Feed on

Growing up Catholic, we did not eat meat on Fridays during Lent, and we tried to not eat it on Fridays during the rest of the year as well. Like many other parts of my catholicism, I was never told why, or if I was told why, I certainly did not remember it.  Thanks to Bill Bryson, now I have a better idea of what it was all about, I should not be surprised.

While for much of the medieval period there was rigorous adherence to “fish days” for at least 3 days per week, that practice waned just after the Protestant Reformation. One reason fish was so popular was simply that land-based meat was scarce largely due to the importance of those animals for other purposes than eating. However, we learn that Queen Elizabeth restored the practice of observing fish days (with the penalty for disobeying being death, at least statutorily) soon after the split with the Roman Church.

You would not be surprised to learn that one reason QE brought back the practice to England was to make sure the British fisherman were well supported. But that is not what I mean by the title of the post – that is too much of a dog bites man story. What I found fascinating was learning that a major reason the church was in favor of keeping the fish days was not some sort of holy reason, but rather it had “developed a lucrative sideline selling dispensation.”

In other words, the Church, the Catholic one in particular, suspends the general rules of law in a discretionary manner, not for all people, but for specially chosen ones.  The stated intention of dispensations was to ameliorate particularly acute hardships of parishoners. But it turns out that in the case of meat on Fridays, the only hardship was a particular dislike of the rule by church members, with the bishops more than happy to sell the right to eat meat for a fee.

If the religious institutions of the day were thus corrupted, what gives anyone reason to believe that secular ones would be any better?

3 Responses to “When the Baptists Are the Bootleggers”

  1. There is a good reason why, in medieval and Renaissance Europe, secular institutions were better than religious ones. Dukes and kings were many, and in constant competition. The Church was a centralized monopoly.

  2. Prof. John Buckeridge teaches Ethics in Engineering. (His book is out in a new edition.) One of his presentations is “Of trees, geese and cirripedes: Man’s quest for understanding.” The goose barnacle allowed some people in the Middle Ages to eat geese on Friday, claiming that they were eating shellfish.

  3. Harry says:

    You would like the palace the bishop built for his mistress in Dresden, Wintercow.

    The church back then operated on the same principle as the kings and lords — what you have is what I permit you to keep. Luther said you did not need a human to confess or receive the grace of God, or the grace of a worldly king.

    I know quite a few Catholics who observe eating meat on Fridays, as an act of their personal devotion, not because the bishop or the Health Police tell them they must, and as a Lutheran I admire that. Even though I have been left, as they say, off the hook.

    Now, I am tolerant of each person’s views of religion, which our Constitution requires. Our founders knew the dangers of state religion, and knew all about the Quakers, the Lutherans, and the Jews; even the Catholics and Anglicans, and the Deists and the people who thought nothing of religion. They feared that the state would repress freedom, a good idea. They also feared factions, including messianic ones, taking over.

    Isn’t it great that we live today, Mike? I would hate hauling food to the King or Bishop.

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