In the Catholic Church, not eating meat is generally seen as a form of penance. Meat is considered desirable, so abstaining is a sacrifice. While some individual Catholics decide to be vegetarians -- either due to their interpretation of spiritual texts or for other reasons -- vegetarianism is not explicitly suggested or endorsed by the Catholic Church.
Meat in the Bible
The Bible makes it clear that people have stewardship over the earth and are to treat animals humanely. But dietary restrictions changed over the course of the book. In Genesis 1:29-30, God says, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.” So originally both animals and people were to eat plants. However, in Genesis 9, after the flood, God tells Noah, “Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat: I give them all to you as I did the green plants.” The endorsement to eat meat could not be clearer.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also makes its stance on the use of animals explicit. Animals are considered God’s creatures and, like inanimate objects, are “destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.” Humans are instructed to care for animals and treat them humanely. But this does not mean that animals can’t be eaten, used for work and leisure, or experimented on for medical and scientific reasons. However, causing animals needless suffering and death is prohibited.
Meat and Penance
Catholics have long abstained from eating meat on certain days as an act of penance. Historically, Friday has been a day of eating no meat but fish. However, this is not at all strict. Broth, gravy, bacon drippings and other non-meat parts of animals are considered acceptable. Nowadays, many Catholics observe this meatless diet only during Fridays of Lent, the 40-day period preceding Easter. Catholics aged 14 and over are also supposed to not eat meat on Ash Wednesday. Officially, all Fridays of the year are still subject to some form of penance. If not abstaining from meat, Catholics are supposed to do some other sort of self-denial or mortification. The idea behind this is that each Friday is a reminder of Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death, and each Sunday is a mini-Easter of resurrection.
Despite there being no official church position in favor of vegetarianism, some individual Catholics have drawn their own conclusions that this is a morally better route. Catholic writer Alice Camille, who holds a Master of Divinity, stopped eating meat for several reasons. She believes that the resources required for raising beef cattle constitute an unjust use of land. She also concludes that eating meat is ecologically unsound and bad for her health. Catholic vegetarian Andrew Tardiff takes a more theological approach about killing animals. Based on his interpretation of the writings of Saint Thomas, who said people should not engage in actions which are "out of proportion to the end," Tardiff thinks killing animals is out of proportion as far as people’s need to eat. There are plenty of other available foods, he argues, and just because people like the taste of a burger doesn’t justify another creature dying for it.
- Vision Vocation Network: Is it “Catholic” to be Vegetarian?
- American Catholic: What is the Church’s Official Position Concerning Penance and Abstinence from Meat during Lent?
- Catholic Exchange: Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?
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