Is It Chill to Eat Plant-Based Burgers During Lent?

Will eating that delicious, charbroiled fake beef send me to charbroil in hell?

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Imagine, if you will, that Jesus Christ returned to Earth and found himself in the same exact ethical conundrum as millions of Lent-practicing Americans will experience over the next few weeks: Is it okay to eat veggie burgers? Or should the Son of God hop on a cloud (I’m assuming that’s how he’d get around) and head down the road for a fish sandwich?

Alas, such is the dilemma of faith. For we will never know what JC would choose — or the judgment he’d render on the rest of us (Old Testament brutality or New Testament understanding) who went for the faux burger. The best we can do, then, is ask the men who spread his good word.

According to William Cavanaugh, a Roman Catholic theologian and professor at DePaul University, you won’t be sent to hell for eating a burger made from fake meat. That said, the devil is in the details. Cavanaugh’s studies focus on political theology and Christian ethics, so the ecological impact of non-burger burgers isn’t lost on him. “A [veggie] burger might be a couple bucks more than a beef burger, but it isn’t obviously a luxury item,” he tells me. “If the spirit of eating a [veggie burger] is to live lower on the food chain, to consume less of the earth’s resources, it could fit into the spirit of Lent.”

And while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) haven’t directly addressed veggie patties and meat, their current guidelines allude to it being fine. “Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs — all of which live on land,” its Q&A page about Lent reads. The organization says birds are also considered meat, but not fish, as they aren’t warm-blooded.

Lab-grown meat, however, is a slightly different, um, beast, as it’s technically derived from animal proteins. But the USCCB is pretty clear on that point too, okaying other meat-derived foods like broth and gravy as fine to consume on Fridays. Not that all the hardliners agree. “Moral theologians have traditionally taught that we should abstain from all animal-derived products (except foods such as gelatin, butter, cheese and eggs, which do not have any meat taste),” the USCCB explains.

To Cavanaugh, however, “arguing as to whether lab-grown meat is technically meat misses the point.”

“The practice of abstaining from meat was originally an ascetical practice; meat was a luxury,” he continues. “So the question of whether it’s technically meat or not is less important than the purpose behind abstaining.”

In other words, abstaining from meat is, above all else, an exercise in self-control and austerity. It’s the same reason why the church frowns upon those who eat lobster tail on Fridays. Technically, it’s not meat either, “but eating it isn’t exactly in the ascetical and penitential spirit of Lent,” Cavanaugh argues.

There is, of course, one other option: just saying screw it and enjoying the time you have on this mortal plane (Jesus and his old man’s judgment be damned). Such is the very sensible chapter-and-verse of satanists. “One of the primary elements of Satanism is ‘indulgence over compulsion,’” says Magus Peter H. Gilmore, high priest of the Church of Satan. “We select our joys with care and partake in them within reasonable limitations. Being an Epicurean philosophy, we don’t stint on our gastronomic pleasures. Forgoing foods one enjoys because of prohibitions arising from spiritual mythologies is to us an utterly absurd practice.”

“Some Satanists are vegetarians. Some are vegans. Others enjoy all manner of proteins from available sources,” Gilmore continues. “If ‘meatless meat’ or ‘lab-grown’ meats were perceived as being delectable, as well as nourishing, a Satanist would surely enjoy them, regardless of what part of the Christian calendar might be currently ongoing.”