QUAERITUR: Some history on meatless Fridays

From a priest:

Dear Father Zuhlsdorf, thank you for the great apostolic work you do every day. Your blog has been an orientation and a spiritual help for me since my days in seminary. And it is great fun, too!

Today, we had a Friday lunch together with brother priests from the city. We always have it meatless. During lunch, I mentioned that today the Bishops of England and Wales re-instituted the Friday penance of not eating meat.
One of the priests at table, of the middle-aged liberal type, said something like: “I can’t understand why intelligent people keep telling stupid things”. He then began to “explain” that the origin of friday penance is to be found at the French royal court, where everybody was so disgusted with eating lots of meat every day that they decided to have a meatless day each week.

I did not pick up his remarks (nobody did, actually), but later thought that I should have.

Do you have any sure historical details about the catholic practice of not eating meat on Fridays. I know about the Wednesday and Friday fasting in the old Church, but what about the special practise of not eating meat?

Any help would be appreciated.

Abstaining from meat on Friday began at the French court?

It is to laugh.


One might say that Father is all wet.

While Father didn’t say which French court, I think we can assume he didn’t mean Charlemagne’s court.

Doing penance on Friday is an obvious reference to our veneration for Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary.  Abstinence from meat probably comes from the ancient belief that eating meat contributed to other carnal desires.  Abstinence from meat was therefore undertaking in part in pursuit of purity.

Think also of the many prohibitions of certain foods in the Old Covenant.  Some critters were seen as unclean.  The prescriptions were of divine positive law and the purpose of the prescriptions was to aid the Jews in a desire for interior cleanliness.  Under the new covenant, these restrictions were removed.

The early Latin theologian Tertullian (+ c. 220) wrote a work on fasting, which mentions prolonging the Friday fast into Saturday.  Some Fathers of the Church refer to abstinence from foods.  St. Ireneaus of Lyon (+202) wrote about abstaining from meat before Easter.  Pope Nicholas I (+867) imposed abstinence from meat on Fridays.  Councils had canons about food and fasting. St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274) in the Summa tackles questions about whether certain foods, such as eggs or cheese, were permitted on fast days.

I am sure readers here can add some more instances of abstinence, even Friday abstinence.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Gail F says:

    I have never heard that one before, but many people (including my own father!) have told me the Friday fast was begun to give Italian fishermen more business.

  2. Legisperitus says:

    Gail F: I had heard of something similar. My great-grandmother hated fish and used to complain that the only reason Friday abstinence was instituted was because the Apostles were fishermen and wanted to sell more fish!

  3. Gregory DiPippo says:

    Optime Pater, the custom is also a reference to the words of Christ Himself, “The days shall come when the Bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they shall fast,” Friday being the day when the Bridegroom was taken away. The Roman Breviary notes that St. Peter Damian, who died in 1072, was a great promoter of this devotion.

    Even if we were to grant for a moment that the custom did originate in the “French court”, why do the proponents of this kind of reductive explanation never ask themselves, “Was there perhaps a REASON why the custom then spread to become well-nigh universal?”

  4. Nathan says:

    Poor Father at the luncheon obviously didn’t have the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia on his smart phone. Here’s what is says about Friday abstinence:

    From the dawn of Christianity, Friday has been signalized as an abstinence day, in order to do homage to the memory of Christ suffering and dying on that day of the week. The “Teaching of the Apostles” (viii), Clement of Alexandria (Stromata VI.75), and Tertullian (On Fasting 14) make explicit mention of this practice. Pope Nicholas I (858-867) declares that abstinence from flesh meat is enjoined on Fridays. There is every reason to conjecture that Innocent III (1198-1216) had the existence of this law in mind when he said that this obligation is suppressed as often as Christmas Day falls on Friday (De observ. jejunii, ult. cap. Ap. Layman, Theologia Moralis, I, iv, tract. viii, ii). Moreover, the way in which the custom of abstaining on Saturday originated in the Roman Church is a striking evidence of the early institution of Friday as an abstinence day.

    In Christ,

  5. CJD89 says:

    Hmmm this is an interesting one. I know many anti-Catholics (sadly there are many of them… but do pray for them and fast/abstain for their conversion) that say that it was for the Church to make money or to help a certain industry. I am waiting for the great Dr. Diane Moczar to write a book on this very topic (by the way “Seven Lies about Catholic History” is a great book!) I have heard, though please correct me if I am mistaken, the Didache prescribes fasting or abstaining on Wednesdays and Fridays. If we look at the Ember weeks we see an emphasis on abstaining on Wednesday (the betrayal of Judas)*.

