Thursday, February 22, 2024
The Protestant Attack on Lenten Penance

In the Middle Ages, abstinence from meat on Fridays and during Lent was not only Church law – it was civil law as well. And people gladly obeyed these laws out of respect for the teaching authority of the Church. Yet after the Protestant revolt which began in 1517 and continued through the middle of the 1600s, this was to change. Zwingli, the protestant leader from Switzerland, directed multiple attacks against the merits of good works, including fasting and abstinence through the infamous “The Affair of Sausage” in 1522. He audaciously claimed that since Scripture was the only authority, sausages should be eaten publicly in Lent in defiance. 

The same occurred in England, which followed the revolt of Luther and his peers. King Henry VIII, who was previously given the title “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X for his defense against Luther, succumbed to heresy and schism when he broke from Lord’s established Church on earth in 1533 to engage in adultery. Church property was seized. Catholics were killed. Catholicism was made illegal in England in 1559 under Queen Elizabeth I, and for 232 years, except during the brief reign of the Catholic King James II (1685 – 1688), the Catholic Mass was illegal until 1791. Yet the Anglicans at least kept the Catholic customs of abstinence for some years.

English Royalty proclamations supporting abstinence of meat continued to occur in England in 1563, 1619, 1625, 1627, and 1631. The same likewise occurred in 1687 under King James II. After the Revolution in 1688 and the overthrow of Catholicism by William III and Mary II, the laws were no longer enforced and officially removed from the law books by the Statue Law Revision Act in 1863. Similar changes occurred throughout Europe as Protestants reviled the fast.

Protestants largely abandoned fasting and other forms of mortification altogether in a complete rupture with the practice of all of Christianity back to the Apostles themselves. While some Lutherans and Methodists will voluntarily keep fasting days, it is uncommon and not practiced under obligation. Methodists, who were founded by John Wesley in the 18th century, for instance, if they do fast, are more likely to observe the “Daniel Fast” during the season of Lent, which is categorized by abstinence from "meat, fish, egg, dairy products, chocolates, ice creams, sugar, sweets, wine or any alcoholic beverages" as taken from the Book of Daniel 10:3. 

By the 1900s, the Episcopalian Church, the American branch of Anglicanism, largely abandoned all fasting and abstinence by re-writing their Book of Common Prayer (BCP):

The 1928 BCP in its table of fasts listed ‘other days of fasting on which the Church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion.’ These included the forty days of Lent, the Ember Days, and Fridays. No distinction was made between fasting and abstinence. The 1979 BCP dropped the Ember Days from the list and refers to both Lenten weekdays and Fridays outside of the Christmas and Easter seasons as Days of Special Devotion ‘observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial’ (p. 17). While this permits the traditional observance of Days of Abstinence, it clearly leaves the nature of the special acts of discipline and self-denial to the individual. 

Even amid the Protestant revolt, weakening discipline continued even in Catholic nations. For example, the twice-weekly fast on Wednesday and Friday goes back to the Apostles. In Ireland for instance the use of meat on all Wednesdays of the year was prohibited until around the middle of the 17th century.  This harkened back to the vestige of those earlier times when Wednesdays were days of weekly fasting as Father Slater notes in “A Short History of Moral Theology” published in 1909:

The obligation of fasting on all Wednesdays and Fridays ceased almost entirely about the tenth century, but the fixing of those days by ecclesiastical authority for fasting, and the desire to substitute a Christian observance at Rome for certain pagan rites celebrated in connection with the seasons of the year, seem to have given rise to our Ember Days… About the tenth century the obligation of the Friday fast was reduced to one of abstinence from flesh meat, and the Wednesday fast after being similarly mitigated gradually disappeared altogether. 

Of course, Lent was not an invention of the Middle Ages. Lenten fasting goes back to the very Apostles themselves!  The great liturgist Dom Guéranger writes that the fast which precedes Easter originated with the Apostles themselves:

The forty days’ fast, which we call Lent, is the Church’s preparation for Easter, and was instituted at the very commencement of Christianity. Our Blessed Lord Himself sanctioned it by fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert; and though He would not impose it on the world by an express commandment (which, in that case, could not have been open to the power of dispensation), yet He showed plainly enough, by His own example, that fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the old Law, was to be also practiced by the children of the new…The apostles, therefore, legislated for our weakness, by instituting, at the very commencement of the Christian Church, that the solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal fast. 

The Catechism of the Liturgy by a Religious of the Sacred Heart published by The Paulist Press, New York, 1919  affirms the apostolic origin of the Lenten fast: “The Lenten fast dates back to Apostolic times as is attested by Saint Jerome, Saint Leo the Great, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and others.” In the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus wrote to Pope St. Victor I inquiring on how Easter should be celebrated while mentioning the practice of fasting leading up to Easter.

Want to learn more about the history of fasting and abstinence? Check out the Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting and Abstinence. Want to go deeper into knowing the Catholic Faith? Check out the resources of

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