Saturday, February 25, 2006
Catholic Fasting and Abstinence Principles & Practices


Fasting: Fasting refers to how much food we eat. It means taking only one meal during a calendar day. The meal should be an average-sized meal as overeating at the one meal is against the spirit of the fast. Fasting generally means that the meal is to be taken later in the day. Along with the one meal, up to two snacks (technically called either a collation or frustulum) are permitted. These are optional, not required. Added up together, they may not equal the size of the one meal. No other snacking throughout the day is permitted. Fasting does not affect liquids, aside from the Eucharistic Fast which is a separate matter.

Abstinence: Abstinence in this context refers to not eating meat. Meat refers to the fleshmeat of mammals or fowl. Beef, poultry, lamb, etc are all forbidden on days of abstinence. Abstinence does not currently prohibit animal byproducts like dairy (e.g. cheese, butter, milk) or eggs, but in times past they were prohibited. Fish is permitted along with shellfish and other cold-blooded animals like alligators. In times past, days of fast were always days of abstinence as well; however, not all days of abstinence were days of mandatory fasting.

Partial Abstinence: Partial Abstinence refers to eating meat only at the principal meal of the day. Days of partial abstinence do not permit meat to be eaten as part of the collation or the frustulum. Partial abstinence started only in 1741 under Pope Benedict XIV as a concession and as part of a gradual weakening of discipline. Beforehand, days of abstinence were days of complete abstinence.

Fasting, therefore, refers to the quantity of food and the frequency of eating. Abstinence refers to what may or may not be eaten.

Want to learn more about the rules of fasting and abstinence? Check out the Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting and Abstinence.

Man of Sorrows by William Dyce

Fasting & Abstinence in Practice During Lent:

Overview: While fasting and abstinence are always encouraged, Catholics have always practiced these together as a Universal Church on certain days and certain seasons. However, beyond the details below, you are welcome to fast any day of the year with the exception that Sundays and Pascaltide (i.e. the Easter Season) are not appropriate times for fasting.

Ash Wednesday [Fasting and Abstinence]: This is a mandatory abstinence and fasting day.

All Catholics aged 14 or older must abstain from meat on this day, as per the current 1983 Code of Canon Law. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the law of abstinence began at age 7. Since it is worthwhile to teach children the importance of this law, we should have our children begin to observe this even before the law explicitly commands it.

What is forbidden by the law of abstinence? All meat. Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Also forbidden are soups or gravies made from them. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, and shellfish are permitted. [See: Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Fridays?]. Eggs are presently allowed.

Additionally, besides abstaining from meat, as per the 1983 Code of Canon Law, anyone between 18 and up until 60 years of age is also bound to fast on Ash Wednesday. In the earlier 1917 Code, the fast began at age 21 and continued until a person turned 60. On this day one, normal-sized meal and two smaller snacks (called collations) that do not equal the normal meal are allowed. No indulging at a buffet at night to make up for the meals you could not eat during the day.

Eating between meals is prohibited although fruit juices and milk are allowed. Milk was added only in the recent centuries and the Church had asked that those who do consume milk on fasting days offer some additional prayers for the intentions of the Holy Father for doing so.

These rules are much more lenient than in centuries past. If you can, truly make your fasting a sacrifice. In times past, Ash Wednesday was a day when the faithful were asked to eat nothing at all.

Good Friday [Fasting and Abstinence]: This is a day of mandatory abstinence and fasting.

This day is the most somber day of the year when we recall Our Savior's death. The rules for Ash Wednesday apply to today. Today is a required day of abstaining from all meat and a required day of fasting.

Like Ash Wednesday in times past, Good Friday was a day with no food at all, for those able to keep that strictness. 

The fast is traditionally kept into the morning of Holy Saturday and ends on Holy Saturday at noon, or whenever you attend the Vigil, whatever is later.

The Fridays of Lent: All the Fridays of Lent including Good Friday are mandatory days of abstinence from meat. The abstinence rules outlined under Ash Wednesday apply today.

