Catholic Fasting

The Roman Catholic Church makes many claims that cannot be supported from Scripture. Among these are the doctrines that it was she who gave us the Bible and that only her Magisterium is compentent to interpret the Scriptures. It is not uncommon for Mama Church to validate her teachings by claiming that they were arrived at with the unanimous consent of the Early Church Fathers.

The First Vatican Council, meeting in 1869-70, reaffirmed The Council of Trent's dogmatic position concerning unanimous consent:

And as the things which the holy Synod of Trent decreed for the good of souls concerning the interpretation of Divine Scripture, in order to curb rebellious spirits, have been wrongly explained by some, we, renewing the said decree, declare this to be their sense, that, in matters of faith and morals, appertaining to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be held as the true senseof Holy Scripture which our holy Mother Church hath hel and holds, to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scripture; and therefore that it is permitted to no one to interpret the Sacred Scripture contrary to this sense, nor, likewise, contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.--Philip Schaff, "Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council," as found in The Creeds of Christendom, Vol II, Harper (1877), p. 242

"Unanimous consent?" Did ALL the Early Church Fathers agree that only Mama Church's Magisterium was qualified or permitted to interpret the Scriptures? Hilary of Poitiers certainly did not:

For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself.--Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series: Volume IX, On the Trinity, Book I, Section 18.

For there have risen many who have given to the plain words of Holy Writ some arbitrary interpretation of their own, instead of its true and only sense, and this in defiance of the clear meaning of words. Heresy lies in the sense assigned, not in the word written; the guilt is that of the expositor, not of the text. Is not truth indestructible?--Ibid., Book II, Section 3.

The Lord has not left in doubt or obscurity the teaching conveyed in this great mystery; He has not abandoned us to lose our way in dim uncertainty. Listen to Him as He reveals the full knowledge of this faith to His Apostles; — I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father but through Me. ...And therefore let us, in the next place, seek out the true meaning of the instruction given us here. For it is not by cleaving to a preconceived opinion, but by studying the force of the words, that we shall enter into possession of this faith.--Ibid., Book VII, Section 33.

Now we ought to recognize first of all that God has spoken not for Himself but for us, and that He has so far tempered the language of His utterance as to enable the weakness of our nature to grasp and understand it.--Ibid., Book VIII, Section 43.

In this study I intend to address a few points concerning Catholic fasting and abstinence..

When I was young and Catholic, the priests and nuns in my parish stressed self-mortification through fasting and abstinence. One could eat or drink absolutely nothing from midnight until an hour after Sunday Mass, if he wished to take Communion. No meat on Fridays, Ember Days, Rogation Days, Holy Days of Obligation, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday nor an additional day each week of Lent. There were exceptions to these strict rules, of course. Abstinence was not required on Sundays, even if a Holy Day of Obligation fell on a Sunday. The rules seemed so complicated and so subject to change that I was grateful to have the priest remind me of my fasting/abstinence obligations, lest I inadvertently fail to keep one of the Precepts of the Church and be guilty of mortal sin.

The laws of fast and abstinence have changed significantly over the years, which is interesting when one considers the Roman Church's motto, Semper Idem [Always the Same]. No doubt, the Catholic apologist will be quick to remind us that fasting and abstinence are matters of Church discipline and, as such, are subject to revision from time to time. He would, of course, be correct. I was able to find no dogma concerning Lenten fasting or abstinence, no Divine command that is to be observed as a matter of faith by all Catholics under threat of anathema.

So why do Catholics believe it necessary to keep the law of fast and abstinence? The Fourth Precept of the Catholic Church requires that Catholics fast and abstain"

2043 The fourth precept ("You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church") ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart. -- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., (C) 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc

One might ask whether Catholic faithful must obey the Precepts. The answer is, yes.

2041 The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor -- Ibid.

God gave Moses Ten Utterances, or Commandments, to pass along to the Hebrew people. Over time, He expanded these utterances to include 613 laws that were binding on all Jews. Violations of these laws were sins. The Lord God expected obedience and established specific punishments for violations of the various laws. These punishments ranged from monetary fines to the death penalty. God is merciful, however, and He provided means to make atonement and to avoid the more severe chastisements of the law.

The Roman Catholic Church, in a display of hubris, established its own set of commands, the Precepts of the Church. When I was growing up Catholic, and being taught from the Baltimore Catechism, there were six precepts. In the current Catechism of the Catholic Church there are five precepts. In my research, I bumped into a Catholic web site that lists seven precepts, all binding on the faithful. Just another example of Catholicism-as-you-like-it.

