On Fridays during Lent, eating animal flesh is off the table for observant Catholics. But what happens when your penance is a plant-based meat substitute that’s a little too real, promising to ooze blood and juices like a grade-A beef burger?
As juicy, meaty, but meatless substitutes like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat rise in popularity, congregations are contemplating the ethics of eating a faux burger on a day intended for abstinence.
And according to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, these plant-based proxies are too close for comfort.
“The church provides disciplines, and one of those disciplines is to abstain from meat,” said the Rev. Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocese’s Office for Divine Worship. “That’s the minimal obligation, to help us turn away from sin.... To bypass that in any way would be contrary to the spirit of the season.”
Impossible Burgers are made of soy and potato, while Beyond Meat consists of pea proteins. Both products have touted their beef-like textures and juices that “bleed" while cooking, meant to appeal to meat-eaters. Once considered hipster-only food, plant-based meats have skyrocketed in popularity over the last year, surpassing $1 billion in U.S. sales and being sold in thousands of establishments, including Burger King, around the world.
Fasting from blood-letting animals during Lent, Gill said, is a “corporate act” of the church that requires full participation from all members. Skipping meat but opting for a juicy plant-based burger, he said, is “contrary to a mature approach to the season.”
Technically, perhaps, Catholics are in the clear when consuming the vegetable-based victuals, Todd Williamson, director of the Office of Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune.
But “you risk losing the whole spirit of it,” he said.
Lenten law precludes Catholics age 14 and older from indulging in meat — excluding fish — on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays leading to Easter, which this year is April 12. Historically, eating red meat was considered an indulgence, while fish was a more common protein source, said Allison Covey, an assistant professor of ethics at Villanova University.
Covey, who has a background in theology and has published works on ethical veganism, said the question marks “an exciting time if you’re following a plant-based diet.”
"It implies these products have risen to a level in which they no longer represent sacrifice,” Covey said.
Referencing Pope Francis’ 2015 homily on avoiding gluttony, Covey said that if the faithful are attempting to truly "show solidarity with the global poor” during Lent, “things like lentils and rice are more in the spirit than meat analogs.”