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Conflicted about Fasting and Abstinence

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 12, 2013

Have you noticed that fasting and abstinence are making a modest comeback in the Church—at least the English-speaking Church—which all but abandoned these practices during the course of the 20th century? The English bishops brought back abstinence formally in 2011. The American bishops have been calling for it, without actually changing the rules, since 2012.

Back in my grandparents’ day, each Friday of the year was a day of fast and abstinence (plus some other days), and all the days of Lent were fast days with abstinence added on Fridays and Saturdays, all under pain of sin. In my parents’ day, fasting and abstinence were required only on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, though abstinence on Fridays throughout the year was retained. In my day, in his 1966 Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, Pope Paul VI relaxed the rules of fasting, requiring it only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and left much to local episcopal conferences. Thus in 1966 in the United States and 1985 in England and Wales, abstinence on Fridays outside of Lent was downgraded to a recommendation, giving Catholics the option of substituting some other form of penance. The practical result of these progressive relaxations of the Church’s penitential rules was that almost nobody fasted or abstained at all.

When the English bishops restored the law of Friday abstinence late in 2011, they acknowledged that the practice “cannot be considered to put any real or substantial additional burden on the lives of the faithful”. But they lamented that since the rule had been relaxed, a great many people had essentially forgotten about the need for penance altogether, and they said Friday abstinence had the virtues of being both “easy to remember” and “a simple way to give witness at work, at school, and even in the family.”

The bishops in the United States have not yet reinvented the old rules, but one cannot escape the feeling that they are about to do so. As soon as our bishops finally began to realize that the contemporary secular State is no friend of the Church, as evidenced by increasing threats to the Church’s autonomy and individual religious liberty, abstinence and fasting were put back on the stove top, even if still on a rear burner. These practices have been advocated repeatedly by the USCCB ever since the Fortnight for Freedom movement began in the Summer of 2012, in response to the HHS Contraception/Sterilization/Abortion Mandate.

Before that, the bishops had called for fasting and abstinence occasionally in support of the pro-life cause, but since the HHS threat, the call for fasting and abstinence on all Fridays has been more broadly associated with the right to life, religious liberty and the defense of marriage. This is not quite sackcloth and ashes, but I suspect it is our modern equivalent.

In America, however, this movement will not gather great force unless each bishop ensures that it is preached in every church in his diocese. As long as this is only another request by the USCCB, it will pass almost unnoticed. Nonetheless, there are clear signs of a trend, a trend toward exactly what the English bishops claimed that these renewed penitential practices could do. I am talking about a trend to emphasize a distinctive Catholic identity which by its very nature gives mutual witness to ourselves and to the larger culture.

It is my understanding that in Australia and especially in New Zealand, a handful of practices are currently specifically listed as penitential options for Fridays throughout the year. That’s better than a general exhortation, and I defer to the experience of readers in those countries, but I suspect that if the bishops want something to be done as a rule, they must impress it on our minds clearly, simply and without options, which have a way of ensuring that nothing actually gets done. Multiple options also severely limit the potential for solidarity, corporate identity, and a common recognizable witness.

For our own spiritual growth, more serious and more voluntary penance may well be called for, if we will only do it. But for building a sense of identity, for mutual encouragement and as a kind of baseline of public witness, Catholics do not necessarily need something onerous. They need something simple, visible, distinctive and habitual to the Catholic body as a whole. It is enough for ourselves that this something reminds us of our need for penance while being done in solidarity. It is enough for others that this peculiar Catholic solidarity will be frequently noticed. The law ought to serve as a stimulus in such matters. It is the beginning, not the end.

A Temptation

As someone who values Catholic esprit de corps, I can clearly see the benefits of this resurgence in abstinence and fasting, even though I would not regard simply keeping new (or old) rules as a proof of holiness. At the same time, I confess to a temptation. Every time I hear the USCCB emphasize fasting and abstinence now, I am tempted to scoff at their anemic efforts to salvage what, not too many years ago, they were so intent on destroying lest the Church be perceived as a sign of contradiction in the world.

Now I suspect I am not alone in this, but still, the more fool me. First of all, in most cases, the bishops in the various episcopal conferences today are not those who, in so many ways, rushed to sell the farm as quickly as they could. Second, rejecting episcopal calls to do the right thing because the bishops have so often done the wrong thing is a sin against the Holy Spirit. We ought never to refuse to recognize good because we prefer to hold its source in contempt. If I, as a layman, have been attempting to promote authentic Catholic renewal largely through the default of the bishops and clergy, does this make Catholic renewal my turf?

The plain fact is that I, like many serious Catholics, have become rather fond of making my own rules during long years of ecclesiastical chaos. What I should want, therefore, is for the American bishops to follow their English brethren in converting a few exhortations into rules just to give me an exercise in obedience. It may pinch a bit for me to do at the command of another what has for some time been voluntary. Let it pinch. It will take a long time for such practices to become broadly habitual again. Let it take time. Moreover, rules guarantee neither spiritual growth nor salvation. But just knowing that is already an antidote to a prescriptive, superficial Catholicism.

Anyway, you heard the prophecy here first. A strengthening of the laws of fast and abstinence is coming in the United States, and probably elsewhere, just as it has already come in England.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Ray and Ann - Apr. 21, 2013 12:40 PM ET USA

    I despair that the USCCB may take too long to issue a mealy-mouthed effort on this topic. But it would be helpful if they (USCCB) could restore the public recognition of Ember and Rogation Days (I know they have not been abolished, but can you find any public recognition of them?).

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 12, 2013 5:12 PM ET USA

    I managed to be out of the church when all the relaxing was taking place, making me something of a Rip Van Winkle Catholic. I tried to follow the rules my parents did as best I understood them. I have missed Ember Days and Rogation Days, not finding them noted anywhere. When someone taxes me about Friday Abstinence, I plead to impairments that keep me from discerning "equivalent penances," "But no meat on Friday I understand."

  • Posted by: Defender - Apr. 12, 2013 5:09 PM ET USA

    Maybe it's just personal, but it may also lead to at least a minor resurgence in confessions, too. Friday fast and abstinence never bothered me growing up, long lines on Saturdays for confession didn't bother me either. They always seemed linked in a way and maybe it was/will with others.

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