I consider myself an orthodox Catholic, but this one time I think I'll stray a little bit and sound like a liberal Catholic on the topic of eating fish on Fridays during Lent.
I really don't think that the practice of eating fish on Friday's is a form of penance to help me grow spiritually. On the other hand, I actually think it is hypocritical of me to consider the consumption of fish to be a form of abstinence from meat. The last I heard, scientists have determined that fish are in fact vertebrate animals composed of flesh and bones, even if they are cold-blooded rather than warm-blooded creatures. Let's be honest, fish flesh is meat any way you slice it, and it tastes so good. Vegetarians don't seem to have any problem identifying fish as a meat source to stay away from.
Significance of the fish
Obviously I don't want to give fish a bad rap because some of the Apostles were fishermen, and the New Testament makes several references to fish. Jesus even ate fish with the Apostles after his resurrection from the dead.
There's no doubt that the fish has great significance for Catholics:
The fish is Jesus, and the fish is also the individual believer. The fish is the primal symbol of the Holy Eucharist.
-- Mike Aquilina, The Christian Code
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”Tradition
-- Matthew 4:18-19
They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
-- Matthew 14:17-21
After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tibe′ri-as; and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathan′a-el of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zeb′edee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
-- John 21
Catholicism places an emphasis on both tradition and scripture, and so eating fish during Lent has been a traditional practice since the beginning. In the past, fish may have even been considered poor man's food because anyone could go out to a lake or stream and catch fish for consumption, similar to what people do today when we go fishing on camping trips (despite requiring a fishing license). Celebratory meals back then involved eating a 'fatted calf' rather than fish.
And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’It's likely that fish was deemed to be lower on the totem pole, at a similar level to vegetables. For the people of that time, it probably made complete sense to include fish in the diet when abstaining from meat.
-- Luke 15:17
We are now living in modern times where the cost of chicken, beef and pork has come down so much that fish is considered to be more of a delicacy. I'm sure you would agree that today's cultural norms have placed fish higher on the totem pole. Just go to any restaurant, and order fish on the menu, or visit your local grocery store and compare the price of fish to any other meat. Fish is more expensive, and that's a signal to me that fish has higher value.
When I think about my consumption of meat, I really do consider fish to be a treat (even fish and chips!), and so I am now wrestling with my conscience. Should I continue to be a traditional Catholic by eating fish on Fridays, or should I listen to my conscience and break from tradition, interpreting abstinence from meat to include fish? It's a little too late for this year, but for next year, bring on the salad, beans and lentil!