Catholics Used to Forgo Meat on Fridays. Could Bringing the Practice Back Help the Climate? | Civil Eats

Catholics Used to Forgo Meat on Fridays. Could Bringing the Practice Back Help the Climate?

A recent study shows giving up meat once a week could cut thousands of tons of carbon emissions each year. While Pope Francis has called urgent climate action a moral imperative, U.S. Catholic bishops are unlikely to encourage the move.

Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday during a mass at Holy Name Cathedral on March 1, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Growing up in rural Kansas, surrounded by farms, Henry Glynn often sat down to beef for dinner. At potlucks hosted by his local Catholic church, parishioners reliably reached for pigs in a blanket and big bowls of beef chili. “Meat was just part of eating in my hometown,” Glynn recalls.

Then, two years ago, the senior at Creighton University in Omaha was looking for something to sacrifice for Lent and decided on a whim to give up meat, not just on Fridays as all Catholics are called to do in the stretch between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but for the entire 40 days. He was surprised to find that it wasn’t hard. And once he learned about the climate benefits of his choice, he decided to stay away for good. “I don’t buy meat for myself at all,” he says. “This industry is responsible for so many emissions.”

Nearly 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions stem from our current global food system, with meat and dairy production largely to blame. Like many of his Gen-Z peers, Glynn is deeply worried about the climate crisis and wants swift action that will curb greenhouse gas emissions quickly. He believes 50 million U.S. Catholics (about one-fifth of the American population) could help if they returned to forgoing meat on Fridays, an act rooted in religious observance that was abandoned by most Catholics in the U.S. more than 50 years ago.

“I would love to see a church that looks at its environmental mission in a concrete way.”

New research supports Glynn’s take. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Cambridge released a study that measured the environmental impact of meatless Fridays in the United Kingdom. In 2011, Catholic bishops in England and Wales revived the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays year-around for spiritual reasons. The study, which is awaiting peer review, found that while only about a quarter of the region’s 4 million Catholics obeyed the church’s edict, that relatively small shift still likely resulted in an estimated reduction of 55,000 tons of carbon annually. Researchers equate that to 82,000 fewer people flying round-trip from London to New York over the course of a year.

Shaun Larcom, a professor of law, economics, and institutions at the University of Cambridge and the study’s lead author, says if Catholics in the U.S. adopted year-around meatless Fridays, the reduction in emissions could be as much as 20 times greater. While Catholics are a minority in England and Wales, the 62 million U.S. Catholics make up the country’s largest single religious institution. “Americans also consume a bit more meat than people in the U.K.,” adds Larcom.

Glynn believes meatless Fridays are the “babiest of baby steps” Catholics can take to lessen their carbon footprints. But he’s also keenly aware that American Catholic leadership has largely ignored climate change, despite an increasing number of the church’s members living in the Southern half of the U.S., where the population is at a heightened risk of experiencing climate-fueled natural disasters like droughts, floods, and hurricanes. “It’s like, ‘We don’t know about it; it’s not our thing; why would we talk about it at Sunday mass?’” he says. “I would love to see a church that looks at its environmental mission in a concrete way.”

Meatless Friday: An Ancient Act

Many religions have dietary restrictions, and for Christians avoiding meat on Fridays as an act of religious observance dates back to the first century A.D. In America, Catholics latched on to fish as an alternative so fervently, a McDonald’s franchisee in a predominately Catholic city of Cincinnati is said to have invented the first Filet-o-Fish in the 1960s to keep customers coming in on Fridays.

At around the same time, the Second Vatican Council, which sought to modernize the Catholic church, released a decree that allowed bishops to accept other forms of Friday penance, such as charity work, instead of abstaining from meat. By 1966, U.S. bishops no longer recommended year-around meatless Fridays, though some bishops in the U.K. stuck with the practice well into the ‘80s.

Larcom, who is a practicing Catholic, lived through the return of meatless Fridays in England. As an environmental economist, he was curious about whether the 2011 guidance in England and Wales may have put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions over the last decade, even if meatless Fridays weren’t recognized by everyone.

“Maybe it is time that religious institutions and NGOs step up and make a difference.”

Larcom had noticed other institutions recently calling for reducing meat consumption, including New York City mayor Eric Adams’ announcement that city’s schools would serve vegan meals to its 1.1 million students on Fridays, and California recently dedicated $100 million for plant-based meals in schools. He hoped that by linking tangible environmental benefits to the Catholic church’s meatless Fridays, perhaps bishops in countries outside the U.K. with large Catholic populations might follow suit. In the U.S. and elsewhere, giving up meat once a week for health and environmental benefits is the center of the Meatless Monday campaign, which has been growing in popularity since it started in 2003.

