Thursday, April 8, 2021
How St. Pius X & the 1917 Code of Canon Law Liberalized Fasting, Abstinence, and Holy Days of Obligation

Pope St. Pius X is regarded as a champion by traditionalists for good reasons. There is no doubting his personal sanctity and the motivations that inspired some of his actions (e.g., lowering the age for First Holy Communion and recommending frequent - even daily - reception of our Lord in Holy Communion). His crusade against modernism and his actions for the liberty of the Church and for the spread of Christ's reign are certainly praiseworthy.

But we who have the luxury of seeing how history unfolded can observe how this holy pope's actions in regards to holy days of obligation, fasting, and abstinence sadly led to a collapse of Catholic practice. We would do well to keep the practices before St. Pius X, which had already been eroded by dispensations and changes for several centuries. St. Pius X merely helped accelerate this erosion.

What exactly did he change in regards to these disciplines? There are three main changes which concern the Church's discipline: reducing the number of Holy Days of Obligation for the Universal Church, altering the days of fasting, and altering both when and how to observe days of abstinence.

There are more actions done by St. Pius X that some also rightfully criticize such as the change in the Breviary (e.g. abandoning the use of 12 psalms at Matins, abolishing the "Laudate Psalms" at Lauds) and effectively abolishing in practice the five simple octaves but those are outside the scope of this article.

St. Pius X Drastically Reduced the Number of Holy Days of Obligation

The first catalog of Holy Days comes from the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX in 1234, which listed 45 Holy Days. In 1642, His Holiness Pope Urban VIII issued the papal bull "Universa Per Orbem" which altered the required Holy Days of Obligation for the Universal Church to consist of 35 such days as well as the principal patrons of one's locality. 

However, due to dispensations, differences ranged drastically as to which days were kept as holy days throughout the world. As of the founding of the United States, the Holy Days of Obligation, in addition to every Sunday, were as follows: the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Annunciation, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday, Corpus Christi, Ss. Peter and Paul, Assumption, and All Saints. In 1837, Pope Gregory XVI dispensed all Americans from the obligation as to Easter Monday and Whitsun Monday and in 1840 from that of the feast of St Peter and St Paul. The Feasts of Epiphany, Annunciation, and Sts. Peter and Paul were abolished as Holy Day of Obligation in the United States in 1885.

But, in the largest change to Holy Days in centuries, Pope St. Pius X in Supremi disciplinæ in 1911 drastically reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation in the Universal Church to merely eight!
  1. Christmas
  2. Circumcision
  3. Epiphany 
  4. Ascension
  5. Immaculate Conception
  6. Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
  7. Sts. Peter and Paul 
  8. All Saints 

This reduction, rather than just tweaking one country's disciplines, reset the Universal Church to a minimal number of Holy Days - the lowest ever. While some localities kept other feastdays of importance (e.g. St. Patrick's Day as a Holy Day of Obligation in Ireland), most did not. Shortly thereafter in 1917, however, Corpus Christi and St. Joseph were added back by his successor, bringing the total to 10. The 10 currently observed on the Universal Calendar are the same as from 1917.

The 1917 Code Liberalized Fasting

Called the Pio-Benedictine Code, the 1917 Code of Canon Law was started by St. Pius X in 1904 and completed under his successor, Pope Benedict XV, in 1914. The Code had a number of effects on fasting and abstinence, beyond codifying the changes to Holy Days of Obligation.

Fasting and abstinence were no longer observed should a vigil fall on a Sunday as stated in the code: "If a vigil that is a fast day falls on a Sunday the fast is not to be anticipated on Saturday, but is dropped altogether that year." Before 1917, the fast of a Vigil that fell on a Sunday was observed instead on the preceding Saturday, which helped prepare the faithful not only for the feast that was transferred to Monday but also for Sunday.

