CHICAGO — Meat is forbidden on Fridays during Lent, driving many Catholics and other observant Christians to partake in fish fries, seafood specials and McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish during the season.
The explosion of plant-based proteins now offers more options, and a potential conundrum for the faithful: is it OK to indulge in juicy, beef-like burgers that ooze like the real thing but without the verboten animal flesh?
Technically, yes. Faux meat products from the likes of Impossible Foods, made with soy, and Beyond Meat, whose ingredients include pea, rice and mung bean protein, do not run afoul of Lent’s meat abstinence laws, which bar Catholics 14 and older from eating animal flesh on any Friday during Lent, save for the aquatic kind. Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 26), continues through Easter Sunday, April 12.
But “you risk losing the whole spirit of it,” said Todd Williamson, director of the Office of Divine Worship at the Archdiocese of Chicago, if you substitute meat with a close copy.
“What’s behind the whole tradition in practice is to go without in order to be in solidarity with those who are hungry, with those who can’t afford meat,” Williamson said. “By going without that we are reminded of others. We experience hunger ourselves. So it’s a bit deeper than whether it’s just a meat product.”
Even so, restaurants and grocers see an opportunity in the Lenten season to promote plant-based meat, whose U.S. sales surged 14% over the year ended Jan. 25 to surpass $1 billion, on top of 18% growth the prior year, according to Nielsen. Traditional meat, a $96 billion industry, rose less than 1% over the past year.
Abstaining from meat during Lent has historically been part of penitential practice to remember the sacrifice that the faithful believe Jesus Christ made on Good Friday, when he was handed over to be crucified. Indulging in pretend meat may not be much of a penance.
“I think it all comes down to the intention and interior disposition of the individual,” said Rebecca Siar, director of campus ministry at St. John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
While fake meat products technically comply with abstention requirements, “if someone is just eating them in order to ‘cheat the system’ in a way, then that might defeat the purpose of abstaining from meat in the first place,” she said. “The overall purpose of this Lenten practice is to give something up that is considered a disruption in our normal routine, an intentional sacrifice.”
To that end, the church encourages those who already avoid meat to take up a different form of penance, so a vegetarian might go vegan on Fridays and a vegan might remove alcohol or olive oil, Siar said.Other religious leaders say believers would be better served by Lent if they focused less on rules and penance and more on finding ways to live a better life. The Rev. Charles Bolser, a retired priest from St. Viator Parish in Old Irving Park, “For those who want to give up meat I think that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s something that you’re forced to do. How does that by itself change the way I live my life? Does it really help me concentrate on becoming a better person? Or is it simply, I’m obeying the rules?”