The capybara is my favorite animal, and not merely because they’re the only red meat you can eat on days of Lenten fast.
Well, that’s the legend at least. Supposedly, when the missionaries encountered the capybara in South America, they weren’t sure if it qualified as a mammal or a fish. It has webbed feet and can swim, you see, so we’re supposed to believe that men who knew perfectly well that a duck was not a fish, were confused about whether or not a hamster the size of a mastiff was a fish.
It sounds absurd, but it’s possible there’s more than mere legend behind it. At certain points in history, otters, beavers, and amphibians have been included among “fish” for the purpose of determining what could be eaten on days of fast. St. Thomas Aquinas explains why:
Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connexion with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since suchlike animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods. (ST 2–2: 147:8)
For the purpose of the fast, “meat” was considered the flesh of animals that breathed air and spent most of their time on land. St. Thomas also adds, in a response about milk and eggs, that “each person is bound to conform to that custom which is in vogue with those among whom he is dwelling.”
Supposedly, “The Vatican” declared capybara to be a fish, and never undeclared it, so it’s allowed to be eaten during Lenten fast.
There’s also a story that Bl. François de Laval, Bishop of Quebec, made a similar request about beavers in the 17th century. This one even includes details about de Laval writing to the theologians at the Sorbonne for an opinion.
Again, it’s a story that’s certainly repeated a lot, but is it true? The waters of Quebec were full of fish. Beavers created headaches for the bishop: the beaver hunt was distracting the flock and leading to the defrauding of Indians, who were plied with alcohol to give up their pelts. Would he have really been looking for loopholes in the fasting guidelines?
It’s certainly possible both stories are true. I just haven’t seen any documentary evidence for either. If you know of any, post in the comboxes.
Anyway, back to the capybara. I just love these weird rodents. They’re strange, cute, and, I understand, quite tasty. My family gave me a stuffed one which we named Captain Barry. I feed him a steady diet of FlufferNutella sandwiches and hugs.
So, on my Facebook page through Lent, I’ll be running The Daily Capybara. (Why yes, this is a naked attempt to drive up my Facebook page likes. Why do you ask?)
It’s like Cute Overload, only with edible giant rodents.