Fasting and Abstinence. Are they important? Are they necessary? The Church, as a caring mother, is providing us a specific means and season for completing acts of penance, such as fasting and abstinence. Her goal is to see to it that her children attain eternal life. Her precept on fasting, then, is for our spiritual benefit.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
In parts 1 and 2, we began to explore the Lenten disciplines of fasting and abstinence. We gave a basic definition of what these practices are, and we talked about why fasting is spiritually important. We discussed its benefits and we talked about the origin of the forty-days of Lent in our Lord’s journey into the desert. We also briefly looked at the history of fasting in the ancient Church. In this post and its associated video, we’re going to learn about the Church’s laws on fasting and abstinence as they exist for Catholics today.
Fasting is listed as the fourth precept of the Church, which states: “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” (CCC 2043). This means that Catholics are under grave obligation to substantially observe these laws. As we discussed in the last video, Christians are required by divine law to do penance for their sins—penance is not optional.
The Church, as a caring mother, is providing us a specific means and season for completing acts of penance. Her goal is to see to it that her children attain eternal life. Her precept on fasting, then, is for our spiritual benefit. Catholics who intentionally neglect and/or reject all forms of penance violate divine law and thus would be guilty of grave sin. Grave sin committed with full knowledge and full consent is by definition mortal sin and thus places a soul in peril (CCC 1857).
Because the season of Lent is of penitential character, the Church sets forth the days of penance as Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. Catholics are obliged to both fast and abstain from flesh meat on Ash Wednesday and Friday of the Lord’s Passion and abstain from flesh meat on all other Fridays during Lent. These requirements are binding on Catholics of the following age ranges:
Latin Rite Catholics from age 18 up through to the beginning of their 60th year (their 59th birthday) are required to fast, unless they have a serious reason for not doing so. According to Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Paenitemini:
The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom.Paenitemini, ch. III., III., 2
It’s often thought that a person can have one full meal and two “lesser meals” that cannot add up to a full meal. But Paenitemini doesn’t require us to weigh up food to make sure it doesn’t equate to a full meal. The point is, only one full meal is allowed, and one can take some food two other times on that day. Liquids such as juice, coffee, tea, or milk do not technically violate the fast, although refraining from ingesting any animal products such as milk is virtuous.
Latin Rite Catholics who have reached age 14 are required to abstain from flesh meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. If a solemnity happens to fall on a Friday, abstinence is not required on that day. Notice there is no upper age limit on the requirement to abstain.
How is flesh meat defined? The U.S. bishops document, “Questions and Answers About Lent and Lenten Practices” states:
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, consommé, 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 (except foods such as gelatin, butter, cheese and eggs, which do not have any meat taste). Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.
Paul VI states in Paenitemini:
The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat” (III., 1).
Who is exempted from fasting and abstinence laws? “Questions and Answers About Lent and Lenten Practices” states:
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.
One question that often comes up, is whether Catholics are required to abstain from flesh meat on all Fridays throughout the year. It should be noted, all Fridays remain a day of penance since on that day we remember Christ’s saving death. The US bishops urge Catholics to engage in some form of suitable penance on all Friday’s throughout the year. This is done to join with Christ in his suffering passion that we may be one day glorified with him. Although abstinence from flesh meat is not binding on Fridays outside of Lent under pain of sin, it holds primacy of place (“Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence”).
I think you’ll agree, in learning about the Church’s laws on fasting and abstinence it becomes clear she indeed acts as a mother who takes us by the hand and guides us toward salvation in Christ. The Church’s precepts on fasting and abstinence are reasonable, biblically based, and spiritually beneficial. In these acts of penance, we not only help to atone for our sins but build self-mastery, a virtue which is of enormous benefit even in our life this side of heaven.
Abstinence: in reference to penance and Lent, refraining from eating the flesh-meat of warm-blooded land animals, including birds. Examples: beef, sheep, pork, chicken, and other fowl. Fish, cold-blooded animals (reptiles) and shellfish are permitted. Eggs, milk products, and condiments made from animal fat are permitted. Abstinence is required on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent.
Ash Wednesday: marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Fasting and abstinence required.
Fasting: for spiritual purposes and the season of Lent, defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as taking only one full meal a day (ST, II-II, q. 147, a. 6). There is a distinction to be made between fasting for physical reasons in contrast to spiritual reasons. If one intends to fast purely for physical benefits, then spiritual benefits remain unobtained.
Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday): The Friday of Holy Week making up one of the three days of the Triduum. The Friday prior to Holy Saturday. Fasting and abstinence required.
Fridays During Lent: Abstinence required.
References and sources:
On the nature and duration of fasting in the early Church, St. Athanasius and the historian Socrates, see the Catholic Encyclopedia: Thurston, Herbert. “Lent.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 2 Mar. 2020 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm>.
USCCB. “Canon 1253 0 Observance of Fast and Abstinence.” http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/canon-law/complementary-norms/canons-1252-and-1253-observance-of-fast-and-abstinence.cfm
USCCB. “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence.” http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/us-bishops-pastoral-statement-on-penance-and-abstinence.cfm
USCCB. “Questions and Answers About Lent and Lenten Practices.” http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/questions-and-answers-about-lent.cfm
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition.
The seasons of penance: “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice.These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)” (CCC 1438).
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, available on newadvent.org
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.