Just like the God's Commandments, the Precepts of the Roman cult also carry penalties. To die without atoning for a violation of one of God's laws is to be damned for all eternity. So also is it with those who die without absolution for breaking one of the RCC's Precepts.

According to the RCC, to commit murder is a mortal sin; to commit adultery is a mortal sin; to violate one of the Precepts is a mortal sin. Do you see? The Catholic Church sets itself on a par with God Himself, for to break her laws carries the same penalty as to break His laws. Does this not bring to mind the account of Lucifer's fall from grace?

12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
13 For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
15 Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.
.. Isaiah 14:12-15

The Catholic apologist might say that fasting and abstinence are but disciplines of the church and carry no such penalties. Would he be telling the truth? Not according to a catechist affiliated with the Catholic University of America:

Q. Is it a mortal sin willfully to break the Commandments of the Church?

A. It is a mortal sin willfully to break the Commandments of the Church. -- Roderick MacEachen, Complete Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Catholic Book Company:Wheeling (1911), p. 195 - w/Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur

The foregoing quote only states that it is a mortal sin to willfully violate one of the Commandments of the RCC. Does the Catholic Church take fasting and abstinence so seriously that it has written them into the Precepts (Commandments) of the Church? Yep.

Q. What is the Second Commandment of the Church?

A. The Second Commandment of the Church is: To fast and abstain on the days appointed. (Roderick MacEachen, Op. cit., p. 198)

The days of fasting when MacEachen wrote his catechism were all the days of Lent, the Ember Days, Fridays of Advent and the vigils of Pentecost, Assumption, All Saints and Christmas. All the fast days also were days of abstinence -- except for those on which meat was allowed by dispensation (which included many of the Lenten fast days). Every Friday was a day of abstinence, again except for those for whom dispensations had been granted.

These rules were nothing if not flexible, and each diocese had a great deal of freedom to grant or withhold dispensations from fasting and/or abstinence. For a time, there were dispensations for laborers and even their families. Military men and women were granted abstinence from most fasts and abstinences, and later this was extended to their families. Travelers had dispensations, as did the young, the old and the infirm. For centuries, Catholics in Spain and Portugal enjoyed a papal dispensation and could eat meat on Fridays, while their less fortunate Catholic brethren risked the torments of Hell should they choose to eat a portion of meat on Friday.

Some Catholic apologists might declare that it never was a sin, certainly not a mortal sin, to eat meat on Fridays. After all, they might say, this was just a church discipline that some overly pious Catholics may have thought was sin. I really like the forthright manner that noted Catholic theologian and church historian John Deedy deals with this objection:

This is an old argumentative tactic; one encountered frequently in defensive Catholic strategies, to explain away change by denying that any change has in fact occurred. The denial may hold up as accurate in some instances, but not so far as the old Friday abstinence rule is concerned. The Gilmore Society's 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, complete with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur from John Cardinal Farley of New York, and once the definitive source of Catholic information, was unequivocal on the obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays: "Texts of theology and catechisms of Christian doctrine indicate that the obligation of abstaining forms an element in one of the Commandments of the Church. Satisfaction for sin is an item of primary import in the moral order. Naturally enough, abstinence contributes no small share towards the realization of this end. As a consequence, the law of abstinence embodies a serious obligation whose transgression, objectively considered, ordinarily involves a mortal sin. The unanimous verdict of theologians, the constant practice of the faithful, and the mind of the church place this point beyond cavil. They who would minimize the character of this obligation so as to relegate all transgressions, save such as originate in contempt, to the category of venial sin are anathematized by Alexander VII."" -- John Deedy, Retrospect: The Origins of Catholic Beliefs and Practices, The Thomas More Press (1990), p. 284

So there you have it. It is a Commandment of the Roman Catholic Church that all Catholic faithful conform to the laws of fasting and abstinence, lest they be guilty of mortal sin. These laws change from time to time and from diocese to diocese, which lends additional confusion to an already confusing system.

According to Catholic teaching, Lent is a time of spiritual preparation, a time when Catholics are encouraged to mortify their passions and intensify their spiritual lives.

