This story is being co-published with Religion Unplugged.
Ash Wednesday ushers the start of Lent, a six-week period where Christians prepare for Easter through prayer and reflection. For Catholics, the season also involves fasting on certain days and abstaining from meat on Fridays. The tradition, which started in the early church, is something that Catholics, and many Christians in general, have prescribed to for centuries.
Catholics avoid meat during Lent to show respect for the death of Jesus. There have been exceptions, like dispensations when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday during the Lenten season. Fish, on the other hand, is permitted. It’s the reason why fast food chains like McDonald’s have for decades aggressively advertised the Filet-O-Fish, a sandwich invented in 1962 to cater to Catholics looking to avoid meat on Fridays and make up for sagging burger sales.
Thanks to products like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat, the dietary restrictions that come with Lent have been turned on their head. Plant-based imitation meat alternatives look and taste like meat — but isn’t. That has unleashed a meaty debate in pews and on message boards over whether plant-based patties can or cannot be eaten during Lent and whether doing so is a sin.
“As someone who eats and craves meat, I see not eating meat as a sacrifice,” wrote one Reddit user. “Though it may be OK to eat, it is a small sacrifice compared to Jesus dying for our sins. I will try the burger, but not on a Friday or Ash Wednesday in Lent.”
Others disagree, saying if it isn’t meat then it’s fair game.
“I would think that it is against the spirit of the requirement, but it wouldn’t be a sin because it is not a violation of the church law,” wrote another user.
The debate isn’t limited to Roman Catholics. Orthodox Christians who belong to Eastern Rite churches also fast and abstain from meat during Lent and at other times of the year. Jews who keep kosher have also had to face the religious predicaments that these foods now present.
Products like Beyond Burger have seen increased interest over the last year amid growing concerns about health risks associated with eating meat or the potential hazards tied to climate change involving animal farming. Religious doctrine, however, is often slow in trying to catch up with what new foods scientists are coming up with in the lab. As a result, everyone from theologians to priests are debating whether chowing down on an Impossible Burger during Lent is a good idea.
Impossible Foods, which invented the plant-based burgers that has spurred many imitators over the last year, was founded a decade ago by Patrick Brown, a former Stanford University professor. Brown, a vegan, formed the company with the aim of ending the planet’s reliance on breeding animals for human consumption.
For many this season, the issue is cut and dry: plant-based foods are not meat and therefore not in violation of the church’s rules. Others, however, argue that if it tastes like meat and looks like meat, then one should avoid them to enhance the penance.
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.