Since Lent was traditionally always understood as a period of 40 days of fasting, you should keep Fridays of Lent (and all days of Lent aside from Sundays) as fasting days. Failing to fast on Fridays in Lent is not a sin, except for Good Friday. However, failing to abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent is a mortal sin.

All Days of Lent except for Fridays (since the days that are covered above) and except for Sundays: Traditional Catholics will still fast all days of Lent. By the time that the 1917 Code of Canon Law was compiled, Lent had changed to allow meat at the meal of the day but never in the collations. The exception, of course, is Fridays and Ash Wednesday. This practice is called "partial abstinence". By partial abstinence, a person is allowed to eat meat only at the major meal. However, partial abstinence, which is part of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, is a modern change in itself. Some Catholics will maintain the older practice of not only fasting but abstaining entirely from all meat on all 40 days of Lent. Having meat on weekdays of Lent (except Fridays) was only allowed a few hundred years ago. Even Sundays, while not days of fasting, were kept as days of abstinence aside from Laetare Sunday, the mid-point of Lent, when the faithful had a reprieve.

While most Catholics no longer abstain from meat on non-Fridays or fast throughout the 40 days, these are still practices that should be observed by those who are physically able to do so. Keeping the strict Lenten fast and strict abstinence as done in the Early Church through the 17th century will help us conquer addictions, make reparation for sin, and avert God's justice.

Lenten Abstinence: The Lenten abstinence described above, unless otherwise stated, pertains only to meat and products like soups or gravies or broths made from them. In times past though, for centuries no animal products of any kind (e.g. dairy, cheese, butter, or eggs) were consumed during Lent. As Lent became weakened, these sacrifices became optional and fell nearly entirely out of us. However, some Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite (e.g. Byzantine) Catholics still abstain from all meat and all animal products for all of Lent. Roman Catholics are welcome and even encouraged to do so in solidarity with them and in solidarity with our forefathers who did so. Such a penance would be highly appropriate for Lent.

Conclusion: Based on the Church's Lenten fast through the centuries, and a desire to do more than the minimum, here is a suggested fasting and abstinence plan for Lent (in imitation of how Lent used to be):
  • Fasting applies for those age 18 or older (but not obligatory for those 60 years of age or older)
  • Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: No solid food. Only black coffee, tea, or water.
  • Mondays through Saturdays: Only one meal preferably after sunset. A morning frustulum and evening collation are permitted but not required. No meat or animal products are allowed for anyone, regardless of age - that includes fish. No olive oil is permitted.
  • Sundays: No meat or animal products allowed except on Laetare Sunday. Except for Palm Sunday mentioned below.
  • Annunciation Day (March 25) and Palm Sunday: Fish and olive oil permitted.
  • Holy Week (except Good Friday): Only Bread, Salt, and Herbs are permitted for the main meal. Frustulum and collation permitted (of bread, herbs, and salt) but omitted if possible
  • Holy Saturday: No food until Noon. Abstinence including from all animal products continues until Easter begins.
Fasting & Abstinence in Practice Outside of Lent:

All Fridays of the Year outside of Lent: All Catholics must abstain from meat all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. However, a modern novelty has arisen whereby many Bishops have said that Catholics may do another form of penance on non-Lenten Fridays in the year instead of abstaining from meat. This is the case in some countries, but not all. Fridays in Lent, though, are mandatory abstinence, and another act of penance does not void the necessity to abstain from meat and meat products. Traditional Catholics will always abstain on each Friday of the year, though, instead of substituting an alternative penance. It is important that we are united in the same common penance in the same universal Faith on such days.

Other Traditional Days of Fasting: For information on fasting days and how they have changed over time since America's founding, please click here for a landmark article on the topic.

Catholic Fasting Calendar: If you would like to follow the traditional days of fasting, consider purchasing an online calendar that will indicate the traditional fasting days. Click here for one.

Want to learn more about the history of fasting and abstinence? Check out the Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting and Abstinence.

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