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At lunch today I heard the claim again that the practice of eating fish on Fridays during Lent was started by the church to help save a floundering Italian economy at a time when fishing was its primary industry.

I have heard this many times and a quick search shows this is a common claim. It was even the subject of an article in the Ferris State Torch in 2010

Is there any evidence to support either side of this claim?

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    just a plausibility-check comment: I don't see how even everyone eating fish on the same 6 days in the year can helps an industry that basically provides more or less constant supply of a very perishable product. – anonymized Feb 21 '18 at 16:57
  • Two of the 3 links given say that fishery industry was not the reason, the answerbag answers have one thinking it likely and one saying not sure whether old wive's tale. I've never heard it (in Central Europe), btw, only the explanation that fasting was put to that time in year when historically meat, eggs, etc. were anyways scarce due to the season. Fish would be less seasonal. – anonymized Feb 21 '18 at 17:42
  • @anonymized Lent is six weeks, not six days. – Justin Lardinois Feb 24 '18 at 0:05
  • @JustinLardinois: I somehow understood that eating fish is for Lent Fridays - but maybe that's a misunderstanding. Come to think of it, I may have been mixing this with generally eating fish on Fridays (which would possibly be more helpful for the fish industry). Anyways, 1 1/2 months of artificial fish season (i.e. without a naturally increased abundance of fish or something the like, and that at least in the Adriatic in the storm season) IMHO still isn't that helpful for the fishing industry. Unless you have further effects like farmers going fishing in their off season... – anonymized Feb 24 '18 at 13:41
  • ... but that would be called helping the farmers, not the fishers. And, while I'm not sure about historic Italy, for Central Europe at least March/2nd half of Lent is time to get going on the fields again. And AFAIK, in Italy winter is building season. – anonymized Feb 24 '18 at 13:50
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+150

The practice of giving up meat for Lent has been part of the Christian tradition since before the fourth century and before the schism between East and West. In some traditions this means a completely vegan diet. Check out this site for more information: Catholic Encyclopedia.

Relevant parts:

Nature of the fast

Neither was there originally less divergence regarding the nature of the fast. For example, the historian Socrates (Church History V.22) tells of the practice of the fifth century: "Some abstain from every sort of creature that has life, while others of all the living creatures eat of fish only. Others eat birds as well as fish, because, according to the Mosaic account of the Creation, they too sprang from the water; others abstain from fruit covered by a hard shell and from eggs. Some eat dry bread only, others not even that; others again when they have fasted to the ninth hour (three o'clock) partake of various kinds of food".

[...] Theodulphus of Orleans in the eighth century regarded abstinence from eggs, cheese, and fish as a mark of exceptional virtue. None the less St. Gregory writing to St. Augustine of England laid down the rule, "We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs." This decision was afterwards enshrined in the "Corpus Juris", and must be regarded as the common law of the Church. Still exceptions were admitted, and dispensations to eat "lacticinia" were often granted upon condition of making a contribution to some pious work. These dispensations were known in Germany as Butterbriefe, and several churches are said to have been partly built by the proceeds of such exceptions. One of the steeples of Rouen cathedral was for this reason formerly known as the Butter Tower. This general prohibition of eggs and milk during Lent is perpetuated in the popular custom of blessing or making gifts of eggs at Easter, and in the English usage of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

The practice was tied to the three days Jesus spent in the tomb and/or the 40 days of fasting by Jesus and is a preparation for Easter. Fish were allowed because they were not considered to be meat and provided necessary protein for hard working people. There is no evidence that any pope was entreated to act to save the economy, nor that it was in need of saving near the time the tradition is credited with having begun.

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    To improve your answer, you should quote some evidence from your source rather than just point to it (and it needs to be a good source). – matt_black Feb 17 '13 at 18:23
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    "It could not be part of an economic plan to save Italy": why not? Your saying doesn't make it so. Evidence (with citations) is needed – Nate Eldredge Jan 10 '15 at 0:44
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    @NateEldredge because Italy wasn't a thing in the fourth century. – Geeo Jan 27 '15 at 7:11
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    Please, remember the distinction between vegan and vegetarian. Veganism is a relatively recent lifestyle, and excludes things that are common during Lent, like shellfish and honey. – T. Sar Feb 26 '15 at 11:23
  • This answer is getting close to what i was looking for. Something that showed the fishing industry was not imperiled circa 500ad would put it over the top i think. – Chad Feb 23 '18 at 19:20
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That is quite incorrect. The Catholic practice is tied to the concept of Penance (i.e. give up something, make a sacrifice). In particular, on Fridays and during lent, Catholics are expected to give up meat. Since fish is not considered meat, then Catholics eat that on Fridays.

Days of Penance

Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.

source

As you can see, there is no requirement by the Catholic Church to eat fish on Fridays and Lent.

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    That doesn't really address the question, though - even though the Canon doesn't explicitly state that you must eat fish, that doesn't preclude the possibility of it having been made to encourage the eating of fish. You'd have to go into the history surrounding that canon particularly in order to really answer the question - like, why was it instated? Was it during a time of crisis for Italy's fishing industry? Was it in response to something altogether unrelated? – Tacroy Feb 24 '12 at 22:04
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    I know, and I'm just saying that that's what your answer should have been - "giving up meat (but not fish) for lent has been an official Catholic tradition since <time> [source], Italy has only existed since <time + x> [source]; therefore, this is highly unlikely." Referencing the 1983 canon law and pointing out that it lacks fish doesn't address the question (after all, it's not like there'd really be something in there that says "eat fish on Friday, it's good for Italy's economy!") – Tacroy Feb 24 '12 at 23:01
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    forbidding meat on a single day of the week would automatically encourage non-meat consumption on that day. and it wouldn't be much of a stretch that some high-ranking bishops had stock (or family) in some fish companies back then and pushed for it under a guise. – ratchet freak Feb 25 '12 at 2:16
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    That's not true. If you live far from the sea, without quick transport or refrigeration, giving up meat pretty much means eating cheese, cereals, polenta, veggies... the poor never had much meat before the war, anyways, and they were certainly not eating fish. – Sklivvz Feb 25 '12 at 12:05
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    This doesn't answer the question. The question is WHY did the catholic church institute this practice, not HOW did they rationalize it. – Chris Cudmore Feb 19 '13 at 17:03

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