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Lent in the dining hall

freethoughts | Thursday, March 31, 2011

With yet another season of Lent upon us, we at Notre Dame are once again beset by those intriguing peculiarities which are unique to this particular time of year — including the numerous entreaties from campus ministry urging us to use the season to finally change our rotten ways, the subtle bragging from overzealous Catholics about just how many things they are giving up for Lent and how difficult it has been for them and, of course, the conspicuous absence of meat from the menu of the dining hall each Friday. This last practice seems excessively draconian to me, and so during a recent meatless Friday lunch I tried to consider all the possible reasons why the University would feel justified in instituting such a policy.

I’ll admit that I’ve never found a satisfactory answer as to why the Catholic Church requires its followers to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent — or rather, one that doesn’t involve deference to superstition or archaic traditions — but let’s set aside this trifling philosophical disagreement and focus solely on Notre Dame’s decision to enforce this policy in rather dramatic fashion here on campus. First of all, it strikes me as grossly unjust to the sizeable and growing minority of students at this University that is either not Christian or which does not observe Lent to force all students who eat in the dining hall to comply with this mandate. Why should my eating habits be subjected to the whims and dictates of religious leaders who have been dead for centuries? The obvious retort to this is that I freely chose to attend a Catholic university and this is merely one of the consequences of that decision.

I might be inclined to accept this reasoning if I could see legitimate grounds for why the Catholic nature of Notre Dame compels it to ban meat from the dining hall on Fridays, but I honestly cannot find that justification. It’s my understanding that the practice of giving up something for Lent or abstaining from eating meat on Fridays only has meaning if one truly wants to participate in the tradition and freely chooses to do so. Forcing someone into compliance serves no moral or theological purpose, and only creates bitterness and resentment.

What then is this University’s goal in not serving meat on Fridays? Surely those students who actually wish to abstain from meat do not need Notre Dame’s assistance — they are perfectly capable of not eating meat on their own. We’ve already seen that forcing people to comply with the requirements of the Church won’t magically make people better Catholics, and so the only real objective that this policy achieves is to perpetuate a brazen injustice against the students who comprise the non-Christian minority on campus.

However, I don’t think Notre Dame actually considers any of these consequences when it sets the dining hall policy. In truth, I think the primary reason why meat is not served in the dining hall on Fridays during Lent is so that the University has a reply to the deluded and disgruntled alumni who accuse the school of betraying its “Catholic identity.” But let’s be honest here, these highly disaffected and irrational people are not going to be even the slightest bit impressed when Notre Dame points to the dining hall policy and says “Look how Catholic we are!” They are far too busy marching around with pictures of aborted fetuses during presidential commencement addresses and devising new arguments for why gays and lesbians shouldn’t be treated like normal human beings to be swayed by this empty gesture.

Now its true that I could always just go to Reckers and order a hamburger on those Fridays during Lent when the dining halls aren’t serving meat, but that would require me to needlessly spend money above and beyond the exorbitant sum that I already pay for my meal plan. Until the university allows me to use dining hall meals at Reckers during Lent, or until it is able to provide a cogent and persuasive argument for why it forces all of its students to abide by the Lenten fast, Notre Dame ought to abandon its policy of not serving meat in the dining hall on Fridays during Lent.

Ryan Williams is a sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.