Fasting: What the Church Actually Requires Will Probably Surprise You

Imagine you are a patient suffering from a physical ailment. Your doctor prescribes a medication to you. He explains that the minimum required dosage is two pills, but he recommends taking much more than that for full effectiveness. Moreover, he also says that for the medication to have any effect at all, it needs to be accompanied by exercise and a healthy diet.

The pills taste bad, and they are a little hard to swallow. So you only take the minimum required dosage. And while you know you should exercise and eat healthy, you just can’t find time for that in your schedule.

Would you really expect to see a major improvement in your health on this regimen? No.

Nevertheless, this is exactly how most Catholics today approach their spiritual health when it comes to fasting. And lest someone accuse me of being “holier-than-thou,” I admit that I also fail consistently in this regard.

We are the patients, only our ailment is spiritual, not physical. The Church is our doctor. She prescribes fasting for us. She sets a minimum required “dosage,” but recommends a much higher amount. She instructs us that for our fasting to be beneficial, it must be accompanied by prayer and acts of charity. Far too many Catholics today — even faithful, devout Catholics —perform only the minimum required amount of fasting and neglect the other necessary components of penance. And then we feel frustrated when it doesn’t seem that our fasting is doing us any spiritual good.

I’d like to think that the prime reason for this systematic neglect of the Church’s recommendations for fasting is ignorance. Systematically, we have done a poor job educating the faithful when it comes to fasting and other recommended penance. So let’s examine what the Church has to teach us. What you learn may surprise you.

The Common Perception

The common perception of most practicing American Catholics today regarding fasting and abstinence is as follows:

  • We are required to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.
  • We are required to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
  • When fasting, we are allowed “one full meal and two smaller meals which together do not equal one full meal.”
  • Most Catholics also choose to “give up” something during Lent, such as dessert, alcohol, coffee — or even Facebook or Netflix.

Beyond this Lenten observance, most Catholics don’t give fasting or abstinence much thought the rest of the year.

But is this accurate?

What Canon Law Says

To ascertain what the Church actually requires of the faithful when it comes to penance and fasting, the most logical first place to look is Canon Law. Our current Canon Law was promulgated in 1983. The applicable laws are found in canons 1249–1253. They are not long, so I’ll replicate them in full here. I should point out that I am not a canon lawyer; however this is not a complex subject and we will only be dealing with the straightforward and plain meaning of the text.

Can. 1249 — ”The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.”

This canon lays out some general principles relating to penance. It tells us that the Christian faithful are bound by divine law generally to do penance (meaning the law comes from God, not man). It points out that having certain penitential days in common fosters Christian unity. And it gives some examples of how penance might be done: prayer, works of piety, works of charity, self-denial, and “especially by observing fast and abstinence.

Can. 1250  ”The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.”

This canon defines the prescribed days of penance to be observed in common that canon 1249 mentioned. They are the season of Lent and every Friday of the whole year (not just the Fridays in Lent).

Can. 1251 —” Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Note that this canon tells us that abstinence from meat should be observed on all Fridays throughout the year unless they happen to be Solemnities (the highest form of feast day). This particular law has been amended in many countries, including the United States, as we will see below.

Can. 1252 — ”All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.”

This canon tells us who is bound by the law of abstinence, namely those age 14 and over. All “adults” are bound by fasting laws until they reach the age of 60. For the purposes of canon law, you are an adult when you turn 18 (can. 97).

Can. 1253 — ”It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.”

This final canon allows for conferences of bishops to stipulate the type of fasting and abstinence and even make substitutions if deemed appropriate. In fact, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops did issue a complementary norm to Canon 1253 on Feb. 29, 1984, which stated the following:

  • The laws of fasting bind those ages 18 to 59.
  • The norms of penitential observance promulgated by the US bishops on Nov. 18, 1966, remain in effect.

The “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence”

The 1966 document cited above is entitled the Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence and is where we will look next to identify particular requirements and recommendations regarding fasting and penance to be observed by Catholics in the United States. Rather than quoting lengthy portions, I will only give bullet points below. I encourage you to read the whole document for yourself. Here are some highlights.

Regarding the season of Lent:

  • Lent is “the principal season of penance in the Christian year” (para. 11).
  • The obligation to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is binding (para. 12).
  • Abstinence from meat on Fridays during Lent is to be preserved (para. 13).
  • “For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting”(para. 14).

