Fasting and Abstinence - Free Catholic Faith & Practices Course
The History of Fasting & Abstinence from Biblical Times to 1900
Inasmuch as abstinence signifies abstaining from food, the Bible narrative points to the first instance wherein such a course of conduct was imposed by law (Genesis 2:16-17). The obvious purpose of this mandate was to lead the moral head of the human race to recognize the necessary dependence of creature upon Creator. The hour which witnessed the transgression of this law marked an increase in the debt which the creature owed the Creator. Adam's disobedience rendered all men criminal, and liable to the necessity of appeasing God's justice. To meet this new exigency nature dictated the necessity of penance; positive legislation determined the ways and means whereby this natural obligation would best be concreted. The chief results of this determination are positive statutes concerning fasting and abstinence. Laws relating to fasting are principally intended to define what pertains to the quantity of food allowed on days of fasting, while those regulating abstinence, what refers to the quality of viands. In some instances both obligations coincide; thus, the Fridays of Lent are days of fasting and abstinence. In other instances the law of abstinence alone binds the faithful; thus ordinary Fridays are simply days of abstinence. The purpose of this article is to trace the history of ecclesiastical legislation regarding the law of abstinence, as well as to examine the motives which underlie this legislation.
The Bible: abstinence in the Old Testament
Fasting implying abstinence was ordained by law for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29 sq.). The ceremony incident to this feast was observed by the Jews on the fifth day before the feast of Tabernacles. From evening of the ninth until evening of the tenth day labour and eating were strictly prohibited. Besides this passage the sacred narrative contains many others which show how adversity moved the Jews to assume the burden of fasting and abstinence in a spirit of penance (Judges 20:26; Judith 6:20; Joel 1:14; 2:15). Moreover, the Jews abstained on the ninth day of the fourth month, because on that day Nabuchodonosor captured Jerusalem (Jeremiah 52:6); on the tenth day of the fifth month, because on that day the temple was burned (Jeremiah 52:12 sq.); on the third day of the seventh month, because on that day Godolias had been murdered (Jeremiah 41:2); and on the tenth day of the tenth month, because on that day the Chaldees commenced the siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1 sq.). They were told that fidelity to these regulations would bring joy, gladness, and great solemnities to the house of Juda (Zechariah 8:19). During the month of new corn they were obliged to spend seven days without leaven, and to eat the bread of affliction in memory of their delivery from Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:3). In addition to those indications concerning the seasons of abstinence amongst the Jews, the sacred text contains passages regarding the ways and means whereby the law of abstinence assumed more definite shape amongst them. After the deluge God said to Noah: "Everything that moveth upon the earth shall be a meat for you, saving that flesh with blood you shall not eat" (Genesis 9:3-4; similar passages are contained in Leviticus 7:26 sq.; 17:14 sq.; Deuteronomy 12:15,16). A prohibition whereby corn, oil, wine, and the first-born of herds and cattle are forbidden in towns is set forth in Deuteronomy 12:17. Priests were forbidden to drink any intoxicant lest they die (Leviticus 10:9). The eleventh chapter of Leviticus contains a detailed enumeration of the various beasts, birds, and fish that fall under the ban. Such were reputed unclean. Abstinence from things legally unclean was intended to train the Israelites in the pursuit of spiritual cleanness.
The Old Testament furnishes several instances of celebrated personages who betook themselves to this chastisement of the flesh. David kept fast on account of the child born of the wife of Urias (2 Samuel 12:16); Esther humbled her body with fasts (Esther 14:2); Judith fasted all the days of her life (Judges 8:6); Daniel ate neither bread nor flesh till the days of three weeks were accomplished (Daniel 10:3), and Judas Machabeus and all the people craved mercy in tears and fasting (2 Maccabees 13:12). Moreover, Esdras commanded a fast by the river Ahava (Ezra 8:21). The King of Ninive proclaimed a fast in Ninive whereby neither man nor beasts should taste anything, whether of food or drink (Jonah 3:7). Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elias (1 Kings 19:8) spent forty days in abstinence and fasting. Finally, the Pharisee in the Temple declared that he fasted "twice in a week" (Luke 18:12). Apropos of this passage Duchesne says that Monday and Thursday were days of fasting among the pious Jews ("Christian Worship", London, 1903, 228).