“I’ve been working on these issues for quite a while now and it seems like so many governments, for whatever reason, are unable to make any big inroads,” says Larcom. “Maybe it is time that religious institutions and NGOs step up and make a difference.”

Larcom and his fellow researchers surveyed hundreds of Catholics in the U.K. to gauge how diligently they adhered to meat-free Fridays. About 28 percent reported changing their dietary habits following the 2011 guideline. Of those, 41 percent stated that they stopped eating meat and 55 percent reduced their meat consumption. Still others said they weren’t even aware of the new guidelines.

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Regardless, they drew on past research to estimate that the average high-protein, plant-based diet in the U.K. results in approximately one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions per kilo compared to a diet high in meat. When Larcom arrived at the 55,000 ton number, he found it significant for two reasons, even though it amounts to just .013 percent of the U.K.’s annual carbon emissions.

“For one, it’s a permanent change,” he says. “If people take this on, it’s a year-on-year change that’s embedded in society, it continues for a long time.” He also thinks it highlights the fact that “small lifestyle changes that are pretty minor, really, can pay off and make a difference.”

Co-opting a Spiritual Practice?

Last month, the English and Welsh bishops embraced Larcom’s finding and issued a statement urging all Catholics to “refresh” their Friday meat abstinence, in part as a way to recognize “the environmental impact of meat production” and the harm it is having on “God’s creation.”

Dan DiLeo, a Catholic theologian at Creighton University, doesn’t believe U.S. bishops will echo this sentiment. In a study he co-authored last year, he found that U.S. bishops have largely stayed silent on climate change, despite Pope Francis’ recent call for radical action on the crisis and the church’s history of advocating for environmental protection.

“Francis’s teaching on climate change was reiterating 30 years of papal precedent from John Paul II, reiterated by his successor, Benedict XVI, reiterated now again by Francis,” says DiLeo. “It makes it even more stunning that the bishops in the U.S. would so blatantly ignore the teachings.” (The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to requests for comment.)

“When Laudato Si came out, it directly challenged the Republican Party’s position on climate change, on fossil fuels, on market-based growth.”

In analyzing 12,000 columns published by bishops in 171 of the 178 U.S. Catholic dioceses from 2014 through 2019, DiLeo found that only 93 columns mention climate change at all, and of those, only 14 discuss climate change policy. And yet those bishops weren’t shy about other political and social issues; hundreds of columns mentioned abortion and healthcare.

DiLeo says over the last several decades, since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, the Republican party and many U.S. Catholics—especially bishops—have formed a “symbiotic relationship.” In 2015, when Pope Francis released a 184-page document titled “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” he emphasized the environment in crisis and the harm of economic systems that favor the wealthy and hurt the poor. DiLeo says the message was seen as “challenging” American cultural values.

“There has been more appropriation of conservative priorities into the social visions of lots of U.S. Catholics, including U.S. bishops. So, when Laudato Si came out, it directly challenged the Republican Party’s position on climate change, on fossil fuels, on market-based growth.”

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While there are efforts among environmentally conscious Catholics to address the climate crisis, including one to retrofit the church’s 100,000 parishes, schools, and hospitals to renewable energy and net-zero emissions, DiLeo says he thinks many parishioners in the pews would bristle at a recommendation to limit meat for environmental reasons. And the perceived progressive politics of the act aren’t the only reason why.

Meatless Fridays were originally rooted in a spiritual practice, and DiLeo fears reinstating it for environmental benefits might appear like “co-opting” a religious observance. However, he says, much like the bishops in the U.K. embraced meatless Fridays for the good of the planet, it would be a fairly easy for bishops in the U.S. to connect the act of spirituality and sacrifice with the fate of “God’s creation.”

For many young Catholics, like Glynn and his friend Emily Burke who recently graduated from Creighton, the transition to a more plant-based diet is underway, even without official guidance.

“There’s a lot of collective energy among young people that’s really taking off,” says Burke, adding that she hopes that as more young Catholics talk about the benefits of a low-meat diet, and show up to potlucks with tomato soup in lieu of beef chili, perhaps the movement will expand to the more traditional corners of the church.

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is a Senior Reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, injustice, and the spaces where these topics intersect. In 2019, she was nominated for a national City and Regional Magazine Association award in the category of civic journalism for a piece on Louisville’s eviction crisis, and in 2012 she won a national Alt Weekly award for her reporting on economic inequality. An avid runner and baker, she’s happiest on sunny days spent outside with her husband, two kids and their dog, Peaches. Read more >

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  1. Unfortunately this and many other similar conclusions about meat are based on CAFOs meat and not grass based grass finished meat. Compare plant based activities to grass meat and the results are clear and have been scientifically proven - plant based is carbon positive to atmosphere and grass based meat is carbon negative. Do the work, follow complete science and reach real conclusions - Continued promotion of incomplete studies is not science and is not journalism and is not truth.

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