During Lent, for 40 days, excluding Sundays, fasting is recommended for all Catholics according to the laws of fast. This is reminiscent of the 40 days of our Lord's unbroken fast (Mt. 4:3-4). The entire period of Lent is also a time of spiritual preparation for the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is observed as a time of penitence other than fasting, and as a time of prayer. -- Robert C. Broderick, Ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, Thomas Nelson Publishers:Nashville (1987), p. 346; w/Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur

Fasting is recommended..." How the laws of fast and abstinence do change in the church that boasts of being always the same. There was a time when the days of obligatory fast and/or abstinence accounted for nearly half the year. All the days of Lent, except for Sundays, once were days of mandatory fasting, that number was reduced to but two days of the week, Friday and Saturday and then the Saturday fast was changed to one other day of the week, to be chosen by the person fasting. And now fasting is required but two days of the Lenten season: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

...we ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire lenten season a period of special penitential observance. Following the instructions of the Holy See, we declare that the obligation both to fast and to abstain from meat, an obligation observed under a more strict formality by our fathers in the faith, still binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. No Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself from so hallowed an obligation on the Wednesday which solemnly opens the Lenten season and on that Friday called "Good" because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins.

In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul's constitution Poenitemini we preserve for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice . . . Christ died for our salvation on Friday. -- National Conference of Catholic Bishops [NCCB], Complementary Norms on Penance and Abstinence, November 18, 1966

Fasting may only be obligatory during two days of Lent, and abstinence required only on the Fridays of Lent, but that doesn't mean the RCC has completely abandoned the old ways. The Bishops, in the above-cited letter, went on to encourage the Catholic faithful to continue the old practices and to add other works of piety to them.

. . . the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance a greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms:

1. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified;

2. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday be freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ;

3. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law. -- Ibid.

What is the message? Roman Catholics no longer have to fast and abstain from flesh meat nearly so often as they used to but the American Bishops encourage them to go ahead and fast and abstain much in the same way as they used to. Is this a case of honoring the letter of the law but not the spirit? Rather calls to mind the ways of the Pharisees of Jesus' day, doesn't it?

It gets even more confusing. In the 1983 edition of Catholicism's Code of Canon Law (CIC), we read:

Can. 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. 
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. 
Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance. 
Can. 1253 The Episcopal Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
Code of Canon Law, Promulgated by Pope John Paul II by the Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, January 23, 1983

One must wonder why the always-the-same-church changed its rules concerning fasting and abstinence which, for centuries, mandated spiritual death for unconfessed violators. A clue to their reasons may be found in a bulletin published by the United States Conference of Bishops:

Fast and Abstinence

From the earliest days of the Church, an important devotional practice has been that of fasting and abstinence from meat during Lent. These practices direct our attention to our yearning for the life that is to come…and remind us of our hungering for the Lord, as well as our unity with those who are hungry and suffering throughout the world.-- Catholic Bishops Letter, January 2006

The bishops remind us that there are people, probably a great number of people, in this world for whom eating meat is a dreamed of luxury. What penance would be involved if people who rarely if ever eat meat abstain from eating meat on Fridays and during the Lenten season? Could it be that the rulers of Catholicism perceived a weak spot in their program to gain and maintain total control over all the Catholic masses? Could be, I reckon. By making abstinence on Fridays and other occasions optional with regional authorities, they open the door for requiring abstinence from other major dietary items for Catholic non-carnivores. Thus, even those for whom meat is an unknown food, it becomes possible to create a condition the violation of which constitutes a violation of a commandment of the church and is a mortal sin. Absolution from the penalties of mortal sins requires the intervention of a priest. Thus, another link is added to the chain that binds folks to Mother Church.

Fasting in the Catholic manner is no big deal

2. The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom. -- Paenitemini, Apostolic Constitution, Paul VI, February 17, 1966

Some may have questions concerning Rome's observance of Lent. When asked about the origins of the Lenten observance, some Catholics might respond that Lent can be traced to the Apostolic Age, but they would not be able to offer any substantial support for that claim. Certainly, fasting is mentioned in the New Testament but nowhere is it declared to be an obligatory practice for Christians. It is alleged that the early church did have some idea of a penitential period prior to the celebration of the Lord's death and resurrection, but it appears not to have been an established and universal practice.

Saint Irenaeus, writing around the year 190, clued to the diversity of opinon, saying: "some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days, and some even for several, while others reckon forty hours both of day and night to their fast." Apparently he knew nothing about any Lent or pre-Easter fast of forty days, else he would have mentioned it. -- John Deedy, Facts, Myths and Maybes, Thomas More (1993), p.234ff.