The New Testament
In the first portion of his Gospel St. Matthew relates how Christ passed forty days in the desert, during which time neither food nor drink passed his lips. No doubt this penance of the God-man was not only expiatory, but also exemplary. True, Christ did not explicitly define the days nor the weeks wherein his followers would be obliged to fast and abstain. At the same time his example, coupled with his reply to the disciples of the Baptist, is an evidence that the future would find his followers subjected to regulations whereby they would fast "after the bridegroom had been taken away". The only piece of clearly defined legislation concerning abstinence embodied in the New Testament was framed by the Council of Jerusalem, prescribing "abstinence from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled" (Acts 15:29). Nevertheless the Acts of the Apostles give evidence of a tendency on the part of the Church, as an organized body, to prepare the way for important events by abstinence and fasting (Acts 13:3; 14:22). In fine, St. Paul sets forth the necessity of abstinence when he says that "everyone striving for the mastery must abstain from all things" (1 Corinthians 9:25); and "let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of Christ in labours, watchings, and fastings" (2 Corinthians 6:5), which he had often practiced (2 Corinthians 11:27).
The Latin Church: subjects under, and material element of, the law
Throughout the Latin Church the law of abstinence prohibits all responsible subjects from indulging in meat diet on duly appointed days. Meat diet comprises the flesh, blood, or marrow of such animals and birds as constitute flesh meat according to the appreciation of intelligent and law-abiding Christians. For this reason the use of fish, vegetables, mollusks, crabs, turtles, frogs, and such-like cold-blooded creatures is not at variance with the law of abstinence. Amphibians are relegated to the category whereunto they bear most striking resemblance. This classification can scarcely preclude all doubt regarding viands prohibited by the law of abstinence. Local usage, together with the practice of intelligent and conscientious Christians, generally holds a key for the solution of mooted points in such matters, otherwise the decision rests with ecclesiastical authority. Furthermore, on many fasting days during the year the law of abstinence bars the use of such viands as bear some identity of origin with flesh meat. For this reason eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and lard are interdicted (St. Thomas, Summa, II-II, Q. cvii, art. ult., ad 3). The Church enjoins the ways and means whereby her subjects must satisfy the obligation of doing penance inculcated by natural law. Many of the Fathers allude to the exercise of ecclesiastical authority in reference to the obligation of abstinence. The disciplinary canons of various councils bear witness to the actual exercise of authority in the same direction. 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 fain 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 [Cf. Prop. 23, ap. Bucceroni, Enchiridion Morale, 145 (Rome, 1905)]. In fine, the Trullan synod (can. 58, ap. Hefele, "History of the Councils of the Church", V, 231, Edinburgh, 1896) inflicts deposition on clerics and excommunication on laymen who violate this law. Furthermore, theologians claim that a grievous sin is committed as often as flesh meat is consumed in any quantity on abstinence days (Sporer, Theologia Moralis super Decalogum, I, De observ. jejunii, # 2, assert. II), because the law is negative, and binds semper et pro semper. In other words, the prohibition of the Church in this matter is absolute. At times, however, the quantity of prohibited material may be so small that the law suffers no substantial violation. From an objective standpoint such transgressions carry the guilt of venial sin. Moralists are by no means unanimous in deciding where the material element of such minor disorders passes into a material disorder of major importance. Some think that an ounce of flesh meat suffices to constitute a serious breach of this law, whereas others claim that nothing short of two ounces involves infringement of this obligation. Ordinarily, the actual observance of the law is confined to such circumstances as carry no insupportable burden. This is why the sick, the infirm, mendicants, labourers, and such as find difficulty in procuring fish diet are not bound to observe the law as long as such conditions prevail.
Days of abstinence
From the dawn of Christianity, Friday has been signalized as an abstinence day, in order to do homage to the memory of Christ suffering and dying on that day of the week. The "Teaching of the Apostles" (viii), Clement of Alexandria (Stromata VI.75), and Tertullian (On Fasting 14) make explicit mention of this practice. Pope Nicholas I (858-867) declares that abstinence from flesh meat is enjoined on Fridays. There is every reason to conjecture that Innocent III (1198-1216) had the existence of this law in mind when he said that this obligation is suppressed as often as Christmas Day falls on Friday (De observ. jejunii, ult. cap. Ap. Layman, Theologia Moralis, I, iv, tract. viii, ii). Moreover, the way in which the custom of abstaining on Saturday originated in the Roman Church is a striking evidence of the early institution of Friday as an abstinence day.