    Really abstaining from meat on Fridays has been a great and noble tradition of the Church for centuries. When I was president of my local Newman Club (Blessed Cardinal Newman pray for us) I would advise my fellow Newmans to make a habit of not eating meat on Friday. Meatless Friday does not only help us grow closer to Christ on the day of His Crucifixion but it also helps up retain our Catholic identity!

    Long live his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI!!!

    *The great religious order- Canons Regular of St. John Cantius introduced me to this practice when I stayed with them for a visit- a great and noble order!

  6. JMGriffing says:

    Suggesting it began in the French Court also ignores the Eastern custom of fasting (no animal products of any sort, save shellfish) on Wednesdays as well as Fridays.

  7. DisturbedMary says:

    Archbishop Dolan’s blog talks of external markers including meatless Fridays. Judging by the comments, I think meatless Friday has a chance of coming back.

  8. Augustin57 says:

    When meatless Friday’s were the norm, I dreaded it, because all too often, Mom would make oyster spaghetti with a nasty brown roux sauce. I finally came to my senses and drowned it all in ketchup so I could force it down my pie hole. BTW, I’m doing meatless today for lunch. Cheese sandwich. Sometimes simple is best.

  9. PaterAugustinus says:


    I also heard fasting was started to give Italian fisherman more business. But, this was long the universal custom of the Church, and remains so in the East (hint: Italian fisherman aren’t very big in Kiev or Psidian Antioch).

    Fasting is mentioned all the way back in the Didache, where Wednesday and Friday fasting (as distinct from the Jews’ fast on Tues./Thurs.) is discussed. The Wed./Fri. fast was long the universal Tradition, and remains so in the Orthodox Church. One of the Old Irish words for Thursday means “the day between the fasts.”

    It isn’t just an “ancient belief” that meat stimulates the carnal passions. It is still the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and I and many of my brethren can confirm from experience that cutting out animal products of all kinds, does help to calm the passions. In the Great Lent, we at the monastery would often notice how just having a bit of olive oil with our food on the Weekends (since oils are also forbidden during Lenten weekdays) led to an increase in anger and lust. But, if one is not paying close attention to his body and his thoughts, he may not notice very quickly. Also, cutting out meat but still consuming dairy, etc., will not do much to help. One has to cut out animal products. Further increasing the discipline to fast from oils and other fats, will have a marked and noticeable effect.

    As to French Courts… ha! And ha, again! It was the complaint of the Greek missionaries in Bulgaria that the Frankish missionaries also coming in from the West, were not fasting and were encouraging the new converts not to, either. So, if anything, the Frankish courts may have been the first place the Friday fasting was routinely ignored, and not the place it first started!

    Like so many liberals, it seems that this story’s liberal priest has found his own “convenient truth.”

  10. isnowhere says:

    I copied this explanation to my web log: Abstaining from Meat on Fridays

  11. CJD89 says:

    PaterAugustinus: Wonderful explanation! May I ask what monastery you are from? Sounds like a wonderful and holy place. We NEED more GOOD Monasteries! Father Z has the right mind in supporting the “Mystic Monks”; I try to pray for them every time I drink their coffee. [And be sure to use my link when ordering!]

    God speed sir! If you keep up your good acts of fasting and abstaining the evil one will soon be after you! (That goes for everyone, keep vigilant against the enemy… St. Michael defend us in battle!)

  12. Heinrich says:

    Reminds me that next week is an Ember week. September 21, 23 and 24. A wonderful discipline of fasting and abstinence to recognize the changing of the seasons. Starting to feel like fall already in my neck of the woods.

  13. Shoshana says:

    My Orthodox friends abstain from all meat, dairy, and fish, on all Wednesdays and Fridays, for the two weeks before the Assumption (Dormition), for the two weeks before the feast of St. Peter and Paul, and all during Lent. Try it sometime. Break your fast on Easter like they do, with a red egg. A hardboiled egg will never have tasted so good. I struggle with gluttony, and regular abstinence (when I have enough self-control to do it) helps immensely to control myself with food, and in many other areas as well. (I’m having peanut butter toast for lunch and biryani and shrimp for dinner. How about you?)