Likewise, effective per the 1917 Code of Canon law, the Wednesdays and Fridays of Advent were no longer fast days for the Universal Church. The last remnant of St. Martin's Lent and the Advent Fast was gone. Wednesdays of Advent had previously been abrogated as fast days in America in 1837. Now Fridays in Advent likewise ceased being required days of fast not only in America but universally. The Vigil of St. Peter and Paul also ceased as a fast day on the Universal Calendar, although it had already been abrogated in the United States. 

The 1917 Code Liberalized Abstinence

The 1917 Code also universally removed Saturday abstinence. Unknown to most Catholics, abstinence from meat was previously required on both Fridays and Saturdays! In the United States, Saturday abstinence ceased around 1837 because the Baltimore fathers requested from Pope Gregory XVI a dispensation from Saturday abstinence. It was a 20-year dispensation that was renewed up until the 1917 Code dispensed the venerable practice of Saturday abstinence universally. 

But one of the more drastic changes was that eggs and dairy products (i.e. lacticinia) became universally permitted on fasting days - continuing the weakening of discipline introduced by Pope Leo XIII in 1887. The 1917 Code explicitly and universally stated: "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]. Gone was the significance of Easter eggs, celebrating the end of a long Lent. 

Dispensations From Abstinence Were Previously Required Even for Holy Days of Obligation Outside of Lent

The 1917 Code also introduced the radical notion that a Holy Day of Obligation would eo ipso overrule the requirement of Friday abstinence for any Holy Days of Obligation outside of Lent. Previously the only day that would automatically abrogate the requirement of Friday abstinence was Christmas Day. On this singular exception, Dom Gueranger writes in the Liturgical Year published in 1886:

"To encourage her children in their Christmas joy, the Church has dispensed with the law of abstinence, if this Feast fall on a Friday. This dispensation was granted by Pope Honorius III, who ascended the Papal Throne in 1216. It is true that we find it mentioned by Pope St Nicholas I, in the ninth century; but the dispensation was not universal; for the Pontiff is replying to the consultations of the Bulgarians, to whom he concedes this indulgence, in order to encourage them to celebrate these Feasts with solemnity and joy: Christmas Day, St Stephen, St John the Evangelist, the Epiphany, the Assumption of our Lady, St John the Baptist, and SS Peter and Paul. When the dispensation for Christmas Day was extended to the whole Church, these other Feasts were not mentioned."

Before the time of St. Pius X, a dispensation was required by the Holy Father to dispense from Friday abstinence on any other Holy Day of Obligation. Two examples indicating this are Pope Leo XIII's 1890 dispensation for Assumption Day and a 1907 dispensation issued for Canada for All Saints Day. All Saints Day was at that time a Holy Day of Obligation in Canada.

The Catholic Encyclopedia on St. Pius X's Supremi disciplinæ indicates that fasting was abolished eo ipso only starting in 1911 for all Holy Days of Obligation (which were at the same time reduced to only 8): "The present Motu Proprio institutes another important change in legislation. As feasting and fasting are incompatible Pius X has abolished the obligation of fasting as well as that of abstinence for the Universal Church, should such obligation coincide with any of the eight feasts, as above." In practice, we know that the exception was Lent - Lenten abstinence and fast always remained unless explicitly dispensed from even after the weakening changes in 1911, as the 1917 Law explicitly stated: "On [Sundays] or feasts of precept, the law of abstinence or of abstinence and fast or of fast only ceases, except during Lent, nor is the vigil anticipated; likewise it ceases on Holy [Saturday] afternoon" (1917 Code, Canon 1252 § 4). [Translation taken from THE 1917 OR PIO-BENEDICTINE CODE OF CANON LAW in English Translation by Dr. Edward Peters]

Interestingly, the notion that penance was incompatible with Sundays stands in sharp contrast to centuries of Catholic Tradition, which required strict abstinence on all the Sundays of Lent.