As early as the time of Tertullian, some churches occasionally prolonged the Friday abstinence and fast so as to embrace Saturday. Tertullian (On Fasting 14) calls this practice continuare jejunium — an expression subsequently superseded by superponere jejunium. Such prolongations were quite common at the end of the third century. The Council of Elvira (can. xxvi, ap. Hefele, op. cit., I, 147) enjoins the observance of one such fast and abstinence every month, except during July and August. At the same time the fathers of Elvira abrogated the "superposition" which had up to that time been obligatory on all Saturdays (Duchesne, op. cit., 231). Moreover, Gregory VII (1073-85) speaks in no uncertain terms of the obligation to abstain on Saturdays, when he declares that all Christians are bound to abstain from flesh meat on Saturday as often as no major solemnity (e.g. Christmas) occurs on Saturday, or no infirmity serves to cancel the obligation (cap. Quia dies, d. 5, de consecrat., ap. Joannes, Azor. Inst. Moral. I, Bk. VII, c. xii). Various authors have assigned different reasons to account for the extension of the obligation so as to bind the faithful to abstain not only on Fridays, but also on Saturdays. Some hold that this practice was inaugurated to commemorate the burial of Christ Jesus; others that it was instituted to imitate the Apostles and Disciples of Christ, who, together with the Holy Women, mourned the death of Christ even on the seventh day; while others claim that it owes its origin to the conduct of St. Peter, who passed Saturday in prayer, abstinence, and fasting, to prepare to meet Simon Magus on the following day (Acts, viii, 18 sq.; cf. Migne, P.L. XLIX, coll. 147, 148). Though the Roman Pontiffs have constantly refused to abrogate the law of abstaining on Saturday, special indults dispensing with the obligation have been granted to the faithful in many parts of the world.
In point of duration, as well as in point of penitential practices, Lent has been the subject of many vicissitudes. In the days of St. Irenæus (177-202) the season of penance preceding Easter was of rather short duration. Some fasted and therefore abstained from flesh meat etc. for one day, others for two days, and others again for a greater number of days. No distinct traces of the quadragesimal observance are discernible until the fourth century. The decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325 (can. v, ap. Hefele, op. cit., I, 387) contain the earliest mention of Lent. Thenceforward ecclesiastical history contains numerous allusions to those forty days. Nevertheless, the earliest references to the quadragesimal season indicate that it was then usually considered a time of preparation for baptism, or for the absolution of penitents, or a season of retreat and recollection for people living in the world. True, fasting and abstinence formed part of the duties characterizing this season, but there was little or no uniformity in the manner of observance. On the contrary, different countries adopted a different regime. At Rome it was customary to spend but three weeks, immediately before Easter, in abstinence, fasting, and praying (Socrates, Church History V.22). Many attempts were made to include Holy Week in Quadragesima. The attempt succeeded at Rome, so that thenceforward the Lenten season consisted of six weeks. During these six weeks Sundays were the only days not reached by the law of fasting, but the obligation to abstain was not withdrawn from Sundays. As a consequence, the Lenten season numbered no more than thirty-six days. Hence St. Ambrose (Serm. xxxiv, de Quadrag.) notes that the beginning of Lent and the first Sunday of Lent were simultaneous prior to the reign of Gregory I. In the seventh century four days were added. Some claim that this change was the work of Gregory I; others ascribe it to Gregory II (Layman, loc. cit.). Duchesne (op. cit., 244) says that it is impossible to tell who added four days to the thirty-six previously comprised in the Lenten season. It is likely, at all events, that the change was made so as to have forty days in which to commemorate Christ's forty days in the desert. Be this as it may, the Church has never deviated from the ordinance of the seventh century whereby the Lenten season comprises forty days over and above Sundays.
The beginning of the four seasons of the year is marked by Ember Week, during which Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are days of fasting and abstinence. Ember Week occurs after the first Sunday of Lent, after Pentecost, after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and after the third Sunday in Advent. According to some writers the Ember Days in December were introduced by the Apostles as a preparation for the ordinations which occurred during that month (Layman, loc. cit.). The scriptural basis for this practice is to be found in Acts 13:2 sq. The summer Ember Days were observed during the octave of Pentecost (St. Leo I, Sermo ii, de Pentecost.), and the autumn Ember Days in September (Idem, Sermo viii, De jejunio septimi mensis). In the False Decretals (c. 840-50) Pope Callistus (217-22) is made to add a fourth week. We decree, he says, that the fast which you have learned to keep three times yearly, shall henceforward be made four times a year (Epist., Decr. lxxvi, cap., i; Migne, P.G., X, 121). St. Jerome, in his commentary on the eighth chapter of Zachary, believes that the Ember Days were instituted after the example of the Jews, who fasted and abstained four times during the year, as noted in the preceding paragraph. St. Leo I (Sermo vii, De jej. sept. mensis) considers that the purpose of penance during Ember Week is to urge the faithful to special efforts in the cause of continency. The two views are entirely compatible.
