peace through the blood of His Cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself — by Him, I say, whether they be things on earth or things in heaven.

And you, who were once alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, even now hath He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and unblamable and unreprovable in His sight, if ye continue grounded and settled in the faith, and be not moved away from the hope of the Gospel, which ye have heard and which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, am made a minister.

So Christ, by being put to Death in the Flesh, reconciles us to the Father.  So our job is done, right?  Christ bore all the bad stuff, so we’re home free?  Not quite.  St. Paul says in the very next breath (Colossians 1:24-25):

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh, for His body’s sake, which is the church, of which I am made a minister according to the dispensation of God, which is given to me for you, to fulfill the Word of God– even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to His saints.

Just read that passage a couple times, and tell me that St. Paul wasn’t a Catholic.  Christ being put to Death in the Flesh reconciles us to God the Father, but the Passion doesn’t mean that we’re going to free-ride.  Rather, our job is to take up our cross daily, and follow Christ (Luke 9:23).  A Cross is a for killing: Christ is saying that we have to die to ourselves every day.  So it’s fitting that we put away the flesh-meat on Friday, the day of week which forever honors Christ’s Passion, to signify both our love of the ultimate Sacrifice of the Flesh, and to emulate our Savior by mortifying the flesh for the sake of the Spirit.


  1. That’s just cruel, Joe! You encourage us to give up flesh on Fridays, and post a picture of a nice juicy burger to go with it. Would you like salt on that wound, sir? Nothing like some good martyrial torture. The first martyrs often had their temptations paraded in front of them, but they wavered not. Onward Christian soldiers!

  2. Yeah… my full meal isn’t for another eight or nine hours, and I have a day of work ahead of me with an image of a nice cheeseburger in my head. This is more like mental mortification.

  3. Just to be clear, you’re allowed to eat regular sized meals, and all that… just without meat. The original title refered to Meatless Fridays as a “fast,” so I apologize for any confusion.

    Having said all that, if you want to abstain from meat AND fast, that’s great! You just don’t have to (unless it’s Good Friday or Ash Wednesday).

    In Christ,


  4. If you read all of the sved by grace and not of works language that Paul uses in so many places and in so many ways, then you’d have to say that he was a Lutheran!


  5. That’s a reach! Seeing as how Paul would have to ignore Church teaching and see ahead 1400 years. The Church teaches we are only saved by Christ’s grace alone. Works keeps us from losing that grace.

  6. If you think that something else need be added (by us) to the work of the cross, you are in effect saying that it did not accomplish everything.

    I think it did accomplish everything. And Paul believed that as well.

  7. Old Adam,

    If believing that we’re saved by grace and not works makes St. Paul a Lutheran, then the pope is a Lutheran. Why not combine the Pauline belief in salvation by grace through faith, and couple it with the Pauline insistence that we consciously respond to the work of Christ by taking up our own Cross?

    God bless,


  8. Joe,

    Different definitions.

    For us “grace” means unmerited favor. Nothing else is required.

    By Christ’s cross alone are we forgiven, justified, sanctified.

    We ‘do’ because we are inspired to. Nothing is gained by our doing except that it benefits the neighbor.


    1. However, Lutherans like all Protestants always manage to escape any form of penance or mortification. Even when the Bible scripture is presented to them they still deny the very Word of God. That sense of ‘doing’ out of free will or inspiration is a merit and glory to man, as if he should be praised for ‘doing’ what he is supposed to do as a Christian. Christ said that to that end we should be ashamed because we only acted as the unprofitable servants, (Luke 17 7-10). It really becomes a case where man praises himself rather than God. That is probably why every Protestant denomination is named or nominated after a man.

  9. Now if we understand that St. Paul said faith alone – without good words – will save us, how about St.John who says Faith without Works is dead????

  10. On Fridays when I choose to eat meat, then I simply buy extra groceries the next time I’m shopping, albeit sometimes I buy food ahead of the game. I buy about $10 worth, usually the sale items in front of the store, and donate them to the community food pantry.
    Sometimes, there are foods in my own personal pantry that I have decided I no longer want, and will donate those.

  11. Mary,

    St. James does say that, doesn’t he.

