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?