The pretty girl in the photo holds a soda and is about to bite into a juicy, foot-long hot dog. Behind her is a giant American flag blowing in the breeze.
It’s not the kind of photo we’d ordinarily choose for the cover of Catholic Digest these days, but back in 1952 the editors thought it was perfect. In 1952 the Second World War was only seven years in the past, Americans were dying in Korea, and the United States and the Roman Catholic Church had no greater enemies than the military power of the Soviet Union and Red China and the insidious forces of godless Communism. Faith and patriotism were the best defense, and Catholic Digest offered lots of both. Here was the perfect July 1952 cover image to remind readers of the Fourth of July and what American freedom was all about.
The first letter complaining about it must have come as a shock. When that letter arrived at the Catholic Digest offices, whoever opened it first probably groaned in embarrassment, then rushed off to deliver it to the office of Father Paul Bussard, the editor-in-chief.
Poor Bussard — believe me, I know how he must have felt. I too have had the experience of putting something in the magazine and having readers quickly write in to tell me what a bone-headed mistake I’ve made. I never see it coming. But afterward I wonder with embarrassment how I could have missed it.
Bussard and his team had many opportunities to wonder about that very question, for the letters pointing out their mistake probably didn’t slow down until sometime well into August — every one of them a reminder of a calendar detail nobody on the editorial team had thought of.
An image of a patriotic young lady eating a Fourth-of-July hot dog would have been just fine in 1951 or 1953. But in 1952 the Fourth of July fell on a Friday. In 1952 good Catholics never ate hot dogs or any meat on a Friday — any Friday of the year.
For young Catholics who are used to thinking of the Church’s abstinence rules only applying during Lent, the thought of year-round meatless Fridays might sound intriguing or ridiculous, but the practice began early in our history as a way of celebrating every Friday as a day of penance — a mini-Good Friday, just as every Sunday was seen as a mini-Easter. The discipline changed over time and culture. For much of the Middle Ages, for example, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays were all meatless penitential days, along with all the days of Lent and Advent — adding up to a little more than half the days of the year. This, of course, meant little to the average European peasant, who usually couldn’t afford meat anyway, and would be severely punished if caught poaching, and would be just as severely punished for fishing from a lord’s ponds, lakes, and rivers. And while town merchants and nobility kept the abstinence laws (violating them could get even a king sent to a Church court), their sumptuous, multi-course fish dinners hardly seem to have been in keeping with the penitential spirit the Church had in mind.
And there were always those who went looking for loopholes. Note, for example, the barnacle goose, often believed in the early medieval period either to have been spawned from barnacles (and was thus a shellfish and fine to eat on abstinence days), or to grow on trees (thus being a fruit and not a tasty meat). How many slackers actually tried to get away with that reasoning, I do not know.
And there were always exceptions—Christmas, when it fell on a Friday for example, or in the United States, some bishops often gave a dispensation for the Friday after Thanksgiving in light of the mountains of turkey leftovers, and most bishops will still give a dispensation to corned-beef-and-cabbage Catholics when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Lenten Friday. But for the most part, the rule held, and going meatless on Fridays was one of the most recognizable of Catholic practices.
In my own childhood, meatless Fridays meant a lot of tuna and grilled cheese sandwiches, pasta without meat sauce, and quite a bit of macaroni and cheese — a delicious meal I wouldn’t tolerate until I realized my mistake sometime in my adolescence. Sometimes my mom would make a great fish and chips, but fish like that wasn’t cheap, and we weren’t wealthy, so we didn’t have it very much.
Back then, 40 million American Catholics all abstaining from meat on Fridays had a major impact on the economy. Restaurants (for Catholics wealthy enough to eat in them) offered special Friday menu items, the few fast-food restaurants watched their sales plummet on Fridays (until the invention of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish®), and even sports franchises shared the pain — hot dog sales at Major League baseball games usually dropped by 40% or more on Fridays.
I can imagine the vice-president of food sales at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park throwing up his hands in frustration and crying out, “If only there was a fish hot dog!” And then, suddenly in 1957, there was. An enterprising Catholic businessman named William Lane introduced America to the tunie.