    Then you must do some theology. You look at all the place in Scripture that speaks of our not being able to save ourselves. Of our good works being “filty rags”, of our bondage to sin (Romans 7), of what the law demands from us (perfection – which we could never accpmplish)…and then we realize that we need a real SAVIOR.

    Works will come (after faith), but even atheists and pagans are capable of “good works”.

    We are saved (as St. Paul tells us) “by grace through faith, not of works lest anyone should boast.”

    Romans 4:4 is a really good one (also) describing works.


  12. OldAdam, you didn’t actually address the issue of James’ epistle. How do you resolve the fact that James *explicitly* says we’re not saved by “faith alone” (a phrase you’ll never hear Paul say)?

    What would you call faith that doesn’t have works? I think James would call it fruitless, incomplete and…dead.

  13. My Dear OldAdam, may I refer you to the 3rd Millennium Message from Jesus in the Diary of St. Faustina – “Divine Mercy in my Soul”. The calling He made to the Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy – and indeed to mankind – was to be active and faithful in the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. I would also kindly ask you to read Blessed John Paul II Encyclical – “Rich in Mercy”. Yes, we are called to perform good works – BUT we can only do this through the Grace of God. “I can do all things through the One Who strengthens me”. Does that ring any bell????

  14. What’s given up isn’t technically “meat” but the Latin “carne,” which means “flesh.” This is why fish is allowed: their meat isn’t considered “flesh.” So why do we give up flesh on Fridays? Two reasons.

    Please elaborate on why fish isn’t considered “flesh”.

    Thank you.

  15. All I know is that the meat of a fish isn’t called “carne” in Latin (or, if memory serves, in Spanish). I don’t understand Latin well enough to understand why the word is restricted in meaning to land animals, but it is.

    Judaism also distinguishes, for religious purposes, between meat and fish. For example, within Judaism, you can’t mix meat and milk (so cheeseburgers are out), but you can mix fish and milk (so tuna melts are still in).

    God bless,


  16. I hope I am not rudely interjecting, but the Latin should read ‘caro’ or rarely ‘carnis’, not ‘carne’.

    Incidentally ‘caro’ could be used for fish, cf. “hac re habitantibus caro magnorum piscium sole siccata et in pollinem usque contusa pro farre est” (‘Hence it is the inhabitants make sun-dried flesh of large fish, cut it up into flour and make a coarse meal.’), Pomponius Mela, 2.97. Though of course ‘caro’ still could be distinguished from fish, like when you see ‘Pollo & Carne & Pesce” on Italian menus.

  17. May I, humbly put in my 2 cents’ worth comment. When I was preparing for my First Holy Communion at the age of 7 years (don’t be shocked) in 1945!! we were taught that Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays in remembrance of the Day our Lord died for us. He saved us by His death on the Cross and by shedding His Divine Blood. So, giving up meat on Fridays was to honour His Sacrifice for our Salvation. Fish, we were told was allowed because it is cold blooded unlike us and other animals which are hot blooded. That teaching – so simple, humble and down to earth – holds true for me to this day. It sustains the Faith of the lowly, the simple and the humble Members of Christ’s Mystical Body.

  18. scredsoxfan2,

    We Lutherans receive the Lord’s Supper, as well.

    We look at it as sheer gift of God, to us. So the focus is on that aspect of the Communion.

    Since Jesus commanded that we ‘do it’, we believe that He is truly in it, and come to us in His body and blood. The Word of promise attached to bread and wine make it so, and not really anything from our end.

    1. In the Lutheran “Lord’s Supper”, Lutherans don’t actually receive the Lord. Lutherans don’t have a valid apostolic succession, and therefore lack a valid priesthood required for a valid consecration. Lutheranism is not God’s Church anyway, but based on the teachings of a heretic. Lutheranism is a heresy.

    2. Nice try but since Luther was an Augustinian monk and used Augustinian arguments to state why the catholic church had strayed from its true path and exchanged spiritual purity for political power. In addition are you trying to state that Augustine was a heretic as well where without him the catholic church would not have made it out of the roman empire period. Augustine is easily considered as the greatest of the early church fathers so although you may find Luther to be inconvenient his contribution cannot just be dismissed as heresy because he challenged something that had become corrupt

  19. “The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way.”

    I am a Catholic who has lived through both the pre- and post- Vatican II eras. Before V2, there was the imposed discipline of no meat on Fridays, which Mary explained so well above. After V2 Catholic adults were and are expected to have the maturity to “do penance each in his or her own way.” The exception is that the Church still imposes some specific penitential practices during Lent.

