The Vatican has had no public position on the issue. Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina where beef is a major part of the national diet, has never addressed it publicly or through any writings or statements.
A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to an email seeking comment.
USCCB has issued guidelines, but they offer little clarity on this debate. In 1966, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops produced what’s known as the Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. In it, the bishops, who are appointed by the pope, declared that “the age of fasting is from the completion of the 18th year to the beginning of the 60th.” The document reiterates Canon Law, which states that every person 14 years or older “must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent.”
In a statement posted to its website, the Society of Saint Pius X, which promotes vocations to the priesthood and the Latin Mass, said: “Arguably, a Catholic who intentionally seeks these artificial meat products out in the name of adhering to the letter of the law are violating its spirit. It would therefore behoove Catholics to reflect on why they are purchasing an $8 box of soy chicken nuggets on Fridays when a can of tuna fish is available for a dollar. Further, with respect to the ascetic dimension of abstinence, that is all but obliterated when meat is replaced by near-identical substitutes.”
But soy has been replaced with food that tastes like meat but isn’t. It was last April that Burger King began to test Impossible Whoppers in St. Louis. Within a few weeks, the burger chain was selling them nationally. This is the first Lent where Catholics across the United States will have beefless burgers as an option.
“A generation ago, abstaining from meat was pretty cut and dried. Then the vegetarian burgers arrived, the first generation of which were never confused with the real thing,” wrote Dave Fusaro, editor in chief of Food Processing, a trade publication. “I recall an earlier discussion about the propriety of eating a vegetarian burger during Lent: One of the debaters simply concluded that “eating a veggie burger is itself penance. That’s no longer the case. The patties from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are very good, not quite up there with a juicy burger in my book, but fast approaching parity and in a dead heat in other people’s minds.”
That hasn’t stopped fast-food chains from marketing such products to Catholics during this time of year. Wayback Burgers, a national chain, will be selling the Impossible Melt starting on Ash Wednesday through April 10, which is Good Friday.
“With the addition of this new product, Wayback Burgers is answering the call of guests who are increasingly adding plant-based alternatives to their diet and there is no better time than Lent to try a new meatless option,” Wayback Burgers President Patrick Conlin said.
For many this Lent, the Filet-O-Fish won’t be on the Friday menu. Catholics who want to remain in compliance with church laws have found the Impossible Burger and products like it to be one tasty loophole.
Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.