Can Catholics Eat Meat on Good Friday?

Beef steak fillet
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For Catholics, Lent is the holiest time of the year. Still, many people wonder why those who practice that faith can't eat meat on Good Friday, the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified. That's because Good Friday is a day of holy obligation, one of 10 days during the year (six in the U.S.) that Catholics are required to abstain from work and instead attend mass.

Days of Abstinence

Under the current rules for fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church, Good Friday is a day of abstinence from all meat and foods made with meat for all Catholics age 14 and over. It is also a day of strict fasting, in which Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are permitted only one full meal and two small snacks that don't add up to to a full meal. (Those who cannot fast or abstain for health reasons are automatically dispensed from the obligation to do so.)

It is important to understand that abstinence, in Catholic practice, is (like fasting) always the avoidance of something that is good in favor of something that is better. In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with meat, or with foods made with meat; abstinence is different from vegetarianism or veganism, where meat might be avoided for health reasons or out of a moral objection to the killing and eating of animals.

The Reason for Abstaining

If there is nothing inherently wrong with eating meat, then why does the Church bind Catholics, under pain of mortal sin, not to do so on Good Friday? The answer lies in the greater good that Catholics honor with their sacrifice. Abstinence from meat on Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, and all the Fridays of Lent is a form of penance in honor of the sacrifice that Christ made for our sake on the Cross. (The same is true of the requirement to abstain from meat on every other Friday of the year unless some other form of penance is substituted.) That minor sacrifice—abstaining from meat—is a way of uniting Catholics to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, when He died to take away our sins.

Is There a Substitute for Abstinence?

While, in the United States and many other countries, the bishops' conference allows Catholics to substitute a different form of penance for their normal Friday abstinence throughout the rest of the year, the requirement to abstain from meat on Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, and the other Fridays of Lent cannot be replaced with another form of penance. During these days, Catholics can instead follow any number of meatless recipes available in books and online.

What Happens If a Catholic Eats Meat?

If a Catholic slips and eats meant because they truly forgot that it was Good Friday, their culpability is lessened. Still, because the requirement to abstain from meat on Good Friday is binding under pain of mortal sin, they should make sure to mention eating meat on Good Friday at their next confession. Catholics who wish to remain as faithful as possible should regularly brush up on their obligations during Lent and other holy days of the year.