With many Catholics abstaining from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, it appears plant-based burgers might not be a valid alternative.

Though the Archdiocese of Chicago says plant-based options are not technically meat, Todd Williamson, the director of the Office for Divine Worship, said eating plant based meat is “kind of missing the point.”

“I can’t have meat on Friday, but I can have something that tastes exactly like a hamburger – everything about it is the same…you’re missing the point,” Williamson said.

All Fridays of Lent are considered “days of abstinence from meat.”

“Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs — all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat,” the Archdiocese’s website reads.

But Williamson argues “abstinence is done for a deeper reason not simply to not have meat.”

Read on. 

Why do we abstain from meat? Here’s a good explanation: 

The purpose of these laws of abstinence is to educate us in the higher spiritual law of charity and self-mastery.

This spiritual purpose can also help us to understand the reasons for excluding flesh meat on penitential days. There was a once-widespread belief that flesh mean provoked and excited the baser human passions. Renouncing these foodstuffs was considered an excellent means of conquering the wayward self and orienting one’s life toward God.

The ascetic and spiritual purpose of fasting and abstinence can also help us to understand why it has always been tied to almsgiving.

In this way, it makes little sense to give up steak so as to gorge on lobster and caviar. The idea of abstinence is to prefer a simpler, less sumptuous diet than normal.

We thus have something extra to give to those less fortunate than ourselves and also train ourselves in freedom from slavery to material pleasures. Even a Catholic vegetarian can practice abstinence by substituting a typical, yet more expensive, element of the diet for something simpler.

In the developed world the vast array of assorted foodstuffs available at the local supermarket make living the laws of abstinence relatively easy. In most cases one can forgo meat and still maintain a simple yet well balanced diet.

However, while being faithful to these laws we must always strive to penetrate the inner reasons for fast and abstinence and not just stay on the superficial plane of rules for rules’ sake.

The spiritual motives for practicing abstinence are admirably expressed by St. Augustine in his Sermon on Prayer and Fasting: Abstinence purifies the soul, elevates the mind, subordinates the flesh to the spirit, begets a humble and contrite heart, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, extinguishes the fire of lust, and enkindles the true light of chastity.

This is summarized in the IV Preface of Lent: “For through bodily fasting you restrain our faults, raise up our minds, and bestow both virtue and its rewards.”

In short, the Church mandates fast and abstinence in order to help free us from the chains of slavery to sin. Rather than an onerous obligation it is a cry of freedom from all that binds us to ourselves and to our passions.