With a surname like Murphy, it’s no secret that I grew up in a large extended family that from the perspective of a little kid, anyway, certainly behaved as devout Roman Catholics.
Later on as an adult, some of the cracks in the religious veneer my relatives liked to wrap themselves in became more apparent. Nevertheless, I still find value in embracing a spiritual dimension in day-to-day activities, and in embracing the message of the Gospels — which is neatly summarized in the Sermon on the Mount.
Not that I’m Exhibit A of somebody who’s done an exemplary job adhering to that message, but at least it’s far easier, in my opinion, to internalize those concepts than all the doctrinaire strictures that the Vatican leadership has manufactured over the couple thousand years that they’ve staked a claim to being the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
And that’s “Church” with a capital C, son.
Forget the theology for a moment. I’m talking about all the requirements spelled out in what’s called Canon Law, a legal repository so byzantine it makes the Code of Federal Regulations look like those pictograms that come with iPhones, showing you where to plug in your earphones.
Some of the Canon Law rules are just plain silly at best, downright misogynist at worst. But there is one section regarding dietary practice that makes sense, and which I embrace — not because I believe it ups the odds on my salvation, but because there’s an immediate, practical benefit to be gained.
Abstinence Makes the Man
The rule to which I’m referring is about refraining from eating meat during the 40 days of Lent, which began on March 1 this year and ends on Easter Sunday, April 16. Here’s the rule (slightly abbreviated so as not to put anyone to sleep):
“The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Also forbidden are soups or gravies made from them. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted, as are animal-derived products, such as margarine and gelatin, which do not have any meat taste.
“On the Fridays outside of Lent, the U.S. bishops [allow] Catholics to substitute a penitential, or charitable, practice of their own choosing. For most people, the easiest practice to consistently fulfill will be the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory in the United States (italics added)”.
Talk about burying the lead, but that last sentence spells it out: For the eight Fridays in Lent, devout Catholics are not supposed to eat the flesh or organs of any mammal or fowl.
I think that’s a great idea.
There’s value in choosing discretionary sacrifice and denial, not just in one’s diet but in plenty of other areas, as well. The real reason that abstaining from meat for eight days of the year is worthwhile is because it elevates the consumption of animal foods to a platform they rarely enjoy.
For the other 357 days of the year, we Americans totally take for granted that we can simply load up our shopping carts with ground beef, pork chops, boneless chicken breasts and any of dozens of other fresh, frozen, processed and ready-to-heat-and-eat food products containing meat and dairy ingredients.
Or waltz into a local steakhouse and order up any of the entrées available, the only consideration being the prices on the left side of the menu.
We don’t spend more than a few seconds worrying about whether meat is an option; maybe an occasional thought about the price of beef these days. But while we may wonder about — or believe — the meme of cattle being the culprits in global warming, we rarely ponder what our diets would be like if animal foods were simply unavailable.
Sure, we could all become vegans, I suppose. There are plenty of vocal critics of animal agriculture who pray for that reality to occur someday.
But for the 98% of the population that at least occasionally consumes meat and dairy foods, I urge consideration of the “no meat for eight weeks of Fridays” challenge. Not because it’s tied to a specific religion, but because as human beings, we don’t value anything that’s taken for granted.
Do we wake up each morning and ponder the existence of the electrical grid that powers pretty much everything in our households? Hardly.
But what happens when a winter storm knocks out the power? Suddenly, we can’t focus on anything but the fact that the lights, the appliances, even the fans that make a furnace functional are all kaput. Suddenly, there is a desperate appreciation for the electricity we normally never even notice.
I would suggest that a similar, if somewhat less dramatic, cause-and-effect occurs when we voluntarily forego meat and poultry — even for a lousy eight days a year. It just might help us appreciate a bit more the sustenance we normally take for granted.
By the way, there are exceptions in Canon Law to the no-meat-eating rule, and I quote: “Those who are excused [include] those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women or guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offense or causing enmity.”
Other than people of “unsound mind,” that statement pretty much confirms that meat is an essential dietary component.
And to that I say, Amen.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.