This Lent, Accept No Substitutes

The purpose of Lent is for man to become closer to God — and that’s something that can’t be faked.

Walter Dendy Sadler, “Friday,” 1883
Walter Dendy Sadler, “Friday,” 1883 (photo: Public Domain)

On a recent March episode of Food Network’s Chopped, four chef contestants got canned vegan pork for a mandatory appetizer ingredient. The gray, cubed foodstuff couldn’t be confused with real pork. In the opening round, the chefs wondered what to do with it. In contrast, Redwood City, California-based Impossible Foods is touting a “plant-based” pork that, in terms of looks and taste, can be confused with the genuine article.

It presents a perplexing dilemma — how is one giving up meat when the analogue tastes just like the genuine article? Does the similarity matter?

During Lent, many Catholics abstain from meat, even if it is only on Fridays. Others go vegan/vegetarian for the entire season. Catholics are debating whether or not “plant-based” meats and seafood fit in with this season of penitence.

On Feb. 26, Todd Williamson, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune that faux meats risk “losing the whole spirit of Lent.” He said that abstinence from meat is compassion for those who can’t afford it, so “it’s a bit deeper than whether it’s just a meat product.” For Williamson, abstinence is about solidarity with the poor and charity.

On Feb. 27, Cecelia Price, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Louisville, told the Louisville Courier Journal, that “if in good conscience, someone decides to eat a vegetarian (product) such as an Impossible Burger, that is not a problem. Others may in good conscience decide not to eat a product like this.” For Price, conscience is akin to opinion.

On Feb. 28, Rev. Dennis Gill of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Divine Worship told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The Church provides disciplines, and one of those disciplines is to abstain from meat. That’s the minimal obligation, to help us turn away from sin… To bypass that in any way is contrary to the spirit of the season.” Rev. Gill described abstinence from meat as a communal act of the Church, but that choosing a plant-based burger over meat is “contrary to a mature approach to the season.” The implication is that to choose a “bleeding” plant-based burger is an immature, minimalistic view of Lent. A mature Lenten perspective uses sacrifice to focus on God. Our Lord gave up food and drink for 40 days after his Baptism (Luke 4:1-2), declaring that man cannot live on bread alone (Luke 4:4). This reading sets the tone for Lent, showing that God satisfies our truest, deepest hungers.

Fake meats have a long history. Medieval China innovated fake shrimp made from beans and konjac (a tuber) and seitan called “wheat meat” to comply with Buddhist dietary restrictions. Medieval Christians created almond milk; fish was cooked up to look like venison, while fake “fish” were often apple pies made with saffron and cinnamon. Using illusion to deal with dietary restrictions, in a sense, spurred culinary innovation. While there are vegetarian/vegan meat substitutes that aren’t carbon copies — think of the Gardenburger or Tofurky — new ones like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger are intentionally as “meaty” as possible. These revolutionary “meats” follow the DuPont slogan of “better living through chemistry,” right down to the “bleeding.”

Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are highly successful, pairing with fast food chains and Disney Parks. They’ve become ubiquitous, with other companies joining in. Lifestyle icon Martha Stewart is endorsing Beyond Meat. Singer Katy Perry touts how the Impossible Burger satisfies pregnancy cravings. Where does this leave the devout Catholic who wants to make the most of Lent?

According to the Code of Canon Law, Catholics are to abstain from meat, or other foods as defined by the episcopal conference (CIC 1251). It does not specifically address the issue of faux meats that can be confused for the real thing.

At the USCCB’s “Questions and Answers about Lent and Lenten practices,” they argue that abstinence from meat applies only to land animal — but meat juices in gravy, or chicken broth, are permissible.

The question about lobster specials during Lent, seems more applicable to the new faux meat situation. The USCCB answers, “While fish, lobster, and other shellfish are not considered meat and can be consumed on days of abstinence, indulging in the lavish buffet at your favorite seafood place sort of misses the point. Abstaining from meat and other indulgences during Lent is a penitential practice. On the Fridays of Lent, we remember the sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday and unite ourselves with that sacrifice through abstinence and prayer.”

