Why do we fast and abstain?
“Unless you do penance, you shall likewise perish.” (Lk. 13:5)
Because we are sinners, justice requires each of us to make recompense to God for the honor we have denied Him by our sins. Because we have misused our goods, our souls and bodies—as well as those of others—the natural law requires us to strive to restore the order we have disturbed by our sins. Thus, the Natural Law and the Divine Law bind us in a general way to perform acts of penance. In order to help us fulfill this requirement, Holy Mother Church, knowing our weakness and laziness, binds us under ecclesiastical laws to perform works of penance at certain times.
Throughout the centuries, these ecclesiastical laws have changed, sometimes becoming more strict, sometimes relaxing the discipline of penance. Regardless of changes to the Church laws, which exist to make our obedience to the natural and Divine laws of penance easier, the fundamental requirement remains: “Unless you do penance, you shall likewise perish.”
Considering the alternatives of unending bliss in heaven or unending misery in hell, and considering that the effects of original sin and of our own sins make us lazy and apt to forget our duty towards God, it seems much more reasonable to err on the side of too much penance, especially in times of relaxed Church discipline such as our own, rather than on the side of too little.
Only the Church can hold us guilty of mortal sin for failing in this or that specific act of penance, but we can certainly offend God mortally by neglecting penance completely over a length of time. This principle should be kept in mind when deciding on concrete penitential practices in accordance with the requirements and guidelines listed below. “Rules for penitential days under present Church law” details the bare minimum of penance which we must accomplish if we are to hope to stay out of mortal sin.
Nevertheless, we will easily fall into mortal sin if we confine our entire penance for the year to those days and acts required by the current law. “Guidelines for traditional penitential practices” spells out the strongly recommended practices which were observed until just after the Second Vatican Council.
In 1966, Pope Paul VI promulgated a new set of regulations for fasting and abstaining by his apostolic constitution, Paenitemini. These new rules are listed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canons 1249-1253 and all Roman Catholics are bound to strictly observe them.
There are two sets of laws that apply to the Church’s penitential days:
- The law of abstinence: this refers to abstaining from meat.
- The law of fasting: this refers to the quantity of food taken, thus also refraining from eating between meals.
Who is bound to observe these laws?
The law of abstinence binds all Catholics, beginning on the day after their 14th birthday.
The law of fasting binds all adults (beginning on their 18th birthday) until the midnight which completes their 59th birthday.
What is forbidden and allowed to be eaten?
- The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat. This does not apply to dairy products, eggs, or condiments and shortening made from animal fat.
- The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day and two smaller meals. The two smaller meals should not equal the quantity of the main meal (which in the United States is customarily observed as the evening dinner).
- Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids are allowed, including milk and fruit juices.
- Fish and all cold-blooded animals may be eaten (e.g., frogs, clams, turtles, etc.).
Fasting and partial abstinence were obligatory on all other weekdays of Lent (i.e., Monday through Thursday—Friday was always complete abstinence); this meant that meat could be eaten at the principal meal on these days.
Some further clarifications to universal laws
There are few more distinctions to take into account fasting and abstaining when a usual fast day was in concurrence with a Sunday (always a non-fast day):
Sundays throughout the year and Holy Days of Obligation outside of Lent cancelled the fasting and/or abstinence of any penitential day which coincided.
If a fast-day Vigil fell on Sunday, the fasting and abstinence associated with the Vigil were not anticipated on the Saturday, but dropped altogether that year.