While there is no doctrine forbidding its consumption, the consensus seems to be that it is not in the spirit of the season.
In 2019, we saw the rise of the “fake meats” industry, prompting Catholics who are entering their 2020 Lenten fasts to question whether it is acceptable to partake of bogus beef on Fridays, the day of the week when the faithful have traditionally abstained from animal-based proteins during the solemn Catholic season.
Plant-based meat products, such as the Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, are practically indistinguishable from the real thing. Meant to give restaurant-goers a sense that they are eating genuine meat, the non-beef patties even gush greasy juices as though they were grade-A beef. It may not be a real burger, but it’s an excellent simulation, and this has many people wondering if consuming Impossible Meat on days of abstinence is compliant with Church teaching.
The Chicago based news outlet WGN9 notes that technically, there is nothing against the use of fake meat in Catholic doctrine. They cite the USCCB’s official definition of “meat,” which does not include synthetic or plant-based substitutes.
“Meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs — all of which live on land — and birds.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago, however, warns that to jump on the mock-meat bandwagon could be counterproductive to getting into the proper Lenten frame of mind. Fox News reports that Todd Williamson, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Chicago, explained the importance of disciplined self-denial during Lent:
“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. 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.”
While Williamson’s words gave every Lenten observer some food for thought, the Archdiocese of Chicago released a press release soon after, which clarified that the consumption of fake meats is not expressly prohibited, suggesting that fasting is just one aspect of Lent, not to be placed before prayer and penance:
“[Abstaining from eating meat during Lent] is a penitential practice and that on the Fridays of Lent, we remember the sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday and unite ourselves with that sacrifice through abstinence and prayer. Losing the spirit of sacrifice does not equate to plant-based meat being impermissible,” the Archdiocese said.
Meanwhile, WGN9 visited Chicago’s Old St. Patrick’s Church to ask the community what they thought of the consumption of fake meat during Lent. Their pastor, Fr. Tom Hurley, seemed amused by the question, stating:
“In terms of the meatless, Impossible Whopper, whatever, I mean, you know it’s all imitation stuff, but I don’t think that’s in the same spirit of what fasting or abstaining from meat is all about.”
Those interviewed on their way out of church, fresh ashes emblazoned upon their foreheads, seemed to have conflicting opinions on the topic. One woman supported the use of fake meats, exclaiming:
“I think plant-based meat is definitely okay to eat, because you can eat fish and you can eat eggs and other sources of proteins, so why can’t you have plant proteins?”
While a man who was on his way down the steps had to stop for a moment and think before he suggested:
“Man, you know what? It’s all dependent on your relationship with God, I think. So if you’re good with it, it shouldn’t matter.”
This unnamed man brings up an important detail that many parties of this debate have left out. Lent is a season of abstinence and prayer, when one can deepen their relationship with God through penance and reflection. Perhaps it is best for one to pray on the matter before coming to any conclusion about the use of fake meat.
It is also important to remember that a Lenten fast is not meant to be something belabored or even shown to the outside world. It is a vastly personal endeavor that is almost like a conversation between the oneself and the Father. Jesus himself taught as much in Matthew 6:16-18:
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”