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Gators, crawfish and snakes: The Loopholes of Lent
Gators, crawfish and snakes: The Loopholes of Lent - photo by Jennifer Graham
Its Lent, its Friday, and youre Catholic. What can you eat?

Not just salmon and tilapia. According to the archbishop of Louisiana, alligator works, too, as improbable as that may seem. Also, snakes, turtles and crawfish, which makes the faithful of New Orleans happy.

Lent, it turns out, has loopholes, which is good news for Christians who practice abstinence the Roman Catholic term for doing without meat on the Fridays of Lent. Its also good news for the seafood industry, which sees sales climb during the six weeks before Easter.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent (this year, it was Feb. 18), is the peak sales day for frozen seafood, according to Food Services of America, which supplies restaurants across the country. Online delivery service GrubHub analyzed its orders in 2013 and found that in Chicago, Boston and New York, seafood orders increased 8 to 10 percent during Lent. And at churches of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, elaborate Friday fish fries are a tradition; one menu includes fried seafood platters, baked fish Florentine, crab cakes, jumbo fish sandwiches, onion rings and homemade pierogies.

This is abstinence?

Seafood is not really a penance, writes Catholic priest and blogger the Rev. Dwight Longenecker of Greenville, S.C.

Pope Francis might agree. The pope has called on those who observe Lent a population that increasingly includes Protestants to be careful that their Lenten practices of self-denial dont lead to its opposite: gluttony.

Lent is a fitting time for self-denial. We would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty, the pope said. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts; no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance.

Note to Red Robin, the burger chain that recently said it would offer free crab-cake burgers to everyone if the pope will visit any location before Good Friday: Hes probably not coming.

What's with the fish, anyway?

In 1962, a McDonalds franchisee in Cincinnati was flummoxed that business was off every Friday during Lent. His solution, the Filet-O-Fish, solved the problem, and its still on the menu today.

Research by The Barna Group shows that three-quarters of Catholics fast or practice abstinence during Lent, and 16 percent of Protestants do, too. Lately, even atheists are trying to hone in on Lent. Inspired by Alain de Bottons book Religion for Atheists," theyre practicing the rituals of faith without the belief.

The Rev. Kathryn Tiede, pastor of Living Waters Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, observes Lent and encourages members of congregation to do so, not for rote observance, but in order to enhance their spiritual lives.

What I tell my parishioners is, if something like fasting helps you draw closer to God and is an aid to your spiritual life, that can be a really useful practice, if it helps focus your heart and mind on the things of God," she said. "But if its something you do for you, and for self aggrandizement, youve missed the point entirely.

For Catholics, however, abstinence is required. The church demands that anyone between the ages of 15 and 60 refrain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

How seafood came to be exempt from Lent observance is uncertain, although theories abound, the sketchiest of which says that an early pope owned a fleet of fishing boats. And, of course, the first pope, Peter, was a fisherman, but Lent wasnt fully ensconced into church life until centuries after he was entombed.

Whats known is that, by at least the fourth century A.D., Christians refrained from eating caro the Latin word for flesh on Fridays, the day Jesus was crucified. For most of the first 2,000 years of the church, Catholics abstained on all Fridays, not just the Fridays of Lent. That changed in the early 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council met.

The Protestants couldnt wait that long for a loosening of the rules, however. John Calvin called Lent a superstitious observance and Martin Luther considered it, and the church festivals, the mumbo jumbo of the episcopalian idols and a grand heresy of spiritual competition about who could be a better Christian or the more righteous human.

But Luther, who famously broke with the Catholic Church in 1517, came to believe that Lent should be retained in a less rigid form, said the Rev. David Dragseth, pastor of Lake Park Lutheran Church in Milwaukee.

But Dragseth warns, We humans should never take ourselves too seriously. The entire spiritual-discipline dynamic could turn into an overly narcissistic self-help game which forgets the neighbor in need on our street Americas problem, Id venture to say."

Thats what the pope says, too.

In his Lenten message this year, Francis urged Christians to address indifference to our neighbor and to God and to listen to the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience. Tears, he says, are the proper currency of Lent.

Not fish.

Filling in the loopholes

In Milwaukee, the Rev. Dragseth said that even fish was too rich for St. Augustine, so when he lived with the Manichees, instead they ate watermelon, the lightest food on earth, the closest to the spiritual realm.

I can only imagine Luthers treatises if he came to a Wisconsin fish fry, he added.

Or, perhaps, to a capybara fry in South America, or a muskrat dinner in Detroit.

In South America, Catholics have a special dispensation, or exemption from the rule, to eat the capybara, the largest member of the rodent family, because, in the wiliest loophole ever, the creature spends much of its time in the water. (Its practically fish.)

In Michigan, Catholics south of Detroit can eat muskrat for the same reason a dispensation given French-Canadian trappers that dates back to the 1700s.

But in Atchison, Kansas, there is no dispensation at the home of Tom and April Hoopes; they serve their nine children simple fare on Fridays: grilled-cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, or quesadillas.

Tom Hoopes, vice president for college relations at Benedictine College and the former editor of the National Catholic Register, said his memories of Lent in childhood involved cold fish sticks and ketchup-stained rice, but his wife made a stand against the awesome-salmon-dinner approach to Lent.

I actually dont have a big problem with fancy Friday dinners, though, Hoopes said. I figure, if you are eating what you would otherwise avoid, the meatless Friday is helping build your willpower and remember Christs sacrifice.

Besides, theres another loophole for people who insist on not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. If you give up something for Lent whether its bubble gum or chewing tobacco you can have it on Sunday. As the day Christ was resurrected, Sunday is always a feast day, and as such, is excluded from Lent.
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