Radulphus de Rivo (Kalendarium eccles. seu de observations canonum, Prop. xvi) and Innocent III (De observ. jej., cap. ii) testify that the Roman Church appointed a period of fasting and abstinence as a preparation for the solemnization of Christmas. Traces of this custom are still to be found in the Roman Breviary indicating the recitation of ferial prayers during Advent just as on days of fasting and abstinence. Radulphus de Rivo (loc. cit.) remarks that the Roman Church appointed the first Sunday after St. Catharine's feast as the beginning of Advent.
In former times the clergy assembled in church, on the eves of great festivals, and chanted the divine office. In like manner the laity also repaired to their churches and passed the time in watching and praying. Hence the term vigil. Innocent III (op. cit., i) mentions the vigils of Christmas, the Assumption, and the Apostles (28 June). It is likely that the obligation of abstaining on the vigils of Pentecost, St. John Baptist, St. Lawrence, and All Saints was introduced by custom (cf. Azor., op. cit., VII, xiii), for, according to Duchesne (op. cit., 287), the element of antiquity is not the fasting, but the vigil. Formerly, the obligation of abstaining on vigils was anticipated as often as a vigil fell on Sunday. This practice is still in vogue.
These days occur on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday preceding the Ascension. Mamertus, Bishop of Vienne, introduced (some time before 474) the custom of reciting the Litanies on these days. He also prescribed fasting and abstinence thereon. This practice was extended to the whole of Frankish Gaul in 511 by the first Council of Orléans (can. xxvii). About the beginning of the ninth century Leo III introduced the Rogation Days into Rome (Duchesne op. cit., 289). An almost similar observance characterizes the feast of St. Mark, and dates from about the year 589 (Duchesne, op. cit., 288).
Application of the law:
The United States
Diversity in customs, in climate, and in prices of food have gradually paved the way for modifications of the law of abstinence. Throughout the United States the ordinary Saturday is no longer a day of abstinence. During Lent, in virtue of an indult, the faithful are allowed to eat meat at their principal meal on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the second and last Saturdays excepted. The use of meat on such days is not restricted to the principal meal for such as are exempt from fasting by reason of ill health, age, or laborious occupations. Eggs, milk, butter, and cheese, formerly prohibited, are now permitted without restriction as far as the day of the week is concerned. The use of lard or dripping in preparing fish and vegetables at all meals and on all days is allowed by an indult issued 3 August, 1887. It is never lawful to take fish with flesh, at the same meal, during Lent, Sundays included (Benedict XIV, Litt. ad Archiep. Compostel., 10 June, 1745, ap. Bucceroni, Enchiridion Morale, 147). At other times this is not prohibited (Bucceroni, ib.). On Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as on the second and last Saturdays of Lent, flesh meat is not permitted. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays during Ember Week are still days of abstinence and fasting. The vigils of Christmas, Pentecost, Assumption, and All Saints are also days of abstinence and fasting. In virtue of faculties granted by the Holy See, workingmen, and their families as well, may use flesh meat once a day on all abstinence days throughout the year except Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, and the vigil of Christmas. This indult was issued for ten years, 15 March 1895, and renewed for another decade on 25 February, 1905. (See "Exposition of Christian Doctrine", Philadelphia, 1899, II, 528-529 Spirago-Clarke, "The Catechism Explained", New York, 1900; Diocesan Regulations for Lent.)