Sacrifice is the point of Lent, not just on Fridays. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 540), “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” Later, the Catechism states (CCC 1438), “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” Lent is not only about turning away from habitual sin but sacrificing goods (like alcohol or chocolate) to focus on God.

In a sense, Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger and their new counterparts are a loophole. There can be the rationalization that since it isn’t technically meat, it’s permissible. It minimizes Lent’s self-denial. Lent is meant to be a “desert experience.” As God told the prophet Hosea (Hosea 2:14), “I will allure her (Israel), and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” These fake meats are a mirage-like “oasis” in what is supposed to be 40 days in the desert in solidarity with Jesus Christ.

A problematic aspect of these faux meats is their artificiality. In a culture that touts “non-GMO,” “all-natural” and “organic,” it’s surreal to see these fake meats as a heroic movement to end the slaughter of cattle. When people describe the taste of faux burgers as “irony,” it is indeed ironic. The Beyond Burger uses apple extract and beet juice extract to, in their words, “deliver a meaty taste and cooking experience.” Salt is one of the key ingredients to “wake up our taste with each bite.” The proteins come from peas, brown rice, along with fava and mung beans. According to the Impossible Burger’s website, soy and potato proteins “deliver that meaty bite and essential nutrition.” Heme, a protein molecule that makes blood red, is used for the Impossible Burger’s ‘bleeding’ effect. Food starch and methylcellulose act as binders. The website adds that for fat, “coconut and sunflower oils give the Impossible Burger its juicy sizzle.” While Beyond Meat makes a point of being GMO-free, the Impossible Burger’s heme and soy proteins are genetically engineered. Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are high in sodium and saturated fats. In sum, faux meats are not what they used to be; they are highly-processed foods.

Finally, there is the issue of deception — and this is the key to the whole idea of Lent as a sacrificial time. A Burger King ad shows ranchers being fooled with an Impossible Burger. Instead of going meatless on their own, they are deceived. However, God cannot be tricked. When Our Lord was tempted in the desert, the Devil attempted to deceive him. He was tempted with turning stones into bread, when he is the Word of God (Matthew 4:4) and he is the Bread from Heaven (John 6:35). He was tempted to summon angels if he leapt off the Temple’s parapet, but he said God shall not be tested (Matthew 4:7). After all, angels were present at his conception (Luke 1:26-33) and declared his birth (Luke 2:8-15). Finally, the Devil told Jesus he would rule the world if he worshiped him, but Our Lord said God alone is to be served (Matthew 4:10). The Devil, in the end, only deceived himself, refusing to recognize God Incarnate before him.

It can be argued that faux meats are self-deception. It is not genuine self-deception because one knows full well what he is eating. However, it is self-deception if one talks himself into minimizing the sacrifice that is the core of Jesus’ mission. Lent becomes a matter of “addition” (such as adding faux meats to one’s diet to replace real ones) rather than self-denial. It is problematic if it becomes a matter of “gaming” the system because it is about one’s own ends instead of God. The ascetism of Lent is downplayed.

Currently, there are no official statements, from the Vatican or otherwise, on the morality of meat simulacra. But Our Lord reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27); the same can be said of Lent. The purpose of Lent is for man, to bring him closer to God.

St. Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, addressed the issue of food offered to idols. He warned against causing scandal in those with weak faith. He declared (1 Corinthians 8:13), “Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.” Faux meats cause scandal — not to others, because they probably can’t tell the difference — but because they deny the reality of sacrifice. It is a Christianity without the Cross. To an observer, an Impossible Burger looks and ‘bleeds’ like the real thing. During this season of Lent, “faking it” is not an option. Like St. Paul, we must “preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23) in a society that appreciates the green screen and CGI. We want the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Really.