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The Economics of Lent

My local grocery store’s deli often puts out samples of chicken in hopes that a quick taste test will entice shoppers enough to buy a few wings. The amount of chicken varies, however, from night to night. Some of this may simply be due to the personal preference of the employee behind the counter, but some of it is also due to supply and demand.

Namely, when demand for chicken is high, there is less chicken left to put out as the night winds down. When demand falls, however, there is more chicken to put out. The samples seek to stimulate demand for the chicken, and the sample size, as noted, seems to grow or shrink roughly according to demand. The lower demand, the greater the number of potentially demand-stimulating samples.

On Wednesday, I saw the biggest pile of chicken samples I have yet seen.

Something clearly happened to the demand for chicken, but what? As a Roman Catholic, I knew immediately. Wednesday was the first day of Lent, also known as “Ash Wednesday.” And, seeing as how Catholics refrain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Lenten Fridays, there seemed to be a large fall in the demand for chicken.

Catholics didn’t always refrain from meat just on these specific days. For years, Catholics refrained from eating meat during the entire Lenten season, as well as every Friday during the year. Like many traditions, this started out as a plethora of different preparation practices, before eventually evolving into standardized rules that barred meat but allowed fish. In 851, Pope Nicholas I made meatless Fridays mandatory.

Abstaining from meat on Fridays was, on some level, meant to serve as a sacrificial reminder of Jesus’ death on Good Friday — but many Catholics will also tell you that the meatless day had a dual aim of helping fishermen, especially since many early Christians (including Jesus’ right-hand man and the first pope, Peter) were fishermen. Whether this is apocryphal or not, the effect was the same. Meatless Fridays proved a boon for the fishing industry, as they essentially had a captive market every Friday and for the entire Lenten season.

Yet, things change. The standards were revised by Pope Paul VI in 1966, essentially allowing Catholics to consume meat on non-Lenten Fridays.

That year, according to a column in the Lewiston Daily Sun, the Wall Street Journal ran front-page coverage of the new rule and it’s potential effects, proclaiming: “Fishing industry seems sure to suffer if Pope ends Friday meat ban.” A 1968 study of the decision concluded that the ruling caused a drop in demand for fish. The finding was summed up in a 1993 book called “The Economics of Aquaculture” thusly:

This change had the effect of reducing the demand for various species as some individuals substituted meat for fish. When the Catholic prohibition against eating meat ended in December 1966, the consumption of cod fell by 29.0 thousand pounds. The consumption of large haddock fell by as much as 7.1 thousand pounds after December 1966 when the rules were relaxed.

Another book, “The Marketplace of Christianity,” attempts to place this shift in the context of a shift in the church’s leadership structure “toward meat producing and relatively Catholic nations and away from fish producing and relatively non-Catholic nations.”

Of course, one should also consider the cultural stimulus the fishing industry derives from Catholic abstinence from meat. The biggest example is probably the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve and, to a lesser extent, the fish fry. Such traditions are embedded in the Catholic culture (likely as a result of the abstinence from meat) and, while they may not have offset the drop in demand from the 1966 decree, have at least provided a seasonal boost.

Even religious laws have economic effects. Just some food for thought.