    No diocese in which I have lived has imposed anything on the faithful beyond what I’ve described above. But, what seems to have happened is that the faithful are no longer particularly conscious of the canon you quoted. Very few Catholics, including me, would read a Canon Law book any more than they would read a civil law book.

    The normal way that Catholic faithful learn of their obligations is at church, through homilies and through their local Church bulletin.

    What was nice about the pre-V2 discipline is that it was part of our Catholic identity. All Catholics knew not to serve meat on Friday. Most non-Catholics knew that Catholics don’t eat meat on Friday, restaurants had specials on fish on Fridays. All that is gone now. Out of sight. Out of mind.

    I think that’s why the English are bringing back the practice.

  20. If you were doing this right would you abstain Thursday night or Friday night? That is, should you use the Hebrew calendar? Presumably it doesn’t really matter, but if there is a preferred method why not do it…

  21. Robert,

    It’s midnight to midnight. Here are the three relevant canons:

    Can. 202 §1. In law, a day is understood as a period consisting of 24 continuous hours and begins at midnight unless other provision is expressly made; a week is a period of 7 days; a month is a period of 30 days, and a year is a period of 365 days unless a month and a year are said to be taken as they are in the calendar.

    §2. If time is continuous, a month and a year must always be taken as they are in the calendar.

    Can. 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

    Can. 1251 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.



  22. Ahem… can’t you just look at why those canon laws were in place logically? After all Friday was the last weekday before Sunday. People usually got paid once a week not once a month if they were laborers or likely on a daily basis. The most expansive food was meat. Especially when this canon law came into effect. 1917…during WW1

    If you were poor and bought meat then odds are you’d have no money left for much else … certainly no money to put in a collection plate. Now you could say ‘well what sort of people would have no money at all?’ and the answer is the poor. The poor contribute more to the church than the rich ever did and its a steady supply of cash locally distributed.

    To counteract this canon 1251 was introduced to ensure there was more money available for Sunday morning. This is not an old canon law and goes back only to 1917 when the urban population had reached its height and all of Europe had the primary breadwinner at war.

    In this situation the money the chuch depended on was very scarce. That money is the money the working classes would have in their pocket on sunday. This canon is aimed squarely at women becasue they were the ones that looked after the feeding of the family and for that reason the church had to make sure that it got its fair share of whatever budget a working class housewife would have from the meagre money she got from her husband income while he was being shot at in the trenches. So making up a rule that prohibited the most expansive type of food, on the day the person was paid, shortly before Sunday in a situation where meat was even more expensive due to the war made a lot of sense… you just dress it up in this ‘everyone must do penance’ argument and bobs your uncle..money already in the collection plate!

    After all what sort of law divinely inspired by a God has two versions depending on what country you happen to live in? Anyway WW1 is over now but unfortunately because the war was always going to end and the canon law being a canon law was never going to end your stuck thinking its the decision of a God. Which is also fine, because if devout Catholics all started eating meat on Fridays the price of meat would go up! So make sure you stay that way, its expensive enough as it is right now without all the Catholics realising how dumb they are for swallowing that nonsense.

    1. Mickelodian,

      This whole conspiracy theory falls apart when you recognize that there are references to Friday fasts dating back to the first century (e.g., in the Didache). That predates World War I by a bit.

      But sure, we Catholics are “dumb” for swallowing all that nonsense, instead of believing easily-disproven conspiracy theories.



      P.S. As for the claim that this part of the Code of Canon Law only days back to 1917, that’s only because the entire Code of Canon Law dates back to 1917 (with the creation of what is known as the Pio-Benedictine Code). Prior to that, canon law still existed (e.g., the Jus Novissimum); it just wasn’t bound up in a single easily-accessible volume.

  23. I think the point of all things in connection with the easter period whether it is on fridays or whatever is that we give up things that matter to us. For example a country like the phillipines they do not eat rice on good friday which is a major event in asia but would mean little to us here in the west. Also canon law dictates that we also do acts of goodness and charity on this day especially not so much to display our christianity but more our humanity and also to take our eyes off our own selfishness. For goodness sake our society could easily do with an injection of less selfishness.

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