Is Giving Up Meat For Lent Required? Catholic VS Protestant

Catholics as well as some Protestant denominations observe various religious disciplines, including Lent and all that that encompasses. For Lent in particular certain aspects such as fasting and abstinence are practiced. This causes some people to wonder is giving up meat for Lent required of Catholics and Protestants?

Giving up meat for Lent is required of Catholics, but varies in Protestant denominations, on some days. For instance, Lutherans are obliged to give up meat on Lenten days of abstinence but not Baptists. Whether Catholic or Protestant, it’s really an honor system as there’s no official monitoring.

As a Catholic adult, I follow Lent each year, but I grew up in a Protestant denomination that ignored Lent, as well as most of Holy Week, save for Easter. I’ve addressed this topic from that varied religious background then.

Here I’ll focus on Lent from both a Catholic and Protestant viewpoint, and address some related Lenten questions and practices. Without further ado, let’s dive in!


What is Lent?-An Overview

Before moving forward, let’s briefly define Lent. Coming from a Baptist and Pentecostal childhood, I learned about Lent for the first time as an adult who converted to Catholicism.

As defined by the USCCB, the Catholic authority in the US, Lent is a 40 day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that proceeds Easter. During this time, believers prepare for the celebration that honors the resurrection of Jesus Christ, central for the Christian faith.

At the start of Lent is ‘Ash Wednesday’, the day after Mardi Gras (known for indulgence and gluttony). On Ash Wednesday, observers receive ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead from a priest who recites, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On Ash Wednesday, our family receive ashes on the forehead and abstain from meat as practicing Catholics.

Lent concludes after 40 days, on the Thursday known as ‘Maundy Thursday’, right before Easter.

One thing easily confused is the difference between fasting and abstaining. This is something I had to learn carefully to understand the subtle difference, so I listed a visual to help here.

Abstain to deliberately choose not to do something (an act of self-denial) For Lent, one should abstain by not eating meat on Ash Wednesday or Friday.
Fastto ‘abstain’ from food completelyOn Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics fast from all food on those days except one meal where no meat is consumed.

Of course there are some who continue their Lenten practices throughout the year, having found the customs of abstinence, almsgiving, and fasting worthwhile for their regular life. A notable by-product of Lent, some say.

Who Gives Up Meat For Lent?

From my childhood background, I was not familiar with giving up meat for Lent. And like me, many wonder who gives up meat for Lent each year.

For Lent, Catholics and some Protestants such as Lutherans and Anglicans give up meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during the 40 day period leading up to Easter. Along with giving up meat, some also give up other luxuries and vices. Not as common, a few non-religious give up meat for Lent, too.

A few other Protestant denominations do a form of Lent and giving up meat for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. These are Methodists, Unitarians, and Episcopalians.

Catholics61% observe Lent in practice
Protestants 20% observe Lent in practice
Americans25% of all Americans observe Lent in practice
This table gives a visual of Lent by the numbers as garnered by Lifeway Research

To be clear, though, not all Catholics observe Lent practices. According to a 2017 survey (see table above), just 61 percent of those claiming to be Catholic actually follow Lenten obligations of giving up meat. Even though the abstinence is just about 6 days out of the 40, some ignore the requirement.

As well, there are age-restrictions to fasting and abstaining. It’s not expected for elderly or young children to fast. Also, if one has a medical condition that makes fasting or abstaining unhealthy, it’s not required. You can check with your local church to learn more about this for your specific religious expectation and your medical provider if you have concerns.

Surprisingly, there are some non-religious who give up meat for Lenten, and/or observe some other Lenten practices. These people have chosen to use the Lent for secular reasons such as for a body cleanse or ‘to reevaluate their life’ (Source: NBC News).

And this isn’t necessarily in opposition to the Catholic faith.

“Lent is a time of putting aside what we normally do to reevaluate our lives. It’s a time to ask, ‘Am I really being the person I intend to be?’”

