A few weeks ago, podcast listener Rob wrote to us asking if we could address a rumor he heard about why Catholics are banned from meat on Fridays during Lent, but can chow down on all the fish they want. What he heard was that the pope who originally instituted the fish exception had family connections to the fishing industry, and that he did this to boost business.
Actually, Rob, I've heard the same thing. In fact, a religion teacher I had in Catholic school told us a similar story as if it were known fact. So, is it? This calls for a good, old-fashioned fact-or-fiction investigation.
For one, if the purpose of fish exception was to help the fishing industry, it probably succeeded with flying colors. Originally, Catholics abstained from meat not only during Lenten Fridays, but Fridays throughout the year. In the 1960s, when Pope Paul VI allowed local bishops to loosen the rules on the non-Lenten Fridays, the price of fish plummeted in the United States, according to "The Marketplace of Christianity."
However, after some digging, I found that this rumor remains unsubstantiated. Although it's within the realm of possibility, no one, it seems, has been able to find any significant evidence to place it in the realm of probability. The more trustworthy sources list it as a legend at best. At least two Catholic experts (Matthew Bunson and Jimmy Akin) who have looked into the matter have declared it a myth that probably originated to malign the Church. If any of our readers have found evidence to help validate the rumor, please comment and let us know!
If you want to know why fish is officially considered an exception to the no-meat rule, Jimmy Akin explains this on his blog. Apparently the original Latin word for meat has a stricter definition than the English.