It must be further noted that the removal of the obligation of penance on Holy Days of Obligation outside of Lent, effective with the 1917 Code, only applies to areas that observe the day of precept. It is not based on the Roman calendar, as affirmed by the Commission on the Code in a 1924 article in American Ecclesiastical Review. Hence, when January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, falls on a Friday, it is still a mandatory day of abstinence in America and France and other places where it is not a Holy Day of Obligation. In contrast, Canada, Rome, and places that keep it as a Holy Day do not have to observe fasting and/or abstinence on that particular Friday. This, however, only applies to Holy Day of Obligation outside of Lent. And this change only started with the 1917 Code - beforehand, it was still a day of abstinence on Fridays regardless of whether it was a day of precept or not, unless a specific dispensation was issued by the Pope himself.


Saints are not perfect. While we can certainly praise many of St. Pius X's actions, it would be imprudent to endorse all of them - and conversely to always dismiss any modern churchmen by the fact that they are not from before Vatican II. Discernment and critical thinking is necessary with anything. As it concerns Holy Days of Obligation, fasting, and abstinence, St. Pius X introduced liberal practices that only accelerated the collapse of Catholic practices. The practices in place under St. Pius X are shadows of former times, and those practices were weakened quickly so that by 1962 they were even weaker

To reclaim Catholic Tradition requires a radical return to the Faith of our ancestors and their observances. May our forefathers and ancestors who are in Heaven and who see the face of God pray for us and for the entire Church Militant to return to the happy days of eras past when Catholics widely and joyfully practiced the Faith. And may St. Pius X intercede for us on this request.

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

12 comment(s):

del_button April 8, 2021 at 10:14 PM
Anonymous said...

In my opinion, Pope St. Pius X liberalized Fasting, Abstinence, and Holy Days of Obligation because the secularization of the world since the 19th century, many Catholics, such as workers, can't observe the old law of fasting, abstinence and Holy Days anymore, they have to work, and eat necessary food to have energy to work, to put food on their family's table. Plus, Catholics living in countries where non-Catholic is the majority was/is also placed in the same situation. Today, many Catholics still have to work hard on days such as Christmas Day and Good Friday. So the situation of Catholics at that time compelled St. Pius X to make the changes to relieve the burden for the faithful.

del_button April 13, 2021 at 10:28 AM
Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
del_button April 13, 2021 at 9:55 PM
Tancred said...

So true.

del_button May 20, 2021 at 3:13 PM
adsr5583 said...

It's becoming clear to more and more that the true apostasy in the Catholic Church began centuries ago. Of course the Orthodox say the Catholic Church went apostate 1000 years ago, though some sedevacantists are starting to agree with this conclusion. More and more are refusing to attend sedevacantist, SSPX, or FSSP chapels as they learn history.

I learned about the false changes of Pius X, the errors in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, and the evil teachings of Moral Theology that have been spread for hundreds of years. How could the true church allow all of this? Then I learned about the pagan beliefs of the papacy in the Renaissance. Things make more sense once you realize that the apostasy has been going on for hundreds of years, but only in the Renaissance and at Vatican II was it made more clear.

Anyone who teaches you that we should just return to 1950s Catholicism is either ignorant or is a false teacher.

del_button August 13, 2021 at 10:21 AM said...

This article seems to be a veiled attempt to discredit the SSPX by discrediting Pope St. Pius X who is their Patron. If one takes just a little bit of time to read the history books on the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the US in the latter half of the 1800's and basically throughout the 1900's, there are at least three major conditions in the world at that time that would have forced Pope St. Pius X and many other Bishops to take the actions that they did on fasting and Holy Days of Obligation.

St. Matthew 23:2,3,4 quotes Jesus, Himself, as saying:
(V2) "The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses.
(V3) "All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not.


During the time leading up to 1917, both the European and American continents were marked by what could unexaggeratingly be called slave labor. Even children were working 14-18 hours/day and every day 7 days/week.

If you will read of Our Lady of La Salette, you will see Her prophecy of famine in Europe... The wheat crumbling in the farmer's hand. The farmers were forced off their farms by the famine and into the towns and cities to try to find work in the factories to feed their families. If anyone could not keep up on the job, their were literally hundreds in the streets ready and willing to take their places. The situation was basically no different throughout the United States as refugees poured in from Europe to find work. Husbands went to America in hopes of a job so that they could send money home to their families. Some, never to return. The competition for jobs brought on the same sweatshop conditions that existed in Europe for both adults and children.

