Lately, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been on the wrong side of just about everything.
Their opposition to gay marriage, the use of contraceptives and of course, abortion, is increasingly becoming a minority viewpoint, especially given the result of last week’s elections.
One of the most prominent—some would say most influential—prelates, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the New York City diocese, even attached himself to the losing ticket by giving the benediction at the Republican National Convention after Mitt Romney accepted his party’s nomination. Earlier this year, Dolan garnered applause when he introduced a group of Republican politicians, including Rep. Paul Ryan, at a special Mass he celebrated—despite the fact that many other bishops have been openly critical of Ryan’s proposed federal budget, calling it “immoral” because of cuts to food and other programs that serve the poor.
Now, however, Cardinal Dolan has a bigger idea, one that I believe ought to be seriously considered: He wants Catholics to change in their devotional habits and give up meat on Fridays all year ’round.
Of course, that was the law for practicing Catholics during the 1960s, and any kid who grew up back then can attest to the endless Friday fish fries that accompanied childhood.
Currently, millions of Catholics do refrain from eating meat on Fridays during the six weeks of Lent that precede Easter Sunday, but Cardinal Dolan is proposing that the tradition be extended to the rest of the year.
An idea with merit
Dolan made his pronouncement at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as recorded on the Catholic channel on Sirius XM Radio.
“You know, our Jewish neighbors take fasting seriously,” he said. “Our Islamic neighbors take—oh God—do they ever take it seriously.”
Some are warning that Dolan is asking too much.
Rev. Luke Strand of the Milwaukee Archdiocese told local 620 NewsRadio that the tradition in Catholicism is about moving the religion forward, not going back to older ways. “I think ultimately that’s what this whole conversation is about,” he said.
Many other Catholics agree, although whether their opposition is about being progressive or whether it’s about simply wanting to keep meat on the menu is debatable.
Personally, I think it’s a great idea. And here’s why.
Giving up meat by itself doesn’t make one any holier or more devout, and even if Catholics took Cardinal Dolan’s initiative seriously, it’s a voluntary plan. Nobody’s going to be held accountable if a burger or a pepperoni pizza makes a Friday appearance on the dinner table, and given the compliance rate of Catholics with the church’s proscription against using birth control, it’s doubtful that many people would offer anything other than lip service to a call to ban Friday meat-eating.
But here’s why such a recommendation is valuable: You don’t sacrifice something that has minimal value, dietary or otherwise. Nobody would propose giving up carrots or graham crackers or even pasta, despite those products’ popularity. They’re peripheral, unimportant individually to our nutritional well-being.
Making it “mandatory” to give up meat on Fridays restores beef, pork and poultry to their rightful place as the centerpiece of our daily fare. Catholics pray to be provided their daily bread, but we all know that animal foods are more important, nutritionally and culturally, to our collective diets.
Unlike the vegetarian movement, which embraces the fantasyland notion that all of humanity can live on soy protein and salad greens, the proposed ban on meat recognizes that sacrifice in the name of self-improvement hinges on giving up something essential to our daily lives.
I would love to see meat and poultry restored to such status.
And it would be a great way to deep-six the ill-conceived Meatless Mondays, as well.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.