In Great Britain and Ireland, Fridays during the year, Wednesdays during Advent, weekdays during Lent, Ember Days, the vigils of Christmas, Pentecost, the Assumption, All Saints, Sts. Peter and Paul, and St. Andrew (in Scotland only) are days of abstinence. Meat is allowed by indult at the principal meal on all days during Lent except Wednesdays, Fridays, Holy Thursday, and the second and last Saturdays. Eggs are allowed at the principal meal during Lent except on Ash Wednesday and the last three days of Lent. Milk, butter, and cheese are allowed at the principal meal, and at the collation during Lent, except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Lard and drippings are allowed at the chief meal and at the collation, except on Good Friday. Suet is prohibited whenever meat is not allowed. Fish and flesh are never allowed at the same meal on any fast day during the year (Catholic Directory, London, 1906). In Australia, Fridays during the year, Wednesdays and Saturdays during Lent, Holy Thursday, Wednesdays during Advent, Ember Days, the vigils of Christmas, Pentecost, the Assumption, Sts. Peter and Paul, and All Saints are days of abstinence. There is a somewhat general practice whereby the use of meat is allowed at the chief meal on ordinary Saturdays throughout the year. For the rest, the application of the law of abstinence is much the same as in Ireland (The Year Book of Australia, Sydney, 1892). In Canada, Fridays during the year, Wednesdays during Lent and Advent, Ember Days, the vigils of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, the Assumption, Sts. Peter and Paul, and All Saints are days of abstinence. The abstinence incident to the feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul and the Assumption is transferred to the eve of the transferred solemnity. Milk, butter, cheese, and eggs are allowed during Lent even at the collation; lard and drippings as in the United States. (See "Expos. of Christian Doctrine", Philadelphia, 1899, II, 528, 529.)
The Greek Church
In the Greek Church the law of abstinence is designated by the term xerophagy in contradistinction to monophagy, signifying the law of fasting. In its strictest sense xerophagy bars all viands except bread, salt, water, fruits, and vegetables (St. Epiphanius, Expositio Fidei, xxii; Migne, P.G., XLII, col. 828; Apost. Const., V, xviii, ap. Migne, P.G., I, col. 889). On days of abstinence meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, oil, and wine are rigorously interdicted. This traditional custom of rigorous abstinence still binds the Greeks on all Wednesdays and Fridays, on all days of their Major Lent, including Saturdays and Sundays, except Palm Sunday, on which day oil, wine, and fish are now permitted, and on the vigils of Christmas and Epiphany. Xerophagy seems to have been obligatory only on these days. Another less severe form of abstinence, still common among the Greeks, prohibits the use of meat, eggs, milk, and sometimes fish on certain occasions. According to their present regime, the Greeks observe this mitigated form of abstinence during their Lent of the Apostles (i.e. from Monday after the feast of All Saints, celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost, until 29 June); during Mary's Lent (1-14 August); during Christmas Lent, or Advent (also called St. Philip's Lent, 15 November to 24 December); 29 August (commemoration of the Beheading of St. John Baptist) and on 14 September (feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross). The canonical regulations determining obligatory abstinence have suffered no substantial alteration during the lapse of many centuries. In its general outlines this legislation is the same for the Greek Church Uniat and non-Uniat. The Uniat Greek Church is not allowed to father any innovation without explicit authorization from the Holy See (Benedict XIV, Decret. Demandatam, #vi, in his Bullarium, I, 128, Venice ed., 1778). Though usage and dispensations have led the way to certain modifications, the canons covering this matter remain unchanged. Custom has made the use of wine and oil legitimate on xerophagy days. In many places fish is likewise allowed, except during the first and last week of their Major Lent. Goar (Euchologium, Venice, 1730, 175) says that the Greeks of his day were allowed by an unwritten law to eat fish, eggs, snails, and such-like viands on xerophagy days.