These men could not afford to take time off for sickness or injury or someone else would be hired that very day to take their place. If they were to feed themselves and their families, how could they take 35 Holy Days of Obligation off from work? How could they, themselves, survive 16-18 hour days and fast and abstain and maintain their health? Their meager wages would never suffice if they did.

Throw in WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII and you see that for nearly 100 years ... a paradigm shift!!! In how people had to deal with their employers to stay alive!!!

Now go back and reread these verses from St. Matthew 23 and ask yourself whether or not the Church at that time needed to "lift Her finger" of the pen of the Pope to relieve his children of these insupportable burdens laid on them by the slave labor barons of that time. These conditions still exist today in China and many Asian nations.


Some years ago, I read a story about an employer in Massachusetts who insisted, even though he was not a Catholic, on hiring Catholics with the proviso that they must go to Confession at least once a month to get and keep their jobs. He had found a way, so he thought, to force them to work long and hard to be honest and to give him what he prescribed to be a fair day's work and a fair day's pay, and they would not steal from him.

When Jesus had 5000 people who had been with Him for three days, He would not send them home hungry, but rather performed one of His greatest public miracles and fed them all from a single basket of fish and bread lest they faint from hunger on their way home. No doubt for all these people in this predictement, Pope St. Pius X and the writers and promulgators of the Code of Canon Law of 1917 performed no less of a miracle than Jesus did. And He, Pope St. Pius X, being the Vicar of Christ, saw his obligation to relieve these poor souls through the same eyes that Christ did to feed the 5000.

del_button August 19, 2021 at 2:36 PM
Matthew said...

This post had nothing whatsoever to do with casting doubt on the SSPX. It is intended only to judge in hindsight the effect of St. Pius X's changes to days of precept and those of fasting/abstinence. And, as I stated, they in hindsight, only weakened our Catholic discipline, heritage, and life.

del_button February 22, 2023 at 2:07 PM
Anonymous said...

You're basically saying the Church has failed and/or defected.

del_button February 22, 2023 at 2:13 PM
Matthew said...

That would be an absurd equivocation. History may judge some matters done by Churchmen as wrong. Doesn't mean they taught heresy. One can also say that the some of the medieval popes lived sinful lives. One can criticize (and many do) the breviary reforms of Pope Urban VIII. Doesn't mean they defected.

del_button June 1, 2023 at 12:08 PM
Anonymous said...

There may have been good reasons for reducing these obligations in 1917, but not today. People today are soft, and they have been made that way. The Church is able to bind as well as loose; it is time to bind these rules more strongly.

del_button August 19, 2023 at 9:02 AM
Bruce said...

Thank you for this great piece. Did the abstinence days also include fish? I was under the impression that medieval Europeans ate a great deal of dried fish because of the abstinence restrictions and there's the old reference to Catholics being "Fisheaters."

I'm very sympathetic to traditionalists and I didn't take the article to be in any way a jab at SSPX or other traditionalists. It's merely recognizing there were modernizing/liberalizing tendencies prior to the 1960s. This doesn't mean the Church defected. Likewise, the Church has struggled with its traditional teachings on usury with the rise of capitalism and modern financial institutions.

I assume the Church was more strict in what it made obligatory when the nations it dwelled in were supportive. Then Catholics found themselves smack dab in the middle of Protestant nations and now, post-modernist nations. I suppose the faithful men like St. Pius X were trying to maximize the number of souls saved. The Pope who railed against modernism certainly wasn't a crypto-modernism.

del_button August 19, 2023 at 9:45 AM
Bruce said...

Ah - I found the answer at your site:

"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."

del_button August 19, 2023 at 10:13 AM
Matthew said...

Fish became permitted by around the year 600 on days of abstinence.

For the complete history of all things related to this topic, see here:

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