For Latin Catholics 14 years or older, abstinence from meat is called for on certain days of the liturgical year: Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays in Lent. Those belonging to one of the autonomous Eastern Catholic churches (such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) are typically bound by more exacting abstinence standards depending on local rules and customs. Moreover, many traditional Catholics observe the Church’s historic prescription to abstain on all Fridays, Ember Days, and Rogation Days.
So what is a faithful Catholic to do in the age of artificial meat products such as Burger King’s so-called “Impossible Whopper”? Is it permissible to consume these items and still hold to the Church’s laws on abstinence?
The Simple Answer
The simple answer to the question of whether a Catholic may licitly consume artificial meat products on abstinence days is, “Yes.” Soy chorizo, despite being an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, contains as much swine as a bowl full of kale.
Historically, the line between which animals are “meat” (which is forbidden) and which are “seafood” (which is generally permitted) was not always clear. In 17th Century Quebec, for instance, Catholics could consume beaver on Fridays, likely because the animal’s habitat was considered dispositive for classification purposes. That practice would likely be frowned upon today.
The Better Answer
Although no Catholic is, sensu stricto, violating the law of abstinence by eating an Impossible Whopper on Ash Wednesday, it is important to remember the historic relationship between fasting and abstinence and almsgiving. The penitential periods and days of the Church were deemed times when Christians should take the money saved on food and distribute it to the poor.
In the contemporary world, most meat is not considered the delicacy it once was and products such as ham, chicken, and turkey are widely available. Somewhat ironically, however, soy and other plant-based variants of meat products typically cost more than the real deal, leading consumers to expend more money on these substitutes.
Arguably, a Catholic who intentionally seeks these artificial meat products out in the name of adhering to the letter of the law are violating its spirit. It would therefore behoove Catholics to reflect on why they are purchasing an $8.00 box of soy chicken nuggets on Fridays when a can of tuna fish is available for a dollar. Further, with respect to the ascetic dimension of abstinence, that is all but obliterated when meat is replaced by near-identical substitutes.
As always, any Catholic concerned with consuming artificial meat on abstinence days should consult their parish priest or confessor for guidance.