Being Vegetarian for the Lord

John 21:9-10: “When the disciples climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you just caught.’” (Painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
John 21:9-10: “When the disciples climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you just caught.’” (Painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902) (photo: Screenshot)

“The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.” ―G.K. Chesterton

I've always thought the reason people are vegetarians is simply because they haven't met the right pork loin yet.

My grandmother made a pork loin so delicious, it would drive a vegan animal rights activist to strangle a pig with his bare hands in the oft chance that my grandmother would cook it for him.

Though there are many times in Scriptures in which the Faithful are allowed to eat anything they wish (Gen 9:3, Acts 10:7-16), rules about eating certain kinds of meat later came into play. For example, after the Flood subsided, Noah was given permission to eat any meat as long as it was drained of blood—a symbol of life. (Gen 9:3-4) However, the Prophet Isaiah tells us that at the End of Time, vegetarianism will be all the rage:

Wolves and sheep will live together in peace, and leopards will lie down with young goats. Calves and lion cubs will feed together, and little children will take care of them. Cows and bears will eat together, and their calves and cubs will lie down in peace. Lions will eat straw as cattle do. Even a baby will not be harmed if it plays near a poisonous snake. On Zion, God's sacred hill, there will be nothing harmful or evil. The land will be as full of knowledge of the Lord as the seas are full of water. (Isa 11:6-9)

This passage reflects the meatless diet Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden before the whole apple and snake incident:

I have provided all kinds of grain and all kinds of fruit for you to eat. (Genesis 1:29)

However, it should be kept in mind that humanity's fall was due to the unwise consumption of forbidden fruit—not meat.

In the Book of Daniel, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah refused the king's meaty meals and instead requested vegetables not for health reasons but rather because the meat had been sacrificed to pagan gods which is anathema to Jews. (Daniel 1:8–16) Interestingly, Scriptures points out that the four appeared healthier than their pagan friends despite having eschewed meat. (Daniel 1:15)

Jesus never recommended vegetarianism to His followers in Scriptures and, in fact, actively ate fish on several occasions—including after His Resurrection, to prove He was truly alive. (Lk 24:42, 34, Jn 21:9-12). This is in addition to His active participation in the Passover meal ever since He was a child (Lk 2:41) including The Last Supper (Lk 22:8, 15) whose main course, of course, is roast lamb (Ex 12). I like to think, Mary served it with mint jelly—I'm sure she was as excellent a cook as she was a mother.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us of the Council of Jerusalem's decision to ask Christians to abstain from strangled animals, their blood and from any animal sacrificed to a false god. (Acts 15:19–20) St. Paul seemingly pokes fun at vegetarians in his Letter to the Romans when he writes:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but do not argue with them about their personal opinions. Some people's faith allows them to eat anything, but the person who is weak in the faith eats only vegetables. The person who will eat anything is not to despise the one who doesn't; while the one who eats only vegetables is not to pass judgment on the one who will eat anything; for God has accepted that person. (Rom 14:1-3)

But considering the strictures mentioned throughout the New Testament demanding Christians avoid meat from animals sacrificed to false gods, the vegetarians to which St. Paul refers are probably Christians who went overboard on scrupulously avoiding all meat for fear it was contaminated by that dedicated to a false god.

Paul seemingly recommends vegetarianism to the Corinthians when he writes, "So then, if food makes a believer sin, I will never eat meat again, so as not to make a believer fall into sin" (1Co 8:13) but this is just Pauline hyperbole and simply meant to remind Christians to be mindful of each other and for the importance of propriety.

The Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, repeats the Old and New Testaments' admonition against eating meat that had been sacrificed to false gods:

If thou canst bear the whole yoke of the Lord, thou wilt be perfect; but if thou canst not, do what thou canst. But as for food, bear what thou canst; but straitly avoid things offered to idols; for it is a service of dead gods. (Ch. Vi)

Though both Origen and St. Augustine spoke out against vegetarianism on Scriptural grounds, both admitted that some of their Christian contemporaries actively avoided meat and wine. St. Francis of Assisi loved animals so much that he called them brothers and sisters admonishing them to also give glory to their Creator but he had no qualms about a bit of steak tartar every now and again.

