The Corned Beef Conundrum

Corned beef, carrots, and onion on a white plate

When St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday during Lent as it does tomorrow, Irish Catholics all over the country are faced with a huge spiritual dilemma.    Are they allowed to eat supposedly the most Irish of dishes – corned beef?   If their local bishop allows the dispensation, everyone wipes their sweaty brow and face plants into their tub of green beer and all is ok again.

But, if their local archbishop does not give the dispensation, then the Irish Catholic is faced with a dark decision.    Do you break the fast for a symbolic ethnic identity event, or do you offer it up the most important of spiritual sacrifices?

Locally, the Bishop of Covington, Kentucky, the Most Reverend Roger Foys, has allowed the dispensation in his address to the faithful of his diocese:

“This year the celebration of the feast of St. Patrick falls on a Friday (17 March 2017).  As is our long-standing custom in the Diocese of Covington when this celebration occurs on a Friday of Lent, the observance of the law of abstinence from meat on Fridays of Lent is dispensed on this day.  This dispensation applies to all the faithful of the Diocese of Covington as well as to anyone present in the Diocese of Covington on that day.  Those who avail themselves of this dispensation are encouraged to undertake some other form of penance, especially the works of charity and exercises of piety. (cf. Canon 1253, Code of Canon Law)”

Cardinal O’Malley of Chicago has also OK’d corned beef eaters as well.   We only have radio silence from Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr on the topic for faithful Cincinnati Catholics.

I never understood the dispensation anyway.   What message does it send to young, impressionable Catholics, that you can just change the rules midstream into Lent.   The same situation doesn’t apply to sin.   It’s not OK to steal on one day intentionally, if we do a good work the next day.   So, why would you apply that backward theology to the only visible sacrifice Catholics make in our spiritual calender.    It always seemed wonky to me growing up in the Catholic Church.     It breeds the Sunday morning Catholic syndrome in my opinion. That’s someone who goes to mass on Sunday and forgets about the gospel message the rest of the week.

We’re all told in school the importance of the Lenten sacrifice and how it makes us closer to Jesus and his 40 days in the desert before his ultimate sacrifice.    Reversing the rules lessens that emphasis.

Why do we feel it’s important to eat corned beef only on St. Patty’s Day, anyway? It’s not Irish at all, in fact.   If your Irish ancestors came during the era of immigration the majority of Irish came, during and after the potato famine, they NEVER ate corned beef.     They would have been lucky to have eaten pork, which was the most commonly kept livestock.   In fact, fish would have been more common than beef or pork.

Corned beef was  something that came into the New York Irish community from the Ashkenazi Jewish community.       It became a cheap form of meat that the poorer Irish immigrants could afford in their early days of integrating into the American melting pot of immigrants.   If this were more widely known, then maybe corned beef as a symbol of survival would feel more right as a dispensation.   But everyone assumes it was something the Irish brought over with them, which  they most certainly did not.

If you really want to be Irish tomorrow, you should eat fried fish, potatoes and soda bread.     Leave the corned beef for the Reuben at Saturday lunch and offer it up!




3 thoughts on “The Corned Beef Conundrum

  1. Good salmon isn’t cheap and neither is sword fish steak. No sacrifice there however I also grew up Catholic and we ate Mrs.Paul’s “fish” sticks or canned salmon croquettes on Fridays during Lent with plenty of catsup. Now that was a sacrifice.


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