The Second Precept of the Church requires Catholics “to fast and abstain on the days appointed.”
The season of Lent has begun, a great season of penance. The Catholic Church requires Catholics to fast and abstain from meat on various days throughout Lent.
- Only on full meal per day is permitted
- Up to two smaller meals, not to exceed the main meal in quantity, are allowed
- Amount of food eaten should be less than normal
- Eating in between meals is not permitted
- Drinking is permitted at any time, including alcoholic beverages, although alcohol is discouraged in the spirit of penance
- Fasting is required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
- Fasting is encouraged on Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil, but not required
- All Catholics age 18 to 59 are bound by the laws of fasting
- Meat is not permitted. Meat is defined as “flesh and organs of mammals and fowl.”
- Soups and gravies made with meat are not permitted
- Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are allowed
- Butter, milk, eggs, cheese, margarine, and gelatin are allowed
- Abstinence is required on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays throughout the year, except solemnities
- On Fridays outside of Lent, Catholics in the United States may substitute an act of penance or act of charity in lieu of abstaining from meat
- All Catholics age 14 and older are bound by the laws of abstinence
Note that these regulations only apply to Latin Rite Catholics. Eastern Rite Catholics are bound by the particular laws of their own sui iuris Churches.
In addition to observing the laws related to fasting and abstinence, Catholics are encouraged to give up something for Lent.
For Catholics wishing to enter more deeply into the season of penance, it may be instructive to know the old laws of fasting and abstinence. While these regulations are no longer in force, they can be helpful in understanding what was traditionaly required of Catholics during Lent.
There are three significant differences between the older requirements of fasting and the current regulations.
First, according to the old regulation, meat could only be eaten at the main meal on the day of a fast. Two smaller meals were allowed, just as they are now, but these smaller meals were required to be meatless. The requirement of limiting meat to one meal per day is called partial abstinence.
Second, Catholics were obligated to fast on all weekdays of Lent, not just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The only exception to this was the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19th.
Third, Catholics were obligated to fast on days outside of Lent. In addition to the weekdays of Lent, Catholics were also required to fast Ember Days and on the Vigil of Pentecost, the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 7th), and the Vigil of Christmas (Dec. 23rd or Dec. 24th, as they chose).
Fasting and abstinence has never been required on Sundays and solemnities or Holy Days of Obligation. The Solemnity of St. Joseph was and is a Holy Day of Obligation that always falls during Lent, although the obligation to attend Mass is and was dispensed for Catholics in the United States, even before the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.
The old Liturgical Year specified twelve Ember Days throughout the year, three in each season of Advent, Lent, and Paschaltide, and three in ordinary time. The Ember Days were the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays after: the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost, September 14, and December 13. Ember Days were celebrated to implore God’s blessings on the fruits of the earth and as special occasions to pray for the clergy. Ordinations would always take place on Ember Saturdays.
It is no understatement to say that the law of fasting has been dramatically reduced for Catholics. The truth is that by reducing the number of required days of fasting during Lent from 40 (or 39, excluding the Feast of St. Joseph) to two, the obligations to fast during Lent have been almost entirely dispensed. This is to say nothing of the days of fasting that used to be observed outside of Lent, of which there used to be twelve. Now, of course, there are none. Thus the total number of days of fasting throughout the year has been reduced from 51 to two.
Adding the forty days of Lent to the twelve days of fasting outside of Lent, we arrive at 52 days of penance throughout the year, a number which a certain sybolic significance. There are 365 days per year, so the number of fasting days per year is approximately one seventh (52 / 365 ≈ 1/7). Thus the number of days of fasting to the year was the same proportion as Friday to the rest of the week.
While these old regulations are no longer in force, they are instructive it showing us what the Church has traditionally meant by a season of penance. They also show us that a fast of forty days is not beyond the capability of ordinary Catholics, as it used to be the expectation for everyone. Those who desire or are inspired to observe a fast of forty days in imitation of Our Lord should be encouraged to do so. Fasting for forty days is not impossible, and God will give those who undertake the penance the grace they need to do His will.
Why does the Church Command us to fast and to abstain?
“The Church commands us to fast and to abstain in order that we may control the desires of the flesh, raise our minds freely to God, and make satisfaction for sin. It is not because meat and other foods are in themselves evil.
“‘I chastise my body and bring it into subjection lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected’ (1 Cor. 9:27). One who cannot fast should do some other penance.
“The forty days fast observed in Lent is in imitation of Our Lord, Who fasted forty days in the desert. It is a preparation for Easter. Friday as a day of abstinence commemorates Our Lord’s Good Friday.
“Fast and abstinence are pleasing to God only when we also refrain from sin and engage in good works. We should honor Our Lord’s passion during Lent by abstaining from worldly pleasures and amusements.
“Even from merely natural motives, fast and abstinence, far from ruining the health as some people claim, on the contrary are a preservation of health. Reputable physicians will bear out this fact.
“Fast and abstinence should not be carried to excess, to the injury of our health.” (My Catholic Faith)
EWTN. “Fast and Abstinence.” Accessed February 2, 2016. https://www.ewtn.com/faith/lent/fast.htm.
EWTN. “Holy Days of Obligation.” Accessed February 2, 2016. https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/holy_days_of_obligation.htm.
Most Reverend Louis LaVoire Morrow, Bishop of Krishnagar. “Article 123: “Second Commandment of the Church.” My Catholic Faith: A Manual of Religion. Kenosha, WI: My Mission House, 1963. pp. 258-9.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “Fast & Abstinence.” Accessed Feb 2, 2016. http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/catholic-information-on-lenten-fast-and-abstinence.cfm.