Catholics question if plant-based meat violates spirit of Lent

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CHICAGO— As Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for more than two million Catholics in Chicago, there are new questions about an old tradition: does plant-based “meat” count as meat?

“The impossible burger, as far as I understand, and most of these fake meat things are made out of plant, so there shouldn’t be any problem. They’ll feel like they’re cheating, but they’re not," said Andrew Winkle, a butcher at Paulina Meat Market.

According to the Archdiocese of Chicago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ official definition of meat does not include plant-based products, but says instead, “meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs — all of which live on land.”

Even meat juices and things derived from them like broths and seasonings are technically allowed, the bishops said, although, “moral theologians have traditionally taught that we should abstain from all animal-derived products.”

Speaking with the Chicago Tribune, Todd Williamson of the Archdiocese of Chicago agreed that while it’s technically allowed, plant-based meat might be contrary to the spirit of sacrifice that inspires the practice of fasting.

“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,” Williamson said.

However, the Archdiocese of Chicago said in a statement that even if it may be contrary to the spirit of the season, plant-based meat is still technically allowed.

“[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.

Father Tom Hurley, the pastor at Old St. Patrick's Church, agrees the meaning of Lent shouldn’t be about trying to get off on a technicality.

"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 sprit of what fasting or abstaining from meat is all about," Hurley said.

Father Hurley said the practice of abstaining from meat is derived from the story of Jesus' 40-day fast in the desert, and is intended to prepare both the mind and body for Easter.

“You can chemically engineer anything, I guess, these days, but I think it’s the spirit of fasting – fasting from meat, a bad attitude, technology that overwhelms us, we do without a we know the fullness of life is found in the fullness of God," Hurley said.

“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," Todd Williamson, director of the Office of Divine Worship at the Archdiocese of Chicago told the Chicago Tribune. "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.”

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis echoed the statement, adding that people should keep in mind the spirit of what Lent is all about.

As long as the food doesn’t contain meat or meat-based products is OK. For example, eating spaghetti with a meat sauce or any food with a meat-based broth would not be allowed. But people should take into account the spirit of what Lent is all about. Technically you could have a nice lobster dinner every night, but that’s not really keeping with the spirit of conversion that Lent is calling people to.

Lent is a 40-day journey calling people to re-examine their lives. Life is not about us. It’s about loving God and neighbor. In the Catholic tradition this is done not just by fasting or giving up meat, but also through prayer and almsgiving or charity. The purpose of Lent is to bring us to the radical understanding that we’re in need of salvation.

Greg Otolski, Executive Director of Communications at Archdiocese of Indianapolis

Note: This article was updated from an earlier version which incorrectly stated that the Archdiocese of Chicago disapproves of plant-based meat during Lent. We regret the error.

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