Can Catholics Eat Impossible Burgers During Lent? It's Complicated
It's not technically beef, but some argue it's the spirit of the thing.
For the past 36 years, the Dorf House Supper Club in tiny Roxbury, Wisconsin, has served roasted turtle during Lent, and the unorthodox entree has become so popular that it's now available on every Wednesday and Friday night between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
"The turtle tradition started when the late Vern Maier, [the] original Dorf Haus owner, thought his loyal customers, many of whom were Catholics, would like to try something different, other than fish during lent and turtle qualified," the Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce explains on its event page ("It's Turtle Time!") for the annual dinners.
Although Catholics don't eat meat during Lent, turtles are on the list of acceptable food choices, as are other cold-blooded reptiles, amphibians, fish, and shellfish. Land-dwelling, warm-blooded birds and mammals are still off-limits, but Catholics in the Detroit area are allowed to have a Friday night plate of muskrat, all because of the French missionaries who populated the area in the 1700s.
"[Priests] realized that food was especially scarce in the region by the time Lent came around and did not want to burden Catholics unreasonably by denying them one of the few readily available sources of nutrition—however unappetizing it might be for most folks," Dr. Edward Peters, professor of canon law at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary, told the Associated Press.
Catholics who live outside of south-central Wisconsin or the greater Detroit area are more or less expected to spend their Fridays trying to enjoy one of the half-dozen Filet-O-Fish sandwiches they'll eat before Easter. But as plant-based meats have become more popular—and more mainstream—some of them have started to wonder whether an Impossible Whopper would be an acceptable choice during Lent, too.
Some of the more devout have taken the time to ask permission to have a plant-based burger, but others have clearly just decided to go for it. Epic Burger, which has eight restaurants in and around Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune that sales of its own Beyond Burgers increase by 10 to 12 percent during Lent, and the company says that it "absolutely" sees the season as an opportunity to sell more meatless meats.
"It’s perfect for people who aren’t eating meat who want to indulge without feeling guilty,” marketing manager Spencer Most told the outlet.
But because the appeal of those particular patties is how much they mimic the appearance, taste, and even the mouthfeel of "traditional" meats, should Catholics feel guilty about eating them during Lent?
The answer, it seems, is complicated. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says that although things like chicken broth, soups that are cooked with or flavored with meat, and seasonings made with animal fat are "technically not forbidden," moral theologians have suggested that Catholics should refrain from eating anything derived from an animal. The exceptions are butter, cheese, eggs, and gelatin, which get the OK specifically because they don't taste like meat.
"Plant-based meats would be acceptable to eat on Fridays during Lent, just as artificially flavored things like bacon-flavored chips or artificial bacon bits [are acceptable]," the Very Rev. Thomas Petri, a priest, moral theologian, and academic dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. told Food & Wine in an email. "However, the purpose of the discipline is to offer the delicious goodness of meat up in union with the suffering of Jesus Christ. Intentions matter."
"If a Catholic were to eat the plant-based meat as a way of 'getting around meatless Friday,' while he or she would certainly not violate the discipline, it would be difficult not to say that he or she is also not really trying to give something up. There’s no certainly no sin involved, but there would also be no merit in it either."
Rev. Marlon Mendieta, a parochial vicar at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, echoes that sentiments, because he says that Lent isn't just about being meat-free on Fridays. For Catholics, it's also for penitence, and for repenting of their sins.
"The reason we refrain from meat on those days in Lent is because we as Catholics believe Jesus sacrificed his flesh for us on Good Friday. If we eat the Impossible Burger or any other plant-based meats just because they taste exactly like meat, if we find this loophole to keep enjoying the taste of meat, then I think we have lost the spirit of the true meaning of the Lenten season," he said.
Mendieta clarified that if there was a "legitimate reason" for eating an Impossible Burger for Lent, like an allergy to fish, then it would be an acceptable choice. Otherwise, maybe just start thinking about what a treat it will be in another forty-odd days. "I'll be honest, when someone asked me [about plant-based meats] my first thought was, 'Why didn't I think of that? It's genius!' but then my conscience kicked in," he added. "So follow your conscience!"
But, in the same way that only four out of five dentists agree on what toothpaste brand we should be using, a third priest said that plant-based meats are probably an acceptable choice. "A meat-tasting plant is still a plant. It still falls under abstaining from meat, even though it tastes like meat," Rev. James Sabak, a Franciscan friar and the Director of Divine Worship for the Diocese of Raleigh, said. "I would say go for it. Enjoy it, there's nothing there against the request not to have meat during Lent."
Or you can play it safe and just stick to the roasted turtle instead.