  14. Andy Milam says:

    When all else fails, BLAME THE FRENCH!!!

    This reminds me (one can never pass up the following):

    King Arthur: [to Castle Augh] French persons, today the blood of many a brave knight shall be avenged! In the name of God, we shall not stop our fight till every one of you lies dead, and the Holy Grail returns to those who God Himself has chosen!

    And we shall not eat meat!

  15. pfreddys says:

    Another canard about Friday abstinence is that some Pope’s illegitimate son ran all the fish business in the Papal State……and the beat goes on.

    Anytime anyone runs down Friday abstinence I always make it a point to ask them what have they substituted for it. The actual instruction says that if the Friday abstinence is not done some other work of penance must be substituted. Our priest in your posting could have asked that of the all wet priest and also asked if he counsels people that they must substitute something else.

    I do Friday abstinence all year long. It’s just easier for me to remember than to do something else. It’s also simpler than say flagellate myself.

  16. Joe in Canada says:

    The references to the Didache by various posters are right on. The earliest document written by Christians that is not in the Bible refers to a Friday fast.
    The business about fish on Fridays to promote the fish trade is a bit of a red herring. (thank you). It was a concession, not a restriction. The original fast was probably from all animal products, so allowing fish was a concession to human weakness and the relatively more miserable European diet, especially in winter.

  17. asperges says:

    On a visit to Portugal some years ago, I mentioned something about not eating meat on Fridays and he roared with laughter and said: “Well, we are exempt here.” “Why?” I said. “Because of the descobrimentos (discoveries of the New World) of course!” (500 years previously).

    Since the Portuguese eat fish 6 out of 7 days, one day more or less wouldn’t hurt.

  18. gracie says:


    “If we look at the Ember weeks we see an emphasis on abstaining on Wednesday (the betrayal of Judas).”

    Call me confused. Judas left the Last Supper to go and betray Jesus. The Last Supper was on a Thursday. This means that Judas betrayed Jesus on a Thursday. So why do people abstain on Wednesdays?

  19. Elizabeth D says:

    There is also an implicit relationship to the beginning of Creation, when the animals were given the green plants to eat, and the people were given fruits and seeds. Not until the Covenant with Noah, which the animals are also party to under obviously different terms, are the sons of men given an explicit OK to eat meat. Then again the eschatological prophecy of Isaiah who depicts a “peaceable kingdom” where there is no more harm or death by depicting fierce predators peacefully interacting with baby lambs and children. I argue that abstinence from meat has an eschatological orientation (not entirely unlike celibacy for the Kingdom of heaven), by His suffering and death, Christ already has won that peace. So I think abstinence from this essentially licit food, either on Fridays or perpetually (see the Benedictine or Carmelite rules etc), looks forward to “the life of the world to come” when there will be no more death, much like celibacy reflects that there is no marrying in heaven, there is union with God.

    This reasoning also makes sense why the ancients made a connection between eating meat and carnal passions: eating meat is licit and marrying is licit, but abstaining from these things we yearn toward the kingdom of Heaven.

  20. bookworm says:

    Gracie, Wednesday is thought to be the day that Judas approached the chief priests and OFFERED to betray Jesus to them. He obviously did this before the Last Supper, otherwise how would they (priests and soldiers) have known that he would signal with a kiss the person he was betraying? So although the actual “betrayal” took place after the Last Supper, it was likely plotted at least a day before. In fact, the Wednesday of Holy Week was once known as “Spy Wednesday” for this very reason.

    Since I’m having gallbladder removal surgery on Monday, chances are I will be observing an Ember Week fast whether I want to or not… if any of you have had this procedure done you know that the process of your body adjusting to the absence of the gallbladder, which regulates bile flow, may mean you have to be careful about eating meat or any fried or fatty foods for a while lest you suffer unpleasant and embarrassing after effects. Well, no time like the present to start a new tradition, I guess.

  21. Alan Aversa says:

    St. Thomas Aquinas’s reasons for abstaining from meat when fasting are very cogent; I highly doubt modern nutritional science could disprove them:

    … fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods.

  22. andreat says:

    My father (cradle Catholic, born in Northern England, emigrated to Australia) thought Friday Abstinence was brought in by the English Parliament to support the fishing industry. Having said that, our family maintained the custom even after it was no longer compulsory.