Father Mark Morozowich, dean of the school of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

So in actuality, there are quite a few different types of people who do Lent. From practicing Catholics to certain observant Protestants to even non-religious, Lent is important time for a subset of the larger population.

I suggest these related ‘Hopeful Holiday’ articles next:

Keep in mind that even though Catholics and others give up meat for Lent, it is completely optional. Yes, it is what’s termed ‘an obligation’ and thus required by Catholics specifically, no one is ‘making a list and checking it twice’ like Santa! Your priest isn’t likely to take count of who’s attending the Friday Fish Fries that are common at Lent in Catholic parishes, either.

Likewise, the same is for denominations in the Protestant faith. Sure, there are busy bodies in all places who may be gossiping one way or another, but none of that is official or will cause for alarm.

During this time of social media posts about the mundane or the significant, many people voluntarily acknowledge their Lent observance online. From posting Ash Wednesday forehead selfies to simply taking a ‘Facebook leave of absence’, it seems that social media is a modern way to demonstrate observing Lent.

Picking A Thing Besides Meat for Lent
Father Mike (Schmitz) is a popular priest on YouTube for ‘college kids’ and others.

Besides giving up meat for Lent, some people extend their fasts and abstinences beyond the requirements of their faith. For instance, Catholics must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent, but some give up meat for all 40 days.

There are other things that are common to give up than meat during Lent. Though some stick to just the requirement for meat abstinence, others add additional things to exclude. Vices are often mentioned, like giving up desserts or ‘sweets’; smoking; or alcohol. This is aligned with the philosophy of Lent being a time of repentance and mourning, not indulgence and festivity.

Nowadays it’s quite common for people to give up social media or internet (except for work) during the 40 days of Lent, focusing on nontangible things. Other examples of this is to give up gossiping or pessimistic attitude.

Other Popular Things to Give Up for Lent Than Meat

  • No Unnecessary Shopping
  • Unplugging from TV or Going to the Movies
  • Giving Up Video Games
  • Stopping Salt
  • Giving Up Junk Food or Going Out to Eat
  • Not reading for pleasure
  • Not wearing make-up/No haircuts

Traditional Lent Practices Are Called Three Pillars of Lent

Some people commonly focus on just ‘giving up’ aspect of Lent such as the topic of this article, ‘giving up meat.’ However, traditional practices of Lent include what’s known as ‘three pillars’ of justice during Lent…justice to God, self, and others. So while we commonly focus on giving up meat, there are other features as significant.

  • Prayer: Prayer is something all are supposed to do during Lent. Of course, prayer is a part of believers lives at all times, but during Lent, it’s a time to devote more focused and mindful prayer to God. Lent is a call to repentance so often prayer is about asking forgiveness for our sins and failures.
  • Fasting: Fasting is also connected to abstaining. Fasting itself means simply not eating. Catholics and some Protestants fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as obligations but some choose to fast other days in order to draw closer to God leading up to Easter Sunday. (Abstaining can be a part of fasting if you ‘fast just meat’ or some other kind of food…that’s abstaining from it.) You can add additional fasts during Lent.
  • Almsgiving: Almsgiving is an old term for giving money to the poor or less fortunate. It’s an act of self-sacrifice and charity to others. Some either give money specifically to causes during Lent or give of their time in another form of almsgiving. Examples of this would be working at a soup kitchen, tutoring, cleaning for others, or doing someone’s yard work during Lent.

Why Do You Give Up Meat for Lent?

Abstaining from meat during Lent, specifically on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of the Lenten period, has been mainly upheld by Catholics, but as mentioned already, some Protestants and even non-religious follow the custom, too. But why is meat exactly chosen, instead of something else?

Meat is specifically given up on certain days of Lent because of the connection to the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was crucified but resurrected on the third day. Since Jesus is believed to have been crucified on a Friday, Friday is meat free during Lent.

Meat is considered any food from mammals like beef, poultry, and pork. Fish is not considered meat under this definition so commonly, fish is eaten on Fridays during Lent. In fact up until 1966, Catholics were obliged to abstain from meat every Friday, not just during Lent.