Vegetarianism was given a bad name early on by a slick 4th century Spanish charlatan named Priscillian. His mish-mash of ideas were loosely based on Gnostic-Manichaeanism. They believed, like all Gnostics and Manicheans, that matter was evil and so abstained from meat. Priscillian and his followers spent most of their time in intrigue and bribing secular officials into stealing property from the Church. As they were elitists in an oath-bound society, they believed that their theology couldn't be comprehended by outsiders so these benighted vegetarian heretics bestowed upon themselves the title "enlightened" and the right and privilege to lie in order to further their own ends. St. Augustine was so incensed at this particular doctrine, he wrote his famous, Contra Mendacium ("Against Lying") to combat this heresy. If this wasn't bad enough, the Priscillianists also practiced magic with which to summon spirits to do their evil vegetarian bidding. At the First Council of Braga in Portugal in AD 561, Pope John III anathematized the Priscillian heresy's vegetarianism and offered a handy litmus test for converts to Catholic carnivorism:

That all priests who abstained from eating meat should be obliged to eat vegetables cooked in meat, to avoid all suspicion of the taint of Priscillianism, and that if they refused they should be excommunicated.

Vegetarianism among modern Christians is more commonly associated with William Cowherd's Bible Christian Church, Ellen G. White's Seventh-day Adventists and, in a limited way, among Joseph Smith's Mormons. In addition, the Ranters, Rastafarians and Quakers recommend vegetarianism or veganism as a reflection of the "Peace Testimony" which hopes to extend compassion towards animals. (Pro 12:10)

Considering the cost of fish and seafood, Catholics can elect to be vegan, eschewing both meat and fish, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and the Fridays of Lent. Copts, Oriental Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians completely abstain from meat throughout the forty days of Lent. This is not for financial, animal rights or environmental sustainability reasons, but rather for the sake of mortification and asceticism as is the case among Catholics. This temporary vegetarianism/veganism during Lent isn't intended on being a permanent way of life though the Church hopes that Lenten practices will direct the Faithful to become more attentive to their spiritual and moral duties the rest of the year.

However, most people, Catholic and otherwise, don't realize that many Catholic monastic orders such as the Franciscan nuns, Trappists, Trappistines, Carthusians and Cistercians are strictly vegetarian. Carmelites and other communities that follow the Rule of St. Albert similarly restrict themselves to a vegetarian diet except in the case of elderly and infirmed members. Eastern Catholic monks and nuns also completely abstain from meat—some even abstain from dairy and seafood also—for the sake of mortification, prayer and asceticism. (Rom 8:17, Php 1:29, 2Th 1:5, 2Ti 1:8, 2Ti 2:3, 2Ti 4:5, Heb 2:10, Heb 12:7)

As Br. Paul Quenon of Kentucky's Gethsemane Abbey, of Thomas Merton fame, assured me, "Theoretically, the lack of meat makes for purity of heart, but I'm impure in either case. I like the simplicity of a simpler diet, and that for me might make the difference spiritually."

Trappists typically abstain from meat, but not fish, eggs, honey except during Lent. Milk is used in cooking and butter, and is available at all times. Breakfast is bread and coffee, peanut butter and jelly are available outside of Lent. The "Monastic Fast" goes from Sept 14, (The Feast of the Cross) until to Christmas. The main meal at 12:30 is two vegetables, soup, salad and fruit. Evenings are soup, cheese, bread, leftovers from previous meals. Feast days may include fish, wine or beer and a prepared dessert like cake or ice cream.

Br. Paul confided in me telling me that Trappists aren't supposed to make a big deal out of food, but as soon as a monk comes back from another monastery, he inevitably gets bombarded with questions like, "So…how was the food?"

Christians may be vegetarian/vegan for environmental, nutritional or ascetical reasons or because they don't wish to cause undue harm to farm animals. (Pro 12:10) Technically, the latter isn't a moral decision per se as the Catechism points out:

Christians must still treat animals with kindness. "God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom He created…Hence, it is legitimate to use animals for food…It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly…[but] one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons." (CCC ¶2417-2418)

Simplicity in the Christian life is a thoroughly valid and even noble reason to be vegetarian, as long as one's health isn't unduly affected or one's humility and charity aren't unduly strained. These kinds of decisions are best made with the assistance of one's physician and spiritual director.

Though it's in seeming contradiction to G.K. Chesterton's simile: "The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar," technically, the wine and tobacco are ultimately derived from vegetable products. And as to the steak…the cow was assuredly a vegetarian. And like the pork loin in my grandmother's oven, it was given an honorable and purposeful death.

Whether a Christian aims to limit herself to only eating salads and side dishes, we should all keep in mind Paul's admonition: "Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all for God's glory." (1Co 10:31)

And whether we're carnivores, vegetarians, vegans, fructivores or backsliding on-again/off-again ovo-lacto vegetarians, neither bread, nor vichyssoise nor pork loin alone can ever sustain us but rather we rely upon every word that God speaks." (Mat 4:4)

Go ahead—eat your food and be happy; drink your wine and be cheerful. It's all right with God. (Ecc 9:7)