Fasting and abstinence in the Roman Catholic Church

By | October 10, 2019

The Catholic Church historically
observes the discipline of fasting or abstinence at various times each year.
For Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one’s intake of food, while
abstinence refers to refraining from meat. The Catholic Church teaches that
all people are obliged by God to perform some penance for their sins, and that
these acts of penance are both personal and corporeal. The purpose of fasting is
spiritual focus, self-discipline, imitation of Christ, and performing
penance. Contemporary Vatican legislation, which
is followed by Catholics of the Latin Rite is rooted in the 1966 Apostolic
Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, and codified in the 1983
Code of Canon Law. According to Paenitemini and the 1983 Code of Canon
Law, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, both abstinence and fasting are required
of Catholics who are not exempted for various reasons. All Fridays of the year
are days of penance. All persons who are fourteen years old and older are bound
by the law of abstinence on all Fridays that are not Solemnities. Nevertheless,
both Paenitemini and the 1983 Code of Canon Law permitted the Episcopal
Conferences to propose adjustments of the laws on fasting and abstinence for
their home territories, and most have done so. For example, in some countries,
the Bishops’ Conferences have obtained from Rome the substitution of pious or
charitable acts for abstinence from meat on all Fridays of the year except Good
Friday. Others continue to abstain from eating meat on Lenten Fridays, but not
on Fridays outside of Lent. Still others voluntarily abstain from meat on Fridays
throughout the year. Members of the Eastern Catholic Churches
are obliged to follow the discipline of their own particular church. While some
Eastern Catholics try to follow the stricter rules of their Orthodox
counterparts, the actual canonical obligations of Eastern Catholics to fast
and abstain are usually much more lenient than those of the Orthodox. It
is presumed that the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter
will assume the discipline of Friday abstinence as conceived in the Book of
Common Prayer. Early Prayer Books set out rules that were in-line with the
Sarum Rite of the time, where most days prior to Solemnities and Feasts were
delegated as “days of abstinence” along with the Rogation Days. The eating of
fish on these days is generally ruled out within the English Patrimony of the
Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter.
The Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays popularized the Friday
fish fry. Western practice
=History=Rules relating to fasting pertain to the
quantity of food allowed on days of fasting, while those regulating
abstinence refer to the quality or type of food. The Christian tradition of
fasts and abstinence developed from Old Testament practices, and were an
integral part of the early church community. Louis Duchesne observed that
Monday and Thursday were days of fasting among pious Jews. Early Christians
practiced regular weekly fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Lent The habit of fasting before Easter
developed gradually, and with considerable diversity of practice
regarding duration. As late as the latter part of the second century there
were differing opinions not only regarding the manner of the paschal
fast, but also the proper time for keeping Easter. In 331 St. Athanasius
enjoined upon his flock a period of forty days of fasting preliminary to,
but not inclusive of, the stricter fast of Holy Week, and in 339, after having
traveled to Rome and over the greater part of Europe, wrote in the strongest
terms to urge this observance upon the people of Alexandria as one that was
universally practiced, “to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who
are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do
not fast but take our pleasure in those days”.
In the time of Gregory the Great there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six
days each, making thirty-six fast days in all, which St. Gregory, who is
followed therein by many medieval writers, describes as the spiritual
tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of
three hundred and sixty-five. At a later date the wish to realize the exact
number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent on Ash Wednesday.
The ordinary rule on fasting days was to take but one meal a day and that only in
the evening, while meat and, in the early centuries, wine were entirely
forbidden. These days were at one time observed
with a Black Fast of strictly no more than one meal, without meat, dairy, oil,
or wine. In the 10th century the custom of taking the only meal of the day at
three o’clock was introduced. In the 14th century the meal was allowed at
mid-day, and soon the practice of an evening collation became common. A
morning collation was introduced in the early 19th century.
In the early 20th century, Church law prescribed fasting throughout Lent, with
abstinence only on Friday and Saturday. Some countries received dispensations:
Rome in 1918 allowed the bishops of Ireland to transfer the Saturday
obligation to Wednesday; in the United States, abstinence was not required on
Saturday. The other weekdays were simply days of “fasting without abstinence.” A
similar practice was called “partial abstinence”, which allowed meat only
once during the day at the main meal. The countries of the former Spanish
empire also had their own extensive dispensations from the Roman rules of
fasting and abstinence, based on the “Crusader privileges” of the Spanish
dominions as codified in the Bull of the Crusade. In some European colonies, the
obligation to fast and abstain differed by race, with natives often having more
lenient rules than Europeans or mestizos.
