The answers we get largely depend on the questions we ask, and one of the most foolish things we can do is declare our answers the “right” ones over against somebody’s “wrong” ones until we know what questions they were asking. If somebody’s answer if 5 and yours is 4, don’t declare them to be in error until you know for sure they were asking “What is 2+2?” and not “What is 2+3?”

I was reminded of that back during Lent when, as happens every year, somebody circulates stuff like this around and the guffaws about the scientific ignorance of Catholics got started up again:

Similar comments from around the world and across history can be found for such critters as capybaras, beavers, muskrats, and sundry other critters. I think lobster even made the cut at some point and perhaps still does in some parts of the world. Can it really be that bishops are that scientifically illiterate about Linnean taxonomies and imagine rodents, alligators and arthropods are all fish?

Generally, we should assume that when college-educated people of normal to high intelligence appear to be that fantastically dumb, we are probably missing something. And this is one of those cases.

What matters is not Linnean taxonomy in classifying foods acceptable for Lent, but “What sort of protein-rich meat is easily available to poor people?”

A rather silly myth grew up a while back that the Fish on Friday for Lent thing started because the Pope or his brother-in-law (or somebody in the Church) had cornered the market on fish and somehow Lent was invented to make a killing on the fish market. The reality was rather simpler than that. Catholic social teaching has always emphasized what is known as the “preferential option for the poor”. (It is, by the way, the theological underpinning for what is today known as “affirmative action”). The idea, neatly summarized in Deuteronomy 10:17-19 is this:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Dt 10:17–19)

Note the paradox: God is “impartial”, therefore he “executes justice for” the weak and defenseless over against the strong, wealthy and powerful? Why? Because the strong have battalions of lawyers and arsenals full of guns and a buttload of money. The poor have nothing and nobody. So the rich are expected to make sacrifices for the poor. The poor are not expected to make sacrifices for the rich and the burdens on them are lightened by the law of Moses.

All this carries over into the Christian dispensation from Judaism, including in the celebration of Lent. The idea was to put the burden of the Lenten fast on the rich, not the poor. So the Church routinely looked around at whatever the common source of animal protein for the poor was in a given area and said, “Fine. We’ll reckon that as ‘fish’ just as we reckoned fish (the main source of animal protein for the poor in Europe) as acceptable to eat during Lent.” So when poor French-speaking Acadian Catholics from Canada migrated to Louisiana and (with the French gift for awesome cooking) started to eat the local dinosaurs in the bayous, the Church, “We’ll regard gators as fish” The idea was to take the burden off the poor, who live a more or less permanent Lenten existence and put it on the rich, who could stand to do without beef, mutton, and pork. Same for French-speakers in the pre-Revolutionary Old Northwest who ate stuff like muskrat and beaver, as well as in South America with capybara.

Of course, one of the things that has happened over time is that some foods (like beaver) have become expensive delicacies and it might be a good idea for bishops to revisit guidelines that are outdated to reflect current economic realities. But if they do, it’s important for the rest of us be aware of the reason for the guidelines in the first place.

Which brings us to similar issues in the Old Testament. More than once I have run across similar complaints about Levitical purity laws being stoopid and “unscientific” because of this passage:

And these you shall have in abomination among the birds, they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the kite, the falcon according to its kind, every raven according to its kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk according to its kind, the owl, the cormorant, the ibis, the water hen, the pelican, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron according to its kind, the hoopoe, and the bat. (Le 11:13–19)

Bats are not birds according to Carolus Linnaeus, announces the Fundamentalist Atheist Prosecutor, ergo the author of Leviticus was stoopid and ignorant and knew nothing of the Ways of Science and therefore… what exactly?

Aye, there’s the rub. For of course, none of this matters if, in the original tongue of the writer, the word we English-speakers translate as “birds” simply means “winged creatures that are not bugs” and is utterly uninterested in 18th century scientific categories for living things. And this happens to be exactly the case. The only categories this passage from Leviticus cares about are “clean” and “unclean” and the only question it cares about is “What is lawful for us to eat?” Linnaeus (and the Fundamentalist Atheist) are asking “What is 2+2?”. The author of Leviticus is asking, “What foods are ritually defiling?”

And before we say, “That’s a stupid question!” ask yourself when the last time was you had a heaping bowl of insect larvae, ate yogurt mixed with horse blood, or enjoyed some bull testicles in your soup. Because if you have any foods that provoke the “Ick” response, you believe, just as strongly as any Bronze Age Israelite in “unclean” foods. All they did differently from you was attach a spiritual significance to this experience and find in the idea of foods too gross to eat, or things to gross to touch an analogy to the defiling power of sin.