Some say that the McDonald’s filet of fish sandwich came about from popularity of meat-free Fridays of Catholics.

To be clear, avoiding meat doesn’t include meat products like cheese, milk, yogurt, and eggs. Catholics and other observers of meat-free days can partake of these food choices.

Giving up something is also linked to the repentance aspect of Lent, that of penance. When we don’t eat meat, we’re aware of the reason and that calls to mind repenting for sins and cause for Jesus’ sacrifice.

Does the Bible Say You Must Give Up Meat for Lent?

To answer the question, ‘does the Bible say you must give up meat for Lent’, the succinct answer is no. Lent itself is not mentioned in the Bible, either.

However, fasting and abstaining are common practices in the Bible, both the Old Testament books like when Daniel fasted or the New Testament ones that mention John the Baptist fasting (or Jesus, for ’40 days in the wilderness’).

Fasting and abstaining were also common for early followers of Jesus, according to many church history documents and writings.

To those who argue, ‘well it’s not in the Bible, so I’m not doing it’, you can simply reply, ‘neither is ,but do you do that?’ or ‘Neither is the command to go to church on Sunday, but Christians usually do.’ And there are many other logical responses to this conversation.

For Catholics, though, it doesn’t have to be ‘in the Bible’ to be expected. Catholics follow the Bible and the Church Magisterium with the Catechism for directions about following faith.

What Happens If You Accidentally Eat Meat During Lent?

Adhering strictly to the rules of Lent may not be easy for some, as it’s not everyday practice. So at times, someone may accidentally eat meat even when it was unintended. What happens if you accidentally eat meat during Lent?

It is not a mortal sin to accidentally eat meat during Lent, nor is a mortal sin to accidentally eat meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, when abstaining from meat is obliged. The key word not making it mortally sinful is ‘accidentally’ because acts must be intentional for sin to occur.

So this means according to the Catholic Catechism you aren’t in danger of hell by accidentally eating meat on days of Lent when you are supposed to abstain. Now if you chose to eat meat intentionally on days of abstinence, that is another thing altogether.

For Catholics, eating meat on days of abstinence requires true confession to a priest who will prescribe penance to absolve the sin-if you do it on purpose. It’s not the act of eating meat that is sinful for Catholics, but the act of not following obligation intentionally that is.

Now if you aren’t Catholic, then that won’t be a concern but neither would you care about accidentally eating meat on abstinence days of Lent, for that matter!

As well, in reality, nothing much will happen if you accidentally eat meat on Lent during days of abstinence. You can try again next time! If you learn you’re eating meat when you didn’t intend to, simply stop eating it. Throw it away and don’t eat anymore of the meat. You can choose something else to eat or just abstain for the rest of the meal.

Some wonder if it’s a sin to accidentally eat meat on Fridays during Lent.

Other suggestions include doing things to help you abstain next time. You can enlist the help of family. This is what we do every Friday. We exhort each other to not eat meat, reminding one another of our Friday practice.

We purposefully plan out meals for days of abstinence to help us remain meat-free.

You can make a note for yourself in the kitchen or food prep areas as reminders too, if you’re worried you’ll accidentally eat meat on abstinence days. As well, if you go out to eat, make sure to ask the server/cooks about how the food is prepared. Sometimes even ‘meat free dishes’ like soups or pastas have meat in the cooking process, so it’s safer to ask before ordering.

Wrapping Up ‘Is Giving Up Meat For Lent Required?’

To wrap up this topic, giving up meat for Lent is required for Catholics, but this isn’t every day of Lent. Abstinence days (meat-free days) are Ash Wednesday and Fridays of Lent (the 40 day period leading up to Easter).

Some Protestants, like Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Episcopalians, also abstain from meat during Lent as a tradition but not as a requirement.

Surprisingly, there are some secular (non-religious) people who observe Lent by giving up meat too, but for non-faith reasons.

For more related ‘Hopeful Holiday’ articles, I recommend these:

Sources: Bulldog Catholic; Arch SPM

Recent Posts