  23. Gail F says:

    Lately I have been trying not to eat meat on Friday (I KNOW, that is not the same thing as really fasting, so please don’t write and say so) but I can’t work up much enthusiasm for it (I KNOW that is not the point, so please don’t write and say so). While many keep the fast, which I think is a good thing, there is a point being lost here…. When the bishops made their decision, whatever their intentions, the practical consequence was that they did away with the Friday penance. For the vast majority of Catholics, it’s gone. If one chooses to do it anyway, it has become in effect a matter of personal piety or personal devotion. While personal devotions are salutary, etc., they are completely different from communal ones. Also, a large number of people are suspicious of all personal devotions, suspecting they are signs of fanaticism or at least being overly scrupulous. Yes, I do think it helps me personally — it reminds me to remember why I am doing it — but I think it has become like everything else in the Church these days, too much a matter of personal preference, personal ability to be disciplined, personal responsibility for determining how “good” or faithful a Catholic you are, etc. As anyone can see from some of the comments that are made after such posts, some people think this is a good thing and that “external signs” are just plain stupid because all that matters is internal — which is a reductionist, minimalist, Protestant way of thinking. It may be TRUE that what matters most is internal, but as far back as St. Paul the apostles were reminding people that if they personally didn’t need “externals,” they needed to do them anyway for their brethren who did.

    It would be nice if the Church did not put us in the position of figuring out the faith ourselves and then constantly wondering if we are “doing it right” — or, in the case of many, simply going to mass every now and then and thinking that’s all that’s really required these days.

  24. PaterAugustinus says:

    @CJD89 – Thanks for your kind words! That was at the Monastery of St. Gregory Palamas, near Hayesville, Ohio. It was a good monastery with good monks, and I wasn’t worthy to be among their number. By the grace of God, I kept fast with them for the years I was with them; after I was transferred to a smaller residence in Columbus to go to school, however, I’ll admit that my fast has not been fully monastic at all times. I keep the standard fasts, oil excepted, and I tend to eat meat on permitted days, even though monks normally don’t eat meat in the Orthodox Church. Fish and shrimp are expensive, and my financial situation is very tight at the moment. When I graduate and return to full-time monastic living (in Texas), I’ll be fasting with the usual stricture again.

    @Shoshanna – God bless your friends for their efforts, and you for yours! Many Orthodox look forward to the fasts, precisely because they can be times of great peace within and without. And, as you say, the greatest gift of the fast, is how we stop taking tasty foods for granted. When Easter rolls around, and you have some tasty cheese and eggs for the first time in a long time, you’ve never tasted anything so good! It increases the joy of the Pasch by orders of magnitude! You walk around with a smile a mile wide for days! What a time! We fast from licit things, to rediscover some small awareness of the full meaning and glory of God’s goodness.

    Also, with regards to the fast before Ss. Peter and Paul: that fast actually lasts from the Monday after the Octave of Pentecost (what the West would call Trinity Sunday), until June 29th (Ss. Peter and Paul). So, the fast is longer or shorter, depending upon how early or late Easter/Pentecost occur. On the Gregorian Calendar, the fast sometimes disappears entirely! On the Julian Calendar, the fast is sometimes quite a bit longer than it ever was in the early centuries.

    @Gracie – Wednesdays are fasted in memory of Judas’ betrayal of Christ, because that is the day he went to the Jewish leaders and received the thirty pieces of silver. When he slipped out on Holy Thursday, he was simply going to do what he had arranged with them, the day before. In the 26th chapter of Matthew, Judas goes to the chief priests and receives the thirty silvers; then, two verses later, “the first day of the Azymes” begins and the Apostles prepare for the Passover supper.

  25. Widukind says:

    It is all about the Precious Blood! To have flesh meat meant that blood had to be shed. On Fridays, as it commemorated the Passion, and to point that no other blood than that of Christ’s was of such great worth – no other blood was to be shed on Fridays, and by extension any meat for that day if it was slaughtered beforehand. No blood was more important than Christ’s. When refraining from flesh meat – it is only the meat from warm-blooded animals – birds and mammals – the ones with a lot of red blood – that could not be eaten. The flesh of cold-blooded animals – with little red blood – fish, turtles, frogs, etc. – could still be eaten. Learned from a Sister of the Precious Blood.

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