Four years ago the English bishops made a brave and brilliant decision

Does the Filet-O-Fish have an intentionally 'Irish' name?

Four years ago this week, the English and Welsh bishops reinstated the traditional practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays. (Yes, you read that right, American friends: every single Friday, octaves permitting, and not just in Lent. Not so pious now, are you?)

Call me crazy, but I’m not sure that bloggers always give the Bishops’ Conference proper credit where it’s due. So let me be quite clear about this: the reintroduction of Friday abstinence was a thoroughly excellent bit of episcopal business.

This was brought home to me about six weeks ago. As the father of small children, and with a wife who can’t supervise us constantly, I occasionally – quite by accident, naturally – find myself in a McDonald’s. On this particular occasion, I had forgotten it was a Friday. Fortunately, just before I ordered my usual McNuggets, I glanced above me, and couldn’t help but remember.

For – as perhaps you know – emblazoned above every McDonald’s counter is one of western culture’s towering monuments to the power of Catholic social life and practice. I am talking, of course, about the McMenu. Or rather, one specific bit of it.

In 1962 – an auspicious year for the Church in other ways too – Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchisee in an overwhelmingly Catholic area of Cincinnati, Ohio, was fretting over his accounts. Though social historians may debate the laity’s fidelity to all relevant precepts of the Church on the eve of Vatican II, one thing they certainly didn’t do was buy hamburgers much on Fridays (or, indeed, during Lent). Rather than face closure, he decided to pioneer a fish option. After some experimentation – the original version used halibut, for example – the Filet-O-Fish sandwich (an intentionally ‘Irish’ name?) was born.

The innovation saved Groen’s franchise, and by 1965 had been rolled out to all restaurants with great success. This fact is all the more impressive – and all the stronger witness to the strength of Catholic culture – when one considers that the Filet-O-Fish doesn’t actually taste very nice.

Ironically, in 1966, taking swift advantage of Pope Paul VI’s devolution of abstinence regulations to national bishops’ conferences in his apostolic constitution Paenitemini, the US Bishops ‘terminate[d] the traditional law of abstinence’ from meat on Fridays. (Our own bishops, of course, followed suit, to the undoubted chagrin of Liverpool chippy owners.) Nevertheless, the Filet-O-Fish remains on the menu in most, if not all, of its 35,000 outlets worldwide.

Now, back to my story… That Friday afternoon, in an instant, the basic gist of this story came back to me. I thus also, of course, remembered what day it was – and with it, what our dear bishops have asked that we do on such days ‘as a clear and distinctive mark of… Catholic identity’. No McNuggets, then, for this fisheater.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not claiming this as any great act of abstinence or mortification. (I am, of course, well aware that my ‘fast’ would look rather more like a feast to a great many people, both today and throughout history.) But for a road-weary dad, standing in a fast-food joint along the A4074, this meagre feat of piety was a slight sacralisation of an otherwise thoroughly secular moment.

An act of ‘common resolve and common witness’, united with other Catholics across time and space. A deed done out of sheer obedience to our very own set of Successors of the Apostles. And a remembrance that ours is truly a faith that can (or at least could once) move not merely mountains, but multinationals. That’s not, I think, such a bad set of side-orders to accompany a takeaway.

So – and I mean this quite seriously – thank you and well done to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

And while you’re on a reinstating roll… how about some of them Holy Days of Obligation?