Now that the 40 days of Lent have begun, the nation’s Catholics are faced with a serious question: Would it still be considered a sin to eat an alt-meat shamburger on Friday?
At last count, there were some 73.5 million Americans who identify themselves as Catholics.
I said “identify,” because being Catholic is less about choosing a religious faith to follow, and more about automatic membership, similar to how people identify as being of Irish, Italian or German heritage.
In the same way that second-generation immigrant children naturally learn the native tongue that’s spoken at home, being born Catholic means growing up with a deeply ingrained sense of guilt over the many sins to which one is introduced from toddlerhood on up.
One of those sins — formerly a serious mortal sin capable of sending the miscreant straight to you-know-where for all eternity — is eating meat on any of the Fridays during the Lenten season. Originally developed as a way to ramp up the penitence and sacrifice required of the faithful, the tradition of giving up meat once a week ironically began in the Middle Ages, when the hordes of peasants who were allowed to stand in the back of Europe’s grand cathedrals during ceremonies had little in the way of animal foods on their tables, anyway.
Hard to sacrifice what you don’t possess.
The no-meat-on-Fridays commandment persisted throughout most of the 20th century, until recent Church reforms limited it to just the six Fridays during the Lenten season. That might seem like a “softening” of the religious strictures once imposed on devout Catholics, but in fact, with the universal availability of meat and poultry products 24-7-365 in post-modern society, giving it up — even just six times a year — represents a potentially greater sacrifice than it did centuries ago.
Those guilty feelings
That brings up to another, thoroughly modern dilemma. Since the idea of substituting other foods for the beef, pork and chicken that typically occupies the center of people’s plates was imposed so that the faithful could voluntarily sacrifice something enjoyable and satisfying, is it acceptable to substitute alt-meat products instead?
The argument in favor of that approach would be that since these products are plant-based, a good Catholic could enjoy a delicious “cheez shamburgerz” or a lunchtime bowl of “chikn” soup without technically violating the Church’s regulations. The rule requires “no meat on Fridays,” so wolfing down some plant-protein analog as your Friday night entrée wouldn’t be something to be confessed to your parish priest.
But that’s a serious copout, a work-around that wouldn’t stand muster when some Catholic finds him or herself standing at the Pearly Gates.
You don’t talk your way into paradise; you have to earn it.
So, word to the wise among the millions of Catholics who are at least paying lip service to the Church’s rules to be observed during Lent: If you feel a twinge of guilt while contemplating whether you can substitute alt-meat products for the foods you’re supposed to give up on Fridays, listen to your conscience.
Because as Frank Sinatra once famously cautioned one of his Rat Pack, “Don’t think the Big Man upstairs ain’t keeping score, baby.”
And consider also the fact that every alt-meat marketer has gone all in positioning these products as virtually identical to actual beef, pork and chicken — same taste, same aroma, same mouthfeel.
In other words, virtually indistinguishable from the real meat that’s supposed to be off limits for the next six Fridays.
After all, The Man upstairs isn’t only keeping score, He’s not in the business of buying some lame excuse that alt-meat really isn’t meat.
Consume it at your eternal peril, Catholics.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.