Innovations in the duration of the Greek penitential seasons have originated in usage. Thus arose their practice of spending the week preceding their Major Lent in minor abstinence, as a prelude to the more rigorous observance of the Lenten season (Nilles, Kalendarium, II, 36, Innsbruck, 1885; Vacant, Dict. de théol. cath., I, 264). This custom lapsed into desuetude, but the decrees of the Synod of Zamosc, 1720 (tit. xvi, Collect. Lacensis, II), show that the Ruthenians had again adopted it. The Melchites have reduced their xerophagy during Christmas Lent to fifteen days. The same tendency to minimize is found amongst the Ruthenians (Synod of Zamosc, loc. cit.). The Apostles' Lent counts no more than twelve days for the Melchites. Goar says that their Christmas Lent is reduced to seven days. Other alterations in these seasons have been made at various times in different places. The Greeks enjoy some relaxation of this obligation on a certain number of days during the year. Accordingly, when feasts solemnized in the Greek Church fall on ordinary Wednesdays and Fridays, or on days during their various Lenten seasons (Wednesdays and Fridays excepted), a complete or partial suspension of xerophagy takes place. The obligation of abstaining from flesh is withdrawn on Wednesdays and Fridays between Christmas and 4 January; whenever Epiphany falls on Wednesday or Friday; Wednesday and Friday during the week preceding the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross; during the octaves of Easter and Pentecost. Some of the Greeks, especially the Melchites, hold that xerophagy does not bind from Easter to Pentecost [cf. Pilgrimage of Etheria (Peregrinatio Sylviae) ap. Duchesne, op. cit. 569]. In their partial suspension of the xerophagy the Greeks maintain the obligation of abstaining from flesh meat, but they countenance the use of such other viands as are ordinarily prohibited when the law is in full force. This mitigation finds application as often as the following festivals fall on Wednesdays or Fridays not included in their Lenten seasons, or any day (Wednesdays and Fridays excepted) during their Lenten seasons: 24 November, Feast of St. Philip; 21 November, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary; 7 January, Commemoration of St. John Baptist; 2 February; Presentation of Christ in the Temple; 25 March, Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary; 29 June, The Apostles; 6 August, Transfiguration, 15 August, Assumption; and Palm Sunday. St. Basil's rule is followed by all monks and nuns in the Greek Church. Xerophagy is their general rule for penitential practices. The law of abstaining from meat admits no relaxation. The greater solemnities entitle them to use fish, eggs, milk, oil, and wine. Feasts of minor solemnity, falling on days other than Wednesday or Friday, admit fish, eggs, milk, oil, and wine, otherwise wine and oil only. Finally, simple feasts admit the use of oil and wine. The obligation of xerophagy on Wednesdays and Fridays dates its origin to apostolic tradition (cf. Teaching of the Apostles, viii, I; Clement of Alexandria, Strom. VI, lxxv; Tertullian, On Fasting 14). The xerophagy of Major Lent is likewise of ancient growth. There is strong reason to think that the question was mooted in the second century, when the Easter controversy waxed strong. Writings of the fourth century afford frequent references to this season. According to the Pilgrimage of Etheria (Duchesne, op. cit., 555), the end of the fourth century witnessed Jerusalem devoting forty days (a period of eight weeks) to fasting and abstinence. The season comprised eight weeks because Orientals keep both Saturday (save Holy Saturday) and Sunday as days of rejoicing, and not of penance. There are several noteworthy evidences of those forty days thus appointed by the Greeks for abstinence and fasting (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatech., no. 4, and Catech., iv, 3, ap. Migne, P.G., XXXIII, 341, 347; Eusebius, De solemnitate pascuali, no. 4, Migne, P.G., XXIV, 697; Apostolic Canons, can. lxviii, ap. Hefele, op. cit., I, 485). The canons of Greek councils show no traces of legislation regarding their Christmas Lent etc. prior to the eighth century. No doubt the practice of keeping xerophagy during these seasons originated in monasteries and thence passed to the laity. In the beginning of the ninth century St. Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople, states that all are obliged to observe xerophagy during those seasons (Pitra, Juris Ecclesiastici Graeci Historia et Monumenta, Rome, 1868, II, 327). It is scarcely necessary to note here that the Greek Church has legislated nearly half of the year into days of fasting or abstinence or both. Nevertheless, many Oriental writers protest against a lessening of this number. In point of fact, however, many Greeks claim that many days of this kind scarcely win proper recognition from the faithful.
The Russian Church
The legislation of the Russian church relating to abstinence consists of an elaborate program specifying days of penance whereon various sorts of food are forbidden, and indicating several festivals whereon the rigor of the law is tempered to a greater or lesser degree according to the grade of solemnity characterizing the fast. Good Friday is signalized by their most severe form of exterior penance, namely complete abstinence. During their Major Lent cold, dried fare is prescribed for Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, as well as for the first three days of Holy Week. On Saturdays and Sundays during this period fish is prohibited, and crustaceans are allowed. On Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, as well as on the vigil of Christmas, baked fare and fruit are enjoined. Oil is prohibited, and wine allowed, on Holy Saturday, on Thursday of the Major Canon (Thursday of the fifth week in Lent), and on Good Friday, whenever the Annunciation coincides therewith. Fish is