I find it interesting to see a Roman Catholic theologian and church historian using one of the favored hermeneutic techniques on something other than the Sacred Scriptures. Here, Deedy uses the argument from silence to support his allegation. Irenaeus did not mention a forty day Lenten fast, therefore there must not have been such a thing. In actuality, the simple fact that Irenaeus did not mention such a fast only proves that he did not mention such a fast. Even were Irenaeus to have been omniscient, the absence of such mention could not be considered proof that such a fast did not exist. On the other hand, there appears to be absolutely no indication in the earliest writings of the church available to us today of any such fast. Thus, it seems likely there was no such fast, but nothing should be declared absolutely on the matter -- one way or the other.

We do find mention of a lengthy fast some years later, in the 4th century. It may be worth noting that, by this time, the Roman Bishop, backed by the power of the Roman Emperor, was moving into a position of supremacy in the new Roman Catholic Church. I find it interesting that, given the cessation of Roman persecution of followers of the Christ, members of the new Roman Catholic Church may have found new ways to persecute their own flesh -- all in the name of piety, no doubt.

In the fourth century Saint Athanasius enjoined the people of Alexandria to observe a forty day period of fasting prior to Easter, indicating that this was the mode now practiced throughout Christendom. ". . . [W]hile all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days," Athanasius wrote. The year was 339, and Athanasius was recently back from a trip to Europe, including Rome. Ibid.

When I was Catholic, I believed that Lent began on Ash Wednesday and continued right through until midday on Holy Saturday. Seems what I believed was not true. Citing from number 28 of the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, John Deedy explains that:

. . . Lent extends from "Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive" -- that is, until Holy Thursday evening. Technically, therefore, the lenten fast, which is penitential, ends at that time." -- Ibid.

Though the encouraged Lenten fast ends at Mass on Holy Thursday, Catholics must then comply with the obligatory Good Friday fast and are again encouraged to fast on Holy Saturday. So many rules, so many changes, so many dispensations and indults; how can the devout Catholic keep up? My guess is that he can't.

Then, there is the question of ex post facto laws and such. For many centuries, Catholics who, lacking any local or special dispensation, chose to eat meat on Fridays were doomed to Catholic Hell for all eternity should they have died before being absolved of this mortal sin.

What are the consequences of mortal sin?

Mortal sin, 1. Separates us from God, and deprives us of His love and friendship; 2. It disfigures in us the image of God, and disturbs the peace of our conscience; 3. It robs us of all merits, and of our heirship to Heaven; and 4. It draws upon us the judgments of God, and, lastly, eternal damnation. -- Joseph DeHarbe, Complete Catechism of The Catholic Religion, John Flander, Trans., Schwartz, Kirwin & Fauss (1912), pp. 225-26; w/Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur

How many thousands, or millions, of Roman Catholics were sizzling temporarily in the Catholic Purgatory or permanently in Catholic Hell for having committed the grievous sin of eating meat on Friday? What happened to them after February 17, 1966, when Paul VI promulgated the apostolic constitution Paenitemini. With this document, the pope wiped out the obligatory Friday abstinence, reduced the days of mandatory fast and abstinence to but two, raised the age when children were bound by the law of abstinence and made several other changes to dietary disciplines. From that day forward, it was not a sin to eat meat on Fridays, except for Good Friday.

Imagine the initial reaction when word of the changes reached the Catholic penal colonies of Purgatory and Hell. Those serving time only for having eaten meat on Fridays likely figured they were going to be pardoned. I wonder if they were. After all, they had not broken any law of God when they bit into a pork rib or enjoyed a hotdog at a baseball game. The laws of fast and abstinence are manmade, whipped up in some Vatican back room by pious little men. Surely once repealed, the punishments assigned for their violation would also be repealed. Though I have seen nothing on this issue from Catholic sources, my best guess is that the idea of pardon never occurred to anyone in the hierarchy of the Roman cult. After all, the sin of these men was in violating the laws of the RCC, not the laws of God. What did it matter that the laws changed. When they broke the church's laws, they sinned against Mother Church and Mother Church is not known for her merciful attitude toward those who disagree with her.

Not that the opinion or justice of the Catholic cult has any true eternal impact. After all, her laws are not God's laws, her courts are not God's courts, and her punishments are not God's punishments. There is no Purgatory and the Catholic Hell, even if there were one, surely could not compare to the terrible reality of the lake of fire that awaits all those who die trusting in some cult or in some savior other than Christ Jesus. The truth is in the Bible, not in the ever changing, constantly evolving teachings of the Roman church. Seek Christ in the sacred writings. He can be found there.

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