I’ve been meaning to post on this ever since a good friend of mine brought it to my attention at work several weeks ago. Many of you may be familiar with the large capybara of South America. This animal is a member of the Order Rodentia – the same order to which mice, rats, field voles and squirrels belong – it’s just that capybara’s are a whole lot bigger. Most weigh in at over 100 pounds. Even the most taxonomically challenged would not have a difficult time concluding that this thing is a mammal (although I doubt many would immediately recognize it as a ROUS (Rodent Of Unusual Size – yes, I saw the Princess Bride). However, it turns out that the Catholic Church, through a twist of theological reasoning, proclaimed the capybara to be a fish. Yes, you heard correctly…during all those years of Lenten Fridays, while most of us were suffering through fried patties of cod, halibut or orange roughy in recognition of “meatless” observances, those in South America were happily consuming vast quantities of mammal meat, with the full blessing of the Church. Now, I do not begrudge my South American brothers and sisters the redness of their Lenten meat. I happen to love fish (although there are few who can butcher a fish meal better than a Catholic during Lent!). Nor, in all fairness, do I mock the Catholic Church over this. The proclamation was made during the 15th century, when Catholic officials in charge of such matters as meat taxonomy had little or nothing to go on other than local descriptions of the capybara – which pretty much amounted to “it’s mostly found it water”. No, I cannot mock a decision made half a century ago.
What I can mock them for is that, in 500 years since the decision (and 250 years since Linnaeus!) they haven’t changed their classification!!! The Catholic Church still considers capybara to be a fish.
The reasons for this seem to be clear. South America is loaded with Catholics who have a long tradition of eating capybara meat on Lenten Fridays (among others). In the interest of maintaining a large number of souls under the Catholic umbrella (and reais, pesos and bolivars in the collection basket!) I can understand why the Church would be so reluctant to accept modern science and maintain theological consistency. But if Catholic theology can be so easily morphed to accommodate the acquisition of political power (which is what a lot of souls ultimately buys you), then why should any Catholic Church (or any other for that matter) proclamation be considered something more than a contingency of values, as subject to the vagaries of political will as genetic variation is to the forces of natural selection?
Were this an isolated case, it might be considered something of an anomaly, but apparently the Catholic Church also considers sea turtles to be fish (and not reptiles). Local consumption of turtle meat along the Mexican coast, particularly during Lent, has compounded efforts to save these endangered animals. Conservationists and concerned fishermen pleaded with the Pope to repeal the declaration that sea turtles are fish in an effort to stem the tide of slaughter during Christianity’s Holy Week. (This was in 2002 and I can find no record of the Pope actually complying in an effort to help conservation efforts). Again, the issue appears to be a Vatican more concerned with stemming the tide of deserters than maintaining a consistent theology. This tells me that theological rules are made to be broken (or at least, never corrected)…but such is the nature of religion.