R.O.U.S.es: Rodents Of Unusual Size

by Jimmy Akin

in Liturgical Year

Capybara_1A reader writes:

It turns out that in certain parts of Venezuela the Catholic populace is allowed to eat Capybara on Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays, due to a Vatican ruling centuries ago that the animal could be considered a fish.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capybara

Some of my friends want to know why this dispensation has not since been lifted. I recall reading that this is because of the economic situation of the country, something about how it would be placing an undue burden on these peoples to forbid the Capybara on Fridays.

To me this seems reasonable, but these friends don’t see it that way. They would like to know why the poor on Fridays can’t just forego meat for a single day of the week, and get their protein from some plant source, like beans.

Of course, they accuse the Church of just being hypocritical and wanting to justify a rediculous papal declaration.

I don’t have independent information on this, but it strikes me as plausible. We noted below that aquatic mammals such as beavers and otters have not traditionally been counted as prohibited on Fridays. Since capybaras spend a good bit of their lives in the water, like beavers and otters, the same would apply to them.

Mind you, I’m not in favor of that. I might let someone get away with counting dolphins and whales as sufficiently fish-like that they don’t count, but anything with four legs and fur, whether it lives in the water or not, I would want to count as carnis. That’s just me, though, and not how traditional moralists have regarded matters.

I don’t see any grounds for charging hypocrisy here, though, especially in regard to a papal decision. I have no proof that the pope ever involved himself in the question, and the Church’s present law doesn’t address the subject, meaning that we have to fall back on the older moralists for tough cases. If the older moralists chose to adopt a "lives in water = okay on Fridays" rule for the sake of not confusing people, we might disagree, we might even think it’s dumb, but we can’t charge them with hypocrisy. It’s not like the pope invented "capybara" Fridays for the sake of cropping up the capybara industry.

I understand that a similar situation exists with Barnacle Geese (once thought to be a fish; to be grown-up barnacles) and also a certain type of Puffin in some parts of Ireland.

Basically, what could be so dire about one’s economic situation that could not possibly, for one day of the week, substitute meat for something else?

I think that someone may have misunderstood something somewhere. It ain’t that impoverished people get to eat meat-like things on Friday because they’re poor. It’s the other way around: The discipline was that everyone refrained from the meat of land animals on Fridays because it was a sign of rejoicing as most people couldn’t (usually) afford it very often.

That has persisted until very recent times. I remember once as a boy, growing up in the impoverished South, going over to a friend’s house and my friend was all excited since, as I was company, his parents were going to serve meat that night.

The reason that things like water-dwelling animals or costal birds that spend a lot of their time over the water were not regarded as counting was not that the people eating them were poor but that they were connected with the water and moralists decided that, lest people get confused and scrupulous, any kind of water animal was okay.

I don’t like that. I think it’s dumb. But that was the consensus on the issue.

The consensus has been changing somewhat. For example, Henry Davis is quite down on villages where seabirds are exempted and says this is likely bogus (he doesn’t use the word "bogus") and that it has more to do with villagers obstinately hanging on to traditional privileges. I can look up the quote if needed.

So, while some might not approve of eating Rodents Of Unusual Size, there’s no question that you can have a pie made with . . . shrieking eels, for example.

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Liam February 14, 2005 at 10:19 am

Something about this land and water thing we moderns completely miss: in the pre-Modern period, critters in the water (fish or mammal) were considered to be “cold” and thus, according to medical theories of the four humours, were thought somewhat hazardous to your health.
That, I believe, is one reason Irish peasants did not embrace eating fish during the Potato Famines.

Tim Ferguson February 14, 2005 at 10:32 am

One other thing that needs to be brought into this discussion is Rome’s general reverence for “long-standing tradition” or custom. In the code of canon law, a custom, even one contrary to the law, which perdures for thirty years without being stopped by the ecclesiastical authority, gains the same force as a written law. It’s not just people hanging stubbornly to traditional privileges, it’s the law of the Church that they do so.
And, frankly, I thinking munching on a capybara leg is, in the grand scheme of things, more penitential than a steaming bowl of lobster bisque, but maybe that’s just my taste.

