Rules for fast and abstinence

What are the current rules for fasting and abstinence? How do I observe the traditional rules?

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.

Read Archbishop Lefebvre on fasting and abstinence>

Rules for penitential days under present Church law

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:

  1. The law of abstinence: this refers to abstaining from meat.
  2. 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.).

In the Universal Church

Obligatory days of fast and abstinence:

  • Abstinence is obligatory on all Fridays, except on Solemnities (i.e., I Class Feasts).
  • Fasting and abstinence are obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

In the USA:

In Paenitemini, Pope Paul VI gave authority to the episcopal conferences on how the universal rules would be applied in their region. On November 18, 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops legislated the following to be observed in the United States:

  • Abstinence is obligatory on all Fridays of Lent, except Solemnities (i.e., I Class Feasts).
  • Fasting and abstinence are obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
  • Abstinence on all Fridays, though not obligatory under pain of sin, is “especially recommended.”
  • Fasting on all weekdays of Lent, though not obligatory under pain of sin, is “strongly recommended.”

The local ordinaries also have authority to grant dispensations from these rules within their dioceses.

Guidelines for traditional penitential practices

Here are the traditional rules of fast and abstinence as observed per the 1962 liturgical calendar and outlined in Canons 1250-1254 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Who was bound to observe these laws?
 

  • The law of abstinence bound all Catholics, beginning on the day after their 7th birthday.
  • The law of fasting bound all Catholics, beginning on the day after their 21st birthday and ending at the midnight which completed their 59th birthday. [Note: The USA's particular law has lowered the obligatory fasting age to 18.]

What was forbidden and allowed to be eaten?

 

  • The law of abstinence forbade the eating of flesh meat and of broth made of meat, but did not exclude the use of eggs, dairy products, or seasonings made from the fat of animals.
  • The law of fasting prescribed that only one full meal a day was taken with two smaller meals that did not equal the main one.
  • As to the kind of food and the amount that might be taken, the approved customs of the place were to be observed. It was not forbidden to eat both flesh meat and fish at the same meal, nor to interchange the midday and evening meals.

In the Universal Church

 

  • Abstinence was obligatory on all Fridays, except on Holy Days of Obligation outside of Lent.

Fasting and complete abstinence were obligatory on the following days:

  • Ash Wednesday
  • Fridays and Saturdays in Lent
  • Good Friday
  • Holy Saturday (until midnight 1)
  • Ember Days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday)
  • Vigil of Pentecost
  • Vigil of Christmas
  • [NB: both the Vigils of the Immaculate Conception and All Saints were omitted from the 1962 calendar]

Partial abstinence

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.

Particular rules observed in the USA

On January 28, 1949, the United States bishops issued a statement modifying the regulations of fasting and abstinence in America (thus differing slightly from the universal laws) after receiving a ruling from the Sacred Congregation of the Council.

Fasting and partial abstinence was obligatory on the following days:

  • Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays
  • Vigil of Pentecost
  • all other weekdays of Lent including Saturdays

Liquids, including milk and fruit juices, might be taken at any time on a day of fast, but “other works of charity, piety, and prayer for the pope should be substituted” to compensate for this relaxation.

In 1931, Pope Pius XII gave an indult to the American bishops allowing them to dispense with Abstinence on any penitential day that was a civic holiday and on the Friday that followed Thanksgiving Day. (Canon Law Digest, vol. 1.)

The United States bishops had the faculties to dispense the faithful from the obligation to fast and abstain on penitential days that fell on civic holidays.

Holy Days of Obligation in the USA

A Holy Day of Obligation is a day on which we are bound to hear Mass and to abstain from servile works. In the USA, the Holy Days of Obligation are:

  • All Sundays
  • Octave Day of the Nativity ( January 1)
  • Ascension Day
  • Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15)
  • Feast of All Saints (November 1)
  • Immaculate Conception (December 8)
  • Christmas Day (December 25)

 

  • 1. Maxima redemptionis nostrae mysteria (Nov. 16, 1955) AAS 47 (1955) 838-847, III. Lenten abstinence and fast extended to midnight of Holy Saturday. The abstinence and fast prescribed for Lent, which hitherto has ceased on Holy Saturday after noon, according to canon 1252, §4, will cease in the future at midnight of the same Holy Saturday.