We about to begin Lent, with Ash Wednesday Next Week. During this time of Lent I have been asked a few times if I could write something about Fasting and Abstinence, two important topics in the Christian life.
Fasting and abstinence are two different things. For Roman Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one's intake of food to one full meal a day. This may or may not be accompanied by abstinence from meat when eating. The reason for these practices is that the 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 corporate. The purpose of fasting is spiritual focus, self discipline, imitation of Christ, and performing penance; it in no way stems from a concept that the material world is in some sense evil.
The practices of Fasting and Abstinence have been understood in different ways through history; at some point the regulations of Lenten fasting and abstinence were once quite strict, neither meat nor animal products (such as dairy and eggs) were to be eaten throughout the forty days, and only one meal per day was allowed. The restrictions were for every day of Lent, except Sundays, which were a day to relax from fasting. Today, the regulations are not as prohibitive.
Abstinence The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honour of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Moral theologians have traditionally considered this also to forbid soups or gravies made from them. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted, as are animal derived products such as margarine and gelatine which do not have any meat taste.
On the Fridays outside of Lent, local bishops’ conferences may obtain permission of the Holy See for Catholics to substitute a penitential, or even a charitable, practice of their own choosing. Since this was not stated as binding under pain of sin, not to do so on a single occasion would not in itself be sinful. For most people the easiest way to consistently fulfil this command is the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year which are not liturgical solemnities. When solemnities, such as the Annunciation, Assumption, All Saints etc. fall on a Friday, we neither abstain or fast.
During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory, and it is sinful not to observe this discipline without a serious reason (physical labor, pregnancy, sickness etc.).
Fasting The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity.
fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance.
Those who are excused from fast or abstinence Besides those outside the age limits, those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment,?manual labourers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offence or causing enmity and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.
Aside from these minimum penitential requirements Catholics are encouraged to impose some personal penance on themselves at other times. It could be modelled after abstinence and fasting. A person could, for example, multiply the number of days they abstain. Some people give up meat entirely for religious motives (as opposed to those who give it up for health or other motives). Some religious orders, as a penance, never eat meat. Similarly, one could multiply the number of days that one fasted. The early Church had a practice of a Wednesday and Saturday fast. This fast could be the same as the Church's law (one main meal and two smaller ones) or stricter, even bread and water. Such freely chosen fasting could also consist in giving up something one enjoys - candy, soft drinks, smoking, that cocktail before supper, and so on. This is left to the individual.
I hope this small article clarifies a bit the questions and concerns of some of you. If you want to read what Cannon Law says about the issue I encourage you to read cannons 1250 to 1253 and you can also read the Apostolic Constitution on Penance Paenitemini by Pope Paul VI.
Peace in Jesus