While the rules of abstinence generally only allow seafood, there are a few
exceptions. In parts of South America, especially in Venezuela, Capybara meat
is popular during Lent and Holy Week; in response to a question posed by French
settlers in Quebec in the 17th century, beaver was classified as an exception;
and the Archbishop of New Orleans said that “alligator is considered in the
fish family” in 2010. The legal basis for the classification of beaver as fish
probably rests with the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, which bases animal
classification as much on habit as anatomy.
Besides Lent, there were other penitential times customarily
accompanied by fasting or abstinence. These included Advent, the Ember Days,
the Rogation Days, Fridays throughout the year, and vigils of important feast
days. Advent is considered a time of special
self-examination, humility, and spiritual preparation in anticipation of
the birth of Christ. Fridays and Saturdays in Advent were days of
abstinence, and until early in the 20th century, the Fridays of Advent were also
days of fasting. The vigils observed included the
Saturday before Pentecost, October 31, December 24, December 7 and August 14.
These vigils all required fasting; some also required abstinence. If any of
these fell on a Sunday, the vigil, but not the obligation of fasting, was moved
to the Saturday before. By 1959 in the United States, the fast for the vigil of
Christmas was moved to December 23. Ember days occurred four times a year.
The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the ember week were days of fast and
abstinence, though the Wednesday and Saturday were often only days of partial
abstinence. In addition, Roman Catholics were required to abstain from meat on
all other Fridays, unless the Friday coincided with a holy day of obligation.
The former regulations on abstinence obliged Roman Catholics starting as
young as age seven, but there were many exceptions. Large classes of people were
considered exempt from fasting and abstinence, not only the sick and those
with physically demanding jobs, but also people traveling and students. The
regulations were adapted to each nation, and so in most dioceses in America
abstinence from meat was not required on the Friday after Thanksgiving, to
accommodate any meat left over from that US national holiday.
On the eve of Vatican II, fasting and abstinence requirements in numerous
Catholic countries were already greatly relaxed compared to the beginning of the
20th century, with fasting often reduced to just 4 days of the year.
There has always been a close connection between fasting and almsgiving; the
money saved on food should be given to the poor.
=Contemporary application=Contemporary legislation is rooted in
the 1966 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini. He recommended
that fasting be appropriate to the local economic situation, and that all
Catholics voluntarily fast and abstain. He also allowed that fasting and
abstinence might be substituted with prayer and works of charity, although
the norms for doing so were to be set down by the Episcopal Conferences.
Current practice of fast and abstinence is regulated by Canons 1250–1253 of the
1983 code. They specify that all Fridays throughout the year, and the time of
Lent are penitential times throughout the entire Church. All adults are bound
by law to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until the beginning of their
sixtieth year. All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are
bound by the law of abstinence on all Fridays unless they are solemnities, and
again on Ash Wednesday; but in practice this requirement has been greatly
reduced by the Episcopal Conferences because under Canon 1253, it is these
Conferences that have the authority to set down the local norms for fasting and
abstinence in their territories. Absent any specification of the nature
of “fasting” in the current Canon Law, the traditional definition is obviously
applicable here which is that on the days of mandatory fasting, Catholics may
eat only one full meal during the day. Additionally, they may eat up to two
small meals or snacks, known as “collations”. Church requirements on
fasting only relate to solid food, not to drink, so Church law does not
restrict the amount of water or other beverages – even alcoholic drinks –
which may be consumed. In some Western countries, Catholics
have been encouraged to adopt non-dietary forms of abstinence during
Lent. For example, in 2009 Monsignor Benito Cocchi, Bishop of Modena, urged
young Catholics to give up text messaging for Lent.
Canada The Canadian Conference of Catholic
Bishops decrees that the days of fast and abstinence in Canada are Ash
Wednesday and Good Friday, and specifies that Fridays are days of abstinence.
This includes all Fridays year round, not just Fridays of Lent. Catholics,
however, can substitute special acts of charity or piety on these days.
