Lent: meatless burgers, avoiding hyper-scrupulosity & loophole-seeking

Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.
Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.
Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.
Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.
Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.
Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.
Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.
Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.
Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.
Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.
Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.
Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.
Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.
Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.
Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.
Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.
Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

Have mercy on me, God, have mercy,  in accord with Your merciful love;
in Your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
and from my sin cleanse me.
For I know my transgressions;
my sin is always before me.
Against You, You alone have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in Your eyes
So that You are just in Your word,
and without reproach in Your judgment.
Behold, I was born in guilt,
in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, You desire true sincerity;
and secretly You teach me wisdom.
Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
You will let me hear gladness and joy;
the bones you have crushed will rejoice.
Turn away Your face from my sins;
blot out all my iniquities.
A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.
Do not drive me from before Your face,
nor take from me Your holy spirit.
Restore to me the gladness of Your salvation;
uphold me with a willing spirit.
I will teach the wicked your ways,
that sinners may return to You.
Rescue me from violent bloodshed, God, my saving God,
and my tongue will sing joyfully of Your justice.
Lord, You will open my lips;
and my mouth will proclaim Your praise.
For You do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering You would not accept.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.
Treat Zion kindly according to Your good will;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then You will desire the sacrifices of the just,
burnt offering and whole offerings;
then they will offer up young bulls on Your altar.
-Ps 51:1-20

-by Michelle Arnold, Catholic Answers

“Lent began this year with a debate. If a fast-food sandwich patty is made with a plant-based product that’s indistinguishable from real meat, can Catholics both abstain from meat during Lent and have their “burgers” too? The Washington Post recently featured a debate amongst Catholics on the controversy.

“I will be honest: when someone asked me that, my first thought was, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?! It’s genius!!’” the Rev. Marlon Mendieta, of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fayetteville, N.C., wrote in an email. “But then my conscience kicked in, and I just felt that I wouldn’t be okay with that.”

Fr. Mendieta polled his priest friends for their thoughts. One priest just shrugged. “If it’s not meat, it’s not meat.”

Since another priest noted to Fr. Mendieta that it “seems like it goes against the spirit of the penitential season if we just eat things that taste like the stuff we’re supposed to be abstaining from,” I looked around online for reviews of the Impossible Burger, a popular meatless product made by Impossible Foods.

“The outside of the burger is coated in coconut oil, so it has a crunchy savoury outside like you get on a beef burger when you fry it,” a British food critic wrote. “And there it was inside: that pinky soft middle. It was simply delicious. The flavour was really good—the best veggie burger I’ve ever had. However, I was hoping it would be indistinguishable from a meat burger so I was slightly disappointed that I could still tell the difference.”

So, what’s a Catholic to do this Lent? Can you licitly satisfy your craving for meat on the days of abstinence with an Impossible Burger? Let’s look first at the Church’s requirements for abstinence from meat during Lent. The Code of Canon Law states:

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. … The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. … The episcopal conference[s] can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed (canons 1251–1253).

Since these canons permit national episcopal conferences to adjust the universal disciplines for their countries, the USCCB ruled for Catholics in the United States that Catholics are required to abstain from meat on the Lenten Fridays. On all other Fridays, the US bishops “terminate[d] the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin” and urged Catholics to “ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice.”

For Catholics, the purpose of abstinence from meat on these days is to perform penance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines penance as “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart” (1431) and teaches that this interior act of the heart can be outwardly expressed—both individually and in community with fellow Christians—“in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (1434).

Penance, then, while it is an interior transformation of the heart, is expressed to the world in acts that demonstrate our commitment to that conversion. Abstinence from meat is a traditional act Catholics perform to express our work toward that “radical reorientation” of our lives that penance entails.

Chowing down on an Impossible Burger on a Lenten Friday meets the letter of the law. As Fr. Mendieta’s priest friend said, “If it’s not meat, it’s not meat.” And if you can tell that your Impossible Burger is just a really good vegetarian burger, but not a beef burger, then eating your veggie burger may be a more sacrificial choice for you than an alternative seafood option, such as a lobster roll or crab cakes.

Catholics also need to take care not to become hyper-scrupulous about their food choices on days of penance. A few years ago, I was contacted during Lent by a mother of two teenage boys, both of whom had autism and a sensory processing dysfunction. She was anxious about whether she should give her boys the sweets they customarily ate at mealtimes because they needed the routine and familiar taste as incentives to eat the rest of their meals. I pointed out to this mom that her children had a medical need for sweets in their diet and I urged her not to worry further about fulfilling the Lenten penance requirement.

Nonetheless, Catholics should remember that penance in the Catholic tradition is not merely an individual act but a communal act. The Church assigns specific days of penance, in part, to invite all able-bodied Catholics to act together to reorient ourselves to God as a community. Our individual acts of penance serve as a reminder and encouragement to our fellow Catholics to join us in acting as the mystical body of Christ on earth.

So, what happens when fellow Catholics see you eating your Impossible Burger on a day of penance? If, to all outward appearances, you seem to be eating a “forbidden food” on a Lenten Friday, others may believe that you’re flouting the Church’s disciplinary laws. If that happens, then your act could become a source of scandal. The Catechism states:

“Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense. Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized.” (2284–2285).

St. Paul asked Christians not to seek their own good but to seek the good of their neighbor (1 Cor. 10:23–24). If you can easily choose between multiple licit options on days of abstinence, why choose the one option that could cause confusion or distress for your Catholic family and friends? Just because you can licitly eat an Impossible Burger on a Lenten Friday doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, unless you have some mitigating circumstance to do so (e.g., medical necessity, lack of alternatives).

The Post writer observed that “For as long as religious dietary guidelines have existed, somewhere there has likely been at least one moderately devoted practitioner desperately searching for loopholes.” If your intent in eating an Impossible Burger this Lent is a desire to slide through a loophole in the Church’s disciplinary rules, you may want to consider whether that’s a properly penitential attitude.”

Love & have mercy on me God, for I am a sinful man,