Regarding Fridays during the year:

  • “Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year” (para. 22).
  • “Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year” and the faithful should “freely” make every Friday a day of “self-denial and mortification” (para. 23).
  • “[T]he traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday” is terminated (para. 24).
  • Still, the practice of abstinence from meat is “especially commended” — “we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law” (para. 24).
  • Paragraphs 26 & 27 offer some examples of other forms of penance, self-denial and charity that might be practiced on Fridays instead of or in addition to abstinence from meat, such as abstinence from alcohol or visiting the sick.

The Pastoral Statement makes it clear that the rationale behind the decision to remove the requirement of abstinence on Fridays of the year was not to dissuade people of the practice, but to allow them to practice this or other forms of penance with greater freedom. We can say with hindsight that this is not what happened. The practice of keeping Friday as a day of penance has all but vanished in the Catholic Church in America since 1966. Nevertheless, this was the stated intent.

Also, note the special recommendation of fasting on all weekdays of Lent. We’ll return to that in a moment.

Paenitemini: Apostolic Constitution on Fasting and Abstinence

There is one other major document we must look at when it comes to regulations regarding the practices of fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church, and that is Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini.

An Apostolic Constitution is commonly used to legislate and Paenitemini is the most recent papal legislation regarding fasting. You will find the legislation from this decree reflected in current Canon Law, but there is one passage in particular in Paenitemini that deserves a closer look.

“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 III, 2).

It is noteworthy that the oft-repeated phrase, “one full meal and two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal” is to be found neither in Canon Law nor in the Pastoral Norms issued by the US bishops. Yet it is repeated on the USCCB web site and many other Catholic Lenten guides. This is its origin. And the slightly different wording is noteworthy.

Paul VI says that “the law of fasting allows only one full meal a day.” But he also says that this “does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening.” Given the fact that only one full meal is permitted while fasting, the “some food” Paul VI mentions could not itself be equivalent to a meal. Hence the oft-repeated formula of “two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.”

It seems to me that while these statements are two ways of saying the same thing, the difference in phrasing gives a significantly different impression to the reader. “One full meal and two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal,” implies that fasting can be as easy as eating half your normal breakfast, half your normal lunch, and a full dinner. Most people wouldn’t consider that “fasting.” That’s just eating slightly less than usual.

Paul VI’s original statement makes it clear that one meal a day is the norm when fasting. However, this does not absolutely prohibit taking other food, if needed. The way I read it — and this is only my informed opinion — is that if you need to take some additional food while fasting to maintain your health, you should feel free to do so without scrupulously worrying about breaking your fast. No special dispensation is required. It is up to the discretion of the individual.

To some this may seem lax: Can’t Catholics get through just two days a year — not even back-to-back — without eating three time a day!? But when you consider that the recommended practice is to fast on all weekdays during Lent, as cited above, this flexibility around taking additional food seems very prudent.

In Conclusion: What’s Really Required vs. Recommended

When one considers that our model for fasting is Jesus Christ, who fasted for forty days in the desert, the bare minimum required by Church law is not very strict at all. But it is not anticipated that Catholics limit themselves to the bare minimum. The expectation is that we would voluntarily do much more. Perhaps it is time for us to look beyond what is minimally required and seek instead to do what is actually recommended by holy mother Church.

To sum up what we have learned…

What is required:

  • All the Christian faithful must do penance, generally.
  • We must observe penance particularly during the season of Lent and on all Fridays during the year (except for Solemnities).
  • On penitential days we are to engage in prayer, acts of charity, and self denial.
  • Catholics age 14 and over are required to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.
  • Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
  • Fasting allows for one full meal, though this does not prohibit taking other food if needed (provided it does not equal a full meal).

What is recommended:

  • Abstaining from meat on all Fridays of the year (except Solemnities).
  • Fasting on all weekdays of Lent (a weekday in church parlance being any day other than Sunday).
  • While you may eat more than one meal while fasting, view this as the exception, not the norm. Limit yourself to one meal unless prudential concern for health requires otherwise.
  • Accompany your fasting with prayer and works of charity.

Given the current requirements, you can get by with very little actual fasting in the modern Church without being sinfully negligent. But is the goal of our fasting merely to avoid sin, or is it to grow in grace?

My belief is that if we strive to follow the Church’s recommended practices of fasting and abstinence — as much as our health and station in life allow— and vigilantly combine our fasting with prayer and works of charity, that we will better model Christ, and experience much more spiritual growth.

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