England and Wales Current norms for England and Wales,
issued by the Bishops’ Conference in May 2011, re-introduced the expectation that
all Catholics able to do so should abstain from meat on all Fridays of the
year, effective Friday, September 16, 2011. Some Australian bishops have
expressed interest in following suit. Ireland
On 25 November 2010 the Irish Bishops’ Conference published the resource
leaflet Friday Penance. It followed from the March 2010 Pastoral Letter to the
Catholics of Ireland from Pope Benedict XVI suggesting initiatives to support
renewal in the Church in Ireland. He asked that Irish Catholics offer their
Friday Penances “for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts
of holiness and strength,” and that fasting, prayer, reading of Scripture
and works of mercy be offered in order to obtain healing and renewal for the
Church in Ireland. The leaflet states that Penance “arises
from the Lord’s call to conversion and repentance” and describes that it is an
“essential part of all genuine Christian living”:
in memory of the passion and death of the Lord
as a sharing in Christ’s suffering as an expression of inner conversion
as a form of reparation for sin Friday Penance also explains why penance
is important: “Declaring some days throughout the year as days of fast and
abstinence is meant to intensify penances of the Christian. Lent is the
traditional season for renewal and penance but Catholics also observe each
Friday of the year as days of penance. The link between Friday and penance is
extremely ancient and is even reflected in the Irish language word for Friday:
An Aoine.” The leaflet suggests ways of fulfilling
Friday penance such as abstaining from meat or alcohol, visiting the Blessed
Sacrament or helping the poor, sick and lonely as well as other suggestions.
United States The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
produced a statement in 1966 called Pastoral Statement on Penance and
Abstinence, which was modified slightly in 1983.
These statements mean, according to Richert:
In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has
declared that “the age of fasting is from the completion of the eighteenth
year to the beginning of the sixtieth.” The USCCB also allows the substitution
of some other form of penance for abstinence on all of the Fridays of the
year, except for those Fridays in Lent. Thus, the rules for fasting and
abstinence in the United States are: Every person 14 years of age or older
must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of
Lent. Every person between the age of 18 and
59 must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat on all other
Fridays of the year, unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance
for abstinence. According to the USCCB:
Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens,
cows, sheep or pigs — all of which live on land. Birds are also considered
meat. Abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat.
Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with
meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from
animal fat are technically not forbidden. However, moral theologians
have traditionally taught that we should abstain from all animal-derived
products. Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species
of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and shellfish are permitted.
Because of this, some Catholic parishes in the United States sponsor a fish fry
during Lent. In predominantly Roman Catholic areas, restaurants may adjust
their menus during Lent by adding seafood items to the menu in an attempt
to appeal to Roman Catholics. However, the same USCCB website says that:
While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not considered meat and can be
consumed on days of abstinence, indulging in the lavish buffet at your
favorite seafood place sort of misses the point. Abstaining from meat and
other indulgences during Lent is a penitential practice.
The USCCB also states that: Those that are excused from fast and
abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill
including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also
excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should
prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by
fasting. In 2010, Archbishop of New Orleans
Gregory Michael Aymond clarified that alligator is also considered seafood,
saying “Yes, the alligator’s considered in the fish family, and I agree with you
— God has created a magnificent creature that is important to the state of
Louisiana, and it is considered seafood.” This was in response to a
letter from a local alligator wrangler. Eastern practice
To fast customarily means to only eat one meal during the day, and to avoid
animal products. Fasting is viewed as one part of repentance and supporting a
spiritual change of heart. Eastern Christians observe two major times of
fasting, the “Great Fast” before Easter, and “Phillip’s Fast” before the
Nativity. During the Great Fast, meat, eggs, dairy
products, fish and oil are avoided. The fast period before Christmas is
called “Philip’s Fast” because it begins after the feast day of St. Philip.
Specific practices vary, but on some days during the week meat, dairy
products and oil are avoided, while on other days there is no restriction.
During approximately the last week before the Nativity, typically meat,
dairy, eggs and oil are avoided on all days, meals are moderate in quantity,
and no food is taken between meals. Eucharistic Fast
In addition to the fasts mentioned above, Roman Catholics must also observe
the Eucharistic Fast, which involves taking nothing but water and medicines
into the body for some time before receiving the Eucharist. The earliest
recorded regular practice was to eat at home before the Lord’s Supper if one was
hungry. The next known ancient practice was to fast from midnight until Mass
that day. As Masses after noon and in the evening became common in the West,
this was soon modified to fasting for three hours. The latest Code of Canon
Law reduced the Eucharistic Fast to the current one hour requirement for the
Roman Rite. Particular law in some Eastern Catholic Churches also requires
a one-hour Eucharistic fast. See also
Christian vegetarianism Friday Fast
References Notes
Further reading JD O’Neill. “Fast”. Catholic
Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
Pope Paul VI.. “Paenitemini”. The Vatican.
External links Women for Faith & Family – includes
texts of Canon law Duffy, Eamon. “To Fast Again”, The
Tablet, January 31, 2004

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