Saturday, February 27, 2021
Abstinence from Meat & Animal Products on Sundays in Lent

It is a long-standing practice that fasting is never practiced on Sundays. However, is the same true for abstinence and how has this changed over the Church's history? And specifically, what is meant by abstinence as it concerns Sundays in Lent.

Fasting & Abstinence Defined

Before addressing these questions, a recap is in order of fasting as compared with abstinence. 

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 collations or frustulum) are permitted. The collation became permitted around the 8th century and became widespread since the 14th century. The practice of an additional morning snack (called the frustulum) was introduced only in the 18th century around the time of St. Alphonsus as part of the gradual relaxation of discipline.

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. 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. Abstinence also during Lent prohibited lacticinia (i.e., animal by-products like cheese, butter, milk, or eggs) until only the 19th century (exceptions aside).

Lenten Fasting & Abstinence

The observance of Lent stretches back as far as Apostolic times. Lent was for centuries observed as forty days of fasting in the Roman Church with Sundays excluded. That is, from Ash Wednesday (since its institution) through Holy Saturday were days of fasting. And until the relatively modern era, days of fasting were by definition days of abstinence from meat. What is meant by abstinence here? Father Weiser in "Feasts and Customs":

"In a letter to Saint Augustine of Canterbury (604), Pope Saint Gregory the Great announced the final form of abstinence which soon became the law: 'We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, eggs' (and butter of course). For almost a thousand years this remained the norm of abstinence for all except those who were excused for reasons of ill health."

Thus, Lent was kept as forty days of fasting and forty-six days of abstinence (Durandus). However, we know that Sundays do not count towards the forty days of Lent and deserve special consideration.

Sunday Abstinence from Meat

Fasting on Sundays was never obliged and never encouraged in the Roman Church at any point in history. The Decretum Gratiani from the 12th century, which was a collection of canon law compiled at the time stated that “the fast is not to be lifted in Lent except on Sundays.” It also adds that Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century specifically exempted Sundays in Lent and says the faithful distinguish themselves from some heretics who did fast on Sundays. It would not be appropriate to fast during Lent on a Sunday. 

However, abstinence is not the same as fasting and while fasting was neither obligatory nor encouraged on Sundays, abstinence was actually mandatory for centuries.

There is no question that during the holy season of Lent the faithful were obliged to abstain from meat. The first major weakening of discipline and rupture with the immemorial prohibition of meat during Lent came in 1741 when Pope Benedict XIV granted permission to eat meat on fasting days. This is where partial abstinence comes from - meat was allowed at the one meal but not during the collation. He also explicitly forbade the consumption of both fish and flesh meat at the same meal on all fasting days during the year, in addition to the Sundays during Lent. 

Beforehand, the forty days of Lent were held as days of complete abstinence from meat. Sundays in Lent, for centuries, were unequivocally days of abstinence from meat. On this point, historical evidence is unwavering. Now, for the first time, meat was permitted on Sundays in Lent.  

Sunday Abstinence from Animal Products

Besides meat though, abstinence even on the Sundays of Lent included animal products, for centuries. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Lent states in part:

"From what has been said it will be clear that in the early Middle Ages Lent throughout the greater part of the Western Church consisted of forty weekdays, which were all fast days, and six Sundays. From the beginning to the end of that time all flesh meat, and also, for the most part, "lacticinia", were forbidden even on Sundays, while on all the fasting days only one meal was taken, which single meal was not permitted before evening."

The Modern Catholic Dictionary by Fr. John Hardon SJ, p. 306 explicitly states that lacticinia was avoided on the Sundays of Lent in the early middle ages: "Milk (Latin, lac) and milk products, e.g., butter and cheese, and eggs or animal products formerly prohibited during Lent, along with flesh meat. In the early Middle Ages, lacticinia was forbidden even on Sundays during the Lenten season."

However, the prohibition of animal products during Lent extended further than just the Middle Ages. Until the time of Pope Leo XIII, abstinence by definition included not only abstinence from meat but also generally from eggs and dairy products, though exceptions were granted in various localities. Father Anthony Ruff relates, in his article “Fasting and Abstinence: The Story,” the changes made by Pope Leo XIII in the document entitled Indultum quadragesimale:

“In 1886 Leo XIII allowed meat, eggs, and milk products on Sundays of Lent and at the main meal on every weekday [of Lent] except Wednesday and Friday in the [United States]. Holy Saturday was not included in the dispensation. A small piece of bread was permitted in the morning with coffee, tea, chocolate, or a similar beverage.”

