Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Lenten Fasting: What about Liquids?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 25, 2009

Standing around the office water cooler today, we’ve been having some humorous discussions about fasting. Are liquids in or out? In the face of the prevailing uncertainty, I decided to put a decisive end to speculation before Good Friday.

After extensive research, I find that it is impossible to pin the Church down to more than the standard formulation of “one full meal plus two smaller meals which together do not equal a full meal”. Liquids are never mentioned in connection with the Lenten fasts, so the question arises as to whether the specific allowance to eat a certain amount of food implies that liquids are always permitted or always excluded.

The best resolution of this question that I can find comes through reading the extensive article on what it means to "Fast" in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. After all, the regulations we have today are essentially relaxations of the stricter discipline in force during the first half of the twentieth century. And believe me, in the old days people parsed the fasting regulations far more than we do now, probably because they had more at stake, but also because Catholics tended to be somewhat more focused on “rules” back then (which, as you know, can be both good and bad).

Anyway, in the early twentieth century inquiring minds wanted to know such things as: How many ounces of food constitute a full meal? And, at what time of day should that meal be taken? Accordingly, the CE article goes into considerable detail concerning how we may judge whether our timing and our quantities of food meet the requirements (of the older regulations). With its usual good sense, however, the CE also properly acknowledges that these interpretations are primarily matters of opinion, because they are unspecified in the regulations. Timing and intake vary from culture to culture, and appropriate quantities necessarily vary from person to person. Moreover, the Church has always held that fasts are to be observed in accordance with one’s heath and responsibilities.

But interestingly, the CE has this to say about liquids on fast days:

Strictly speaking, whatever may be classified under the head of liquids may be taken as drink or medicine at any time of the day or night on fasting days. Hence, water, lemonade, soda, water, ginger ale, wine, beer and similar drinks may be taken on fasting days outside meal time even though such beverages may, to some extent, prove nutritious. Coffee, tea, diluted chocolate, electuaries made of sugar, juniper berries, and citron may be taken on fasting days, outside meal time, as medicine by those who find them conducive to health. Honey, milk, soup, broth, oil or anything else having the nature of food, is not allowed under either of the two categories already specified.

Never mind for the moment that coffee and tea appear only in the medicinal list. The Church didn’t write these lists. They are simply efforts to interpret what fasting means in the light of two common questions, one about thirst, the other about medicine. Very few would argue that coffee is food-like enough to be allowed only medicinally while beer is not. Indeed, the nutritional value of beer is far higher than that of coffee. Sometimes straining after precise rules for every situation can become absurd. That isn't our usual problem now, but it is something for the scrupulous to keep in mind.

The key point to notice here is that, unlike the fasting required before Communion, the Lenten fasts were--even in stricter times--regarded as fasts from food only, not from both food and liquid. Therefore: If you’re taking a liquid that has considerable food value, you’re breaking the fast. If you’re taking liquid in the usual sense of “having a drink”, you’re not breaking the fast.

All of this, of course, should be balanced against our understanding of the penitential nature of these fast days. It goes without saying that the spirit of fasting, in accordance with one’s health and responsibilities, is always to be maintained. That requires not only good sense, but self-discipline. Speaking of the proper spirit, the U.S. Bishops' web site states that, whenever possible, the Good Friday fast is to be extended through Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil.

But inquiring minds may wish to know whether Coke (with a large C, please) and water are really the same thing on Lenten fast days. Going by the universal understanding of the regulations by those who should know, apparently the answer is “yes”. In bringing this to your attention, I stress that I do not wish to encourage a casuistical attitude toward these things, finding excuses under the law to satisfy all of our appetites. You'll probably prefer not to raid your liquor cabinet on a fast day, though you may decide a glass of juice or a mug of coffee would be fine. In neither case would you be breaking the rules. Just be sure to keep the spirit of what it means to fast.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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