Anonymous February 14, 2005 at 10:52 am

Although there are actually a number of conditions for a custom to be recognized under current canon law, I understand. For example, the custom cannot have been reprobated, and it needs to be maintained by an eccesial body (a diocese, for example) that is capable of receiving law, et cet. Unfortunately, a lot of people think it’s simply “if we’ve been doing it 30 years continuously, it’s OK”. Cuz that’s not true.

Eric Giunta February 14, 2005 at 12:20 pm

1) Who exactly is Henry Davis and why should I care what he has to say on this subject?
2) I would me very much interested in seeing the quote of his that you referenced.
Thanks again!

SouthCoast February 14, 2005 at 12:33 pm

Tangentially, there were, for many years, reported sightings of a pair of capybaras in the backlands of Camp Pendleton. Haven’t heard anything of them lately, however.

Tim J. February 14, 2005 at 8:01 pm

Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don’t believe they exist.

Edward Curtis February 14, 2005 at 8:48 pm

^ LOL, someone had to say it. ;-D

Jimmy Akin February 14, 2005 at 9:00 pm

And I’m very glad he *did* say it.
If nobody comments on my TV & movie references, I start thinking that maybe I’m being too obscure.

BillyHW February 15, 2005 at 12:13 am

Please don’t eat our friendly little beavers!
Beavers are Canada’s national animal.

Ruthann February 15, 2005 at 7:04 am

In the city of Wyandotte, Michigan, not far from my home, at least one restaurant serves muskrat on the Fridays of Lent. Suppsosedly they have a “dispensation from the Archbishop of Detroit.”
Here is an article from a local paper: http://www.monroenews.com/articles/2004/04/12/living/living06.txt

meep February 16, 2005 at 3:31 am

I know that it wasn’t that long ago, in the South, that you pretty much ate meat only on Sunday, and that was chicken dinner. Of course, now that meat is relatively plentiful and cheap, many people in the South can’t imagine a meal =without= meat. I think it’s because so few know how to cook now, that it’s easiest to belly up to the buffet at Golden Corral, which has chicken, steak, pork, fried shrimp, and on and on…

Puzzled March 1, 2006 at 11:18 pm


Marty Helgesen February 21, 2007 at 6:37 am

Some non-Catholics claim that the Church taught that the capybara is a fish to try to discredit the Church by showing that it taught a doctrine which is demonstrably false. Here’s something I wrote several years ago when that claim came up elsewhere on the net:
The story that the Catholic Church said the capybara is a fish seems
to be a misunderstanding. Unless someone can produce an official
document saying that it is a fish, I will maintain that the Church
said that the meat of the capybara could be eaten by Catholics when
they were required to abstain from other flesh meat.
In other words the Church made an exception similar to the
one in the famous, and maybe even authentic quotation:
“Any member introducing a dog into the Society’s premises shall be
liable to a fine of one pound. Any animal leading a blind person
shall be deemed to be a cat.”
— Rule 46, Oxford Union Society, London
I recall reading in a Catholic book years ago that a similar excep-
tion had been made involving whales, at least for Eskimos.

Roma March 13, 2007 at 9:56 am

Ruthann, I was listening to a podcast form last week where a host (was it Jimmy?) on CAL asked a caller from Dearborn, MI, if he was able to eat muskrat. I was riding the metro in pensive peace when that question came out of nowhere — never heard that one before, though last year I did hear a newswire about the capybaras. My fellow passengers must have thought I had lost my marbles. Thanks for that!

Louis Hacker January 28, 2008 at 2:50 pm

After I moved to Indiana I heard that in nearby areas a rodent, I think a muskrat, is permitted to be eaten on days of abstinence. No thank you.

Olaf January 29, 2008 at 1:01 pm

I can imagine a Drudge headline: “Vatican says go ahead & eat beaver”.

Gustavo Salazar February 18, 2008 at 7:46 pm

I’m a venezuelan, and the coustume of eating capybara, or as we call it “chig├╝ire” (pronounced cheegwireh), is an old costume widely accepted during lent. However, I have to say this kind of meat is not easy to find, in fact, this could only be found in the southern plains of the country (far from the sea, close to the amazon) where breeding cattle is the main industry and capybaras live out in the wild.
I don’t know how all this started, maybe about 100 years ago, when roads were few and it took about 3 or 4 days to get to those places, but even then they could get fish from the rivers, and it was conserved using salt. I really don’t know the answer. If I find it I will let you know.

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