All of which is to say, again, that when we start with different questions, we arrive at different answers. It does not follow that merely because ancients started with different questions, our questions (and answers) are automatically better.

Welcome, in short, to real multiculturalism that even includes respect for the most obscure and strange cultures of all: those of our ancestors.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. – L.P. Hartley


6 Responses

  1. I have family from the Detroit area. These days you can walk into some bars on a Lenten Friday, and there will be little muskrat snacks on offer. It’s a local tradition.
    The tradition has its roots during the Depression, when the local Bishop gave a specific dispensation for muskrat, which was cheap protein for really poor people who were willing to trap and hunt.

    Medieval times were not like today. Poor folks didn’t eat meat regularly, so didn’t need to fast from in on Fridays in the first place.

    1. You’re right that meat was rare for most people. Commoners mainly ate dairy and eggs. That’s enough animal protein to be pretty well fed and for a cuisine to arise around them. Too bad if you were allergic, but that’s just one of the reasons why half, or even less than half of children didn’t live to adulthood.
      Meat was eaten rarely. Definitely on big occasions, but in times of peace, many commoners could afford to slaughter a chicken once a week or for a few families to share a pig.

      As for fasting in medieval times, within Christendom, Lent, Advent, as well as Friday and Wednesday fast was strictly enforced. Fasting meant bread and water. And not fasting meant having your teeth knocked out as punishment.

      Other than the religious reason for fasting, there was a very practical reason in Central and Northern Europe. Food stock dwindled after winter and the carnival and by the time of Lent, there wasn’t that much food to go around. Just enough flour to have bread, grain for the poultry and hay for the larger animals.

      This is the main reason why there was plenty of eggs and dairy for Eastertide and why there are so many traditions associated with them. Eggs and processed milk store very well, so you can stock up for Easter.

  2. We take the easy accessibility of meat and animal products for granted. Heck, we take easy accessibility of all food for granted and it’s all too easy to forget that there are people suffering from hunger and that we’re overfed.

    Your article made me consider something tangent to the topic: what does it mean to fast in the first place? With the very easy accessibility to high quality tasty food, it’s actually really easy to keep Friday fast. Maybe just abstaining from meat is not the proper way to fast and there should be a bit more required of us.

    If we’re one of the richest people in the world (doesn’t matter if it’s 0.1%, 1% or 10%), this means that we should fast from our high standard of living on Fridays. And not as some self-indulgent pretense of fast, but real hard fasting from actual things we take for granted.

  3. I’ve pointed out that lobster, shrimp, scallops and so forth aren’t in keeping with a spirit of penance. I will allow that the merest, most purile obedience these days might be quite a lot in some circles. I suppose a pastor has to start somewhere.

    The century-old Catholic Encyclopedia article on abstinence is quite good: the point is the quality of the viands, which might steer one away from really tasty not-meat. Or as Mark might rightly say, towards eating like a poor man. But how poor? the ten year old asks.

    You can look at all this from a couple perspectives. The first I’ve already mentioned: obedience. Next might be solidarity — even outside monasteries, Catholics have observed days of abstinence and fast throughout history; so did our Elder Brethren in the Faith. Sometimes this is called “Identity” — personally I hate the term but there it is. Our Lord Himself said His followers would fast after He’d gone, how could we not, just a little? Both of these, obedience and solidarity, represent the sacrifice of our own wills — they’re not nothing, even if you’re in the “But I LIKE muskrat” camp. Lastly, you could go a bit further and sustain yourself for a day on things you’d avoid if you could, mealworms maybe, and not eat much of that either. As long as it’s not a humble-brag, I’d say, which I think is what most of the “going beyond the law” comes to, especially if it’s mentioned to anyone else. It might be counseled, but probably not enjoined, at least under today’s social conditions.

  4. In the same vein (asking different questions and arriving at different answers), European Commission regulates that snails are inland fish and carrots and tomatoes are fruit.
    The reason for the former is to allow snail farms to be subsidized according to the same rules as inland fisheries and for the latter, to allow carrot and tomato juice to be categorized and sold as juice rather than soup or sauce.

    What’s odd is that these might elicit a groan at best, but hardly anyone will ridicule the EC for being pragmatic instead of having byzantine directives concerning all corner cases like snail farming just to be technically correct.

    1. LOL the EC is silly 🙂

      There is this juice in Italy that I found really refreshing – they serve it in their coffee shops. The juice involves lemons, oranges, and… carrots.

Leave a Reply

Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email