The season of Lent is penitential in character and includes fasting and abstinence. Blessed Paul VI teaches in his apostolic constitution Paenitemini that “by divine law all the faithful are required to do penance” (Chapter III, I., 1).
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
14 February 2018
In the U.S., Catholics are bound by the law of the Church to exercise the Lenten disciplines of fasting and abstinence from meat during the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from flesh meat on all Fridays during Lent.
How are these laws defined and how are they applied?
Paenitemini set the age of fasting to begin at the 21st year. However, this rule was amended by the U.S. bishops in 1984 to read “… the age of fasting is from the completion of the eighteenth year to the beginning of the sixtieth in accord with canon 97.” Canon 97 notes that a “person who has completed the eighteenth year of age has reached majority.”
Latin-rite Catholics who have reached the age of 18 up to the beginning of their 60th year are bound by law to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion.
How is fasting defined?
“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).
Sometimes it is said that fasting is defined as taking one full meal and two lesser meals which cannot add up to one full meal. However, Paenitemini defines fasting as taking one full meal a day, allowing for some additional food to be consumed two other times that same day, in the morning and in the evening. There’s no requirement stipulating that the two additional allowed servings cannot together add up to one full meal. As the apologist Jimmy Akin points out on his blog, the “Church’s official document governing the practice of fasting does not encourage scrupulous calculations about how much the two instances of ‘some food’ add up to, though obviously each individually is less than a full meal, since only one of those is allowed.”
So, fasting is defined as eating only one full meal each day. Taking some additional food in the morning and evening is allowed. Liquids are allowed at any time, such as juice, coffee, tea or milk. Remember, both fasting and abstinence are required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which means the food allowed on those days must be meatless.
Abstinence from flesh meat:
Latin-rite Catholics age 14 and above are bound to abstain from flesh meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all other Fridays during Lent. If a solemnity happens to fall on a Friday during Lent, abstinence is not required on that day. Notice there is no upper age limit on the requirement to abstain from meat.
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.
Paenitemini states: “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.
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.