The tunie was, as its name suggests, a hot dog made out of tuna fish, processed carefully to remove any oily fish taste from it. It came packed in a can like sardines, and many Catholics saw it as an answer to a prayer. Catholic Digest introduced its readers to the tunie in the December 1958 issue and noted that the editorial team especially welcomed it and had been hoping for such a product because of the mistake they had made with their Fourth of July cover six years before. (Editors never get over their mistakes).
If you ever had a tunie, I’d love to hear from you. The few people I’ve encountered who remember them say they were ghastly — making kids dream of fish sticks and definitely putting the penance back in penitential Fridays. Although Lane’s company was producing 26 tons of tunies a day at the time of the Catholic Digest article, it didn’t last. And thus we never got to savor the new products the company was working on: the mar-tuni: cocktail-size tunies packed in glass jars and sold in liquor stores; the sea-lomi: a bologna-size loaf that failed to sell—but the company had plans to reintroduce it as a “meatloaf” in a can; and a Vienna sausage-sized tunie, probably great for grilling. Today we have tofu dogs and other vegetarian substitutes, but if anyone is still making tuna hot dogs, it’s probably a little specialty shop business.
The tunie has gone, and so, for the most part, have meatless Fridays for Catholics. Pope Paul VI kept the discipline only for Lent, and left the rest of it up to the conferences of bishops. The U.S. bishops kept Friday year-round as a penitential day but only recommended abstaining from meat on the Fridays outside of Lent. If someone wanted to substitute a different penitential discipline, they were free to do so. Whatever the bishops meant, it was taken as a sign that the discipline was removed, and meatless Fridays went the way of women covering their heads in church, and almost as fast.
When a discipline as longstanding as meatless Fridays disappears as quickly as this did, one has to wonder how firmly the spirit of the discipline, and the reasons for it, had rooted themselves in the American Catholic soul. When the rule was relaxed, all those adults who had grown up in the pre-Vatican II Church — and who, many people tell us, got such a solid grounding in their faith (before Vatican II allegedly — in some people’s estimation — turned religious education into 40 years of parties and balloons), suddenly failed either to understand the need for penitential practices in their lives or failed to see much value in the connection between Friday and Sunday, between penance and salvation, and took the small change in Church regulation as an opportunity to ditch the whole thing. Maybe they were tired of the Church telling them what to do all the time, and they never really received the solid catechetical help they needed to understand why it was important to do it.
Earlier this year, the bishops of England and Wales strove to bring back Friday abstinence year ’round. I wish them luck. Catholics — led by the generation formed in the time before Vatican II — have had 40 years of deciding which rules they’ll follow and which they’ll ignore, the Church’s moral authority appears a lot weaker to the average Catholic than it did in the 1950s, and fewer people can be scared by the threat of hell these days.
And yet there is great value in developing a rhythm in the week with a stronger connection between Friday and Sunday, and surely there is no one on this Earth who wouldn’t benefit from practicing penitential acts at least one day a week. Abstaining from meat, and eating simply on Friday, could be connected more strongly to action for the poor and for our planet. There is also a profound value, as many have pointed out, in having signs and activities shared by Catholics everywhere. Other than the Mass, we’re a bit short these days on these common activities — the ones that signify who we are and set us apart in some way with our own identity. This is becoming increasingly important as social scientists keep documenting the growing fragmentation in American society, which extends even to our religious practices. George Barna, who studies trends in American religions, recently told USA Today that religion in the United States is becoming increasingly personal, with people drifting around until they find something that works for them, or they borrow a little from this tradition and a little from that one, in a “New Age” sort of way. Either way, he said, we are on our way to becoming a country “of 310 million people with 310 million religions.”
The Mass, and the sacraments, of course, will always be the forces most strongly working to keep that from happening among Catholics. But the sacraments are not meant to carry the whole burden of our common identity. With Catholics apparently as susceptible to fragmentation as anyone else, finding ways to reinforce our common story, heritage, and identity would seem to be increasingly important.
And a little penance couldn’t hurt.
But hold the tunies.