For as long as religious dietary guidelines have existed, somewhere there has likely been at least one moderately devoted practitioner desperately searching for loopholes.
But the advent of technology that enables non-meat products to taste more like meat than ever poses a fresh ethical question that’s particularly relevant this time of year: Can Catholics, in good conscience, eat plant-based meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger during Lent?
“I will be honest: when someone asked me that, my first thought was, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?! It’s genius!!’ ” the Rev. Marlon Mendieta, of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fayetteville, N.C., wrote in an email. “But then my conscience kicked in, and I just felt that I wouldn’t be okay with that.”
The Catholic Church instructs members to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent, a season of penitence and renewal leading up to Easter. The practice of forgoing meat dates to the early Church, when meat was considered a luxury, and is meant to be an act of self-discipline.
To Mendieta, whether a Catholic should pass over the Impossible or Beyond burgers in the grocery store in the spirit of self-control is “a huge question mark.” So he said he took an informal poll of his priest friends.
“If it’s not meat, it’s not meat,” one friend reportedly responded, ushering in a sigh of relief from Catholic omnivores everywhere.
“Seems like it goes against the spirit of the penitential season if we just eat things that taste like the stuff we’re supposed to be abstaining from,” said another priest, putting the kibosh on meat eaters’ momentary joy.
Ultimately, Mendieta said the decision is a matter of personal conscience. Plant-based burgers are not meat, he said, but eating them because they offer a technical exemption to the rule is kind of missing the point — unless there’s a medical reason, like an allergy to fish, which Catholics commonly substitute for meat during Lent.
Still, the Church generally cares more about whether eating a certain food is a sacrifice than about whether it’s technically meat, said Michael Foley, a patristics professor at Baylor University. Church leaders let Catholics in parts of Michigan eat muskrat, for example, because it’s considered less desirable than other animals. On the other hand, Foley said St. Augustine of Hippo used to criticize wealthy fourth-century believers who on Fridays during Lent ate extravagant seafood, which does not count as meat.
Abstaining from meat is also meant to be tied to almsgiving, or donating to charity, Foley said. Catholics are supposed to give to people in need whatever money they save by not buying meat during Lent. If a plant-based burger costs as much as or more than a burger made from meat, Foley said, the charitable part of the tradition is missing.
A year-round vegetarian, the Rev. Christopher Steck sometimes eats plant-based meat substitutes along with other types of veggie burgers. But Steck, a theology professor at Georgetown University, said he often substitutes peanut butter sandwiches on Fridays during Lent because he considers the meal’s simplicity to be a sacrifice.
Although Steck said eating plant-based burgers could break with the spirit of abstinence from meat, he added that Catholics could justify that choice if they made it for reasons of sustainability. Pope Francis has appealed to all people to care for the environment and protect the Earth’s future.
“If that’s their motivation for a plant-based burger,” Steck said, “to me, there’s a nice symbol in that.”
For those hoping to replicate the taste of meat this Lent, David Cloutier, a moral theology professor at Catholic University, offered a resolutely uplifting perspective: “They’re 100 percent in the clear.” Catholics should ask themselves whether eating a plant-based burger represents a sacrifice for them, Cloutier said. Even if it doesn’t, he said it still adheres to the letter of the law, which is meant to remind Catholics that it is Lent.
But if some day scientists start growing burgers from animal cells in a laboratory, Cloutier said Catholics will have to redefine “meat” all over again.
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