Catholic Twitter broke into a bit of a frenzy earlier today when the Catholic University of St. Thomas (Minn.) Student Affairs Office posted a set of tweets seeming to advocate against abstaining from meat on Friday  – in order to promote the school’s Meatless Monday program in their main dining hall.

via http://kaboompics.com/search/vegetarian

The tweet contained this graphic below, along with the message “why NOT Lenten Fridays”

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While the tweets have been taken down after snarky backlash from Catholics on Twitter, a video containing the same messages and graphics is still up at the UST website.

The problem isn’t Meatless Mondays – trust me, as a former vegetarian I have nothing against the trend that’s been growing among college campuses. In fact, as a Catholic, it’s important that we begin inviting people to be more conscientious in thinking about what they eat and how it impacts the environment.

Indeed, Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si’” challenges Catholics to consider the impact of things like factory farming and resource use in a whole host of daily choices. As the University of St. Thomas noted in explaining the program “reducing meat consumption minimizes water usage, reduces greenhouse gasses, and reduces fuel dependence” – none of which are problematic in and of themselves and are fine things for a Catholic to work towards.

What is perplexing and problematic is a Catholic school’s decision to equate the practice with Lenten fasting – which is a penitential expression, not a social cause or diet move – and THEN to top it off, the graphic and tweet suggest that Meatless Monday is better than giving up meat on Fridays.

Why?

“Because Meatless MONDAY is a movement.”

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By the way, healthy Catholics between the ages of 14 and 65 are required to give up meat on Fridays during Lent in the United States. In addition, Catholics are still required to observe all Fridays as a day of penance in some way as a remembrance of Christ’s death on Good Friday.  While Catholics are free to choose another penance besides giving up meat, the U.S. Bishops have stated that they still strongly encourage people to continue to abstain from meat of their own free will. Catholic schools should probably encourage these acts and make it easier to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent and around the year, rather than work against them.

So why smirk at a beautiful religious practice and then try to supplant it with a secular one? Let’s break down that graphic, shall we?

1) Public opinion polls don’t constitute an argument. It’s argumentum ad populum – a fallacy that wrongly suggests that just because everyone thinks something means that the conclusion is automatically correct. A college should know better.

2)While it’s great to set healthy goals on a Monday, that doesn’t mean that you can’t also do a penitential, meatless Friday, or that the two goals are in tension.

But the biggest point to tackle is that last one:

“St. Thomas is part of a worldwide movement which is not unique to us”

Okay. First off, “Meatless Monday” may have participation around the world, but I would hardly qualify it as a ‘worldwide movement.’ It’s a program that was just started by The Monday Campaigns, Inc. in 2003, and while more than 155 colleges and several public school systems have stopped serving meat on Monday because of it, that’s honestly a drop in the bucket of the population of the United States, much less the world. Furthermore, it’s unclear at all whether or not this is garnering enough widespread social support and change to actually merit being called a “movement,” since so much of the support for it is being driven by food companies and schools, not from the people themselves.

Plus- if we want to talk about “worldwide movements” and a kind of “universal” values and actions, what about one that truly unites more than one billion people, that’s 2,000 years old, and that, is all over the world? Something like… I don’t know… The Catholic Church?

Also, why not do Meatless Mondays but also support meatless Fridays at Catholic colleges not only as a chance to provide more conscientious options, but to encourage penance as well? And, if a Catholic school wanted to incorporate an element of solidarity with the poor along with that, Catholic Relief Services’s Operation Rice Bowl has been doing that for decades. Through their program, CRS invites Catholics to eat a simple, meatless meal using recipes from around the world, and then donate what one would have spent on food to help others in need. How inspiring would that be if Catholic colleges and students around the country ate such simple, affordable meals and then were able to donate the funds saved to a Catholic charity or an on-campus service initiative?

If anything, a bit of prayer and penance is what’s needed to actually guide and ground true movements – not to treat as competition.