Writing regarding the then-new 1917 Code of Canon Law, Rev. Charles Augustine, OSB in "A Commentary on the New Code of the Canon Law, Volume 6" stated the following regarding a subsequent change in discipline also under Leo XIII:

"The indult of Aug 3, 1887, granted by the Holy See reads: (a) The use of flesh meat, eggs, and lacticinia is allowed on every Sunday of Lent, at every meal, and on every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday of Lent at the principal meal, expect on the Saturdays of Ember week and Holy Week. There is added a clause forbbding the promiscuous use of meat and fish; this clause is now abolished by can. 1251§ 2 (b) Lacticinia and eggs are permitted on every day of Lent on which no flesh meat is allowed at the mail meal and lunch (supper)... (e) Lard or fat may be used for cooking. No indult required. (f) Those exempt from the law of fasting may eat flesh meat, eggs, and lacticinia several times a day on all days on which their use is permitted to all the faithful (as on the Sundays of Lent)." 

The Catechism of Father Patrick Powers, published in Ireland in 1905, mentions that abstinence includes refraining from flesh meat and “anything produced from animals, as milk, butter, cheese, eggs.” However, Father Patrick notes, “In some countries, however, milk is allowed at collation.” The United States was one of those nations, whereas Ireland and others were not granted such dispensations. Fr. Francis Weiser in "Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs" from 1952 some clarification on those regional exceptions:

"Abstinence from lacticinia (milk foods), which included milk, butter, cheese, and eggs, was never strictly enforced in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia because of the lack of oil and other substitute foods in those countries. The Church using common sense granted many dispensations in this matter in all countries of Europe. People who did eat the milk foods would often, when they could afford it, give alms for the building of churches or other pious endeavors."

The Irish Ecclesiastical Record from 1881 further confirms the prohibition against animal products up until the time of Pope Leo XIII:

"The Fast of Lent includes the obligation of abstinence in its strictest form; so that where its rigour has not been tempered by usage or by dispensation, the use even of lactincinia, as well as of eggs or meat, is absolutely prohibited, even at the principal meal, on every day in Lent."

The Record further elaborates specifically and clearly on Sundays in Lent:

"But although the Sundays in Lent are not fasting days, there can be no question that, by the common law of the Church, they are days of most rigorous abstinence. By referring to any theological treatise on the subject, it will be seen that the ecclesiastical law prohibits the use, not only of meat, but even of eggs and lactincinia, not merely on the forty fasting days of Lent, but on every day during the Lenten time, that is to say, on Sundays, as well as weekdays, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday." 

As indicated above, it was not until the late 1880s that this changed. And in only a few more decades, the whole of Lent and all other days of obligatory fastings permitted animal products:

"The law of abstinence prohibits meat and soups made of meat but not of eggs, milks, and other condiments, even if taken from animals" (1917 Code, Canon 1252 § 4). [Translation taken from THE 1917 OR PIO-BENEDICTINE CODE OF CANON LAW in English Translation by Dr. Edward Peters]


While many more Catholics are becoming aware of what we have lost in regard to fasting and abstinence due to the weakening faith of the modern era, only recently have more Catholics become aware of just how far we have fallen. While I am happy to know of several Catholics who are this year observing Lent as forty days of fasting and abstinence, few were initially aware of just how much has changed with even Sunday penance during Lent.

Indeed, for centuries, Catholics marked the end of merriment with Mardi Gras and bade farewell to meat - the derivation of the word 'carnival' - and with meat, all that came from animals. In England, pancakes became a popular meal for using up all the eggs and milk which were forbidden throughout Lent. For this reason, Easter Eggs became popular as eggs would have only returned to diets on Easter Sunday. And remnants of this remain even to the present day since the Church prescribes specific blessings for eggs or meat on Holy Saturday in anticipation of their use on Easter Sunday.

To truly observe Lent as our forefathers observed it with great devotion, zeal, and discipline, we would do well to know that only the Lord's Resurrection on Easter brings the end to our discipline. While Sundays are a small reprieve on that journey, our penance remains until we hear the bells at Holy Mass sound once again during the Gloria and we celebrate the most important moment in the history of the world - when the soul of our Lord was reunited with His Body in the Resurrection. 

Please join me in observing this Lent as forty days of fasting and forty-six days (Sundays included) of abstaining from meat and lacticinia. 

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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