Call it a Paddy pardon. Most Minnesota Catholics will be allowed to eat their corned beef or even a burger on St. Patrick's Day, thanks to bishops' rulings that they can opt out of their Friday fast.

Five of Minnesota's six bishops have declared that the day of shamrocks and revelry merits a special "dispensation" from no-meat mandate for Fridays during Lent.

It's for the "common spiritual good," the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis explained in its announcement.

While fish fry purveyors may not be thrilled, many area Catholics are relieved.

"I think it's a great idea, said Bryan Marshall, working the Church of St. Albert the Great's annual fish fry last week. "You get tired of eating fish six weeks in a row."

Catholics in the only diocese to ban the beef, New Ulm, aren't exactly dancing a jig.

"I'm sure there will be people not happy about this," said Mary O'Connor, a founder of the New Ulm St. Patrick's Day parade.

For centuries, Catholics were forbidden to eat meat every Friday of the year, an act of penance on the day of the week that marked Jesus' death. To bite a burger was a mortal sin, leading to eternal damnation unless confessed and absolved by a priest.

In 1966, individual bishops were given authority to decide the meat issue. Catholics now must refrain only during the Fridays of Lent, the six weeks leading to Easter. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the time, also recommended for Lent "all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of 'mortification.' "

Minnesota's dioceses are among those downsizing that "self-denial" this Friday, joining Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Boston and other cities with large numbers of Irish faithful in allowing revelers to enjoy their traditional St. Patrick's Day fare.

But Twin Cities Catholics are expected to perform some other act of penance or charity in exchange. As Archbishop Bernard Hebda said in the Catholic Spirit newspaper, "It's like a get-out-of-jail free card, but you have to pay sometime."

Other dioceses upped the sacrifice. In Madison, Wis., Catholics were urged to exercise "moderation and temperance in festivities." In Omaha, Catholics will be eating salmon on Saturday, as the fast was moved to March 18.

It can all lead to burning theological questions, such as: If you are from a beef-banning diocese, can you cross the border into another to eat Mulligan Stew? (Yes) Can you swap your meat abstinence for another Friday? (No) Can you parlay your eat-meat dispensation for something else? (No)

"Someone told me that she gave up Diet Coke for Lent, and wanted to know if she could get a dispensation for that instead," laughed the Rev. Kevin Kenney, the "100 percent Irish" pastor at Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Faribault.

No stop to fish fries

The Rev. Joe Gillespie, who runs one of the Twin Cities trendiest church fish fries at St. Albert the Great in south Minneapolis, was among local Irishmen who embraced the fish dispensation — even if it could take a bite out of his business.

It's not the first time the archdiocese has given a nod to its rich Irish heritage, he said. Former Archbishops Harry Flynn and John Roach did the same, he said.

Gillespie jokes that he's contemplating culinary strategies to take on the competition.

"I'm thinking of offering corned beef on a stick," said Gillespie, mingling with the crowd of fish lovers in his church basement last Friday. "Or maybe throw in a couple meatballs with the spaghetti."

Most of the Catholics downing St. Albert's classic fare of fish, fries and coleslaw said they believed giving a reprieve on St. Patrick's Day made sense.

"It's a pretty tough day not to have corned beef and cabbage," said Tom Kelly, of Minneapolis. "It's not fair to beat up on the Irish. They've had a tough time the way it is."

Some diners, however, considered it Catholic lite.

"I think it's catering to America's [need for] instant gratification," said Elizabeth Rosenwinkel, who said she gained an understanding of real sacrifice when she participated in a 40-day Ramadan fast. "I don't think we're asked to do enough the way it is."

Whether for or against, folks here weren't really sure why Catholics started this whole fish thing anyway. Two Lutheran converts were particularly baffled. The consensus: "It's like some sort of penance," said Donna Rayes, of St. Paul.

As Irish Catholics prepare for the feast of their patron saint Friday, many will set out their green attire, necklaces, pins and comfy shoes for walking in the St. Paul, Minneapolis or New Ulm parades. Family stoves will be heating corned beef and Irish stew.

But many Catholics won't be indulging. O'Connor, for example, is planning a tasty dinner of shrimp, walleye or crab. She explained: "You can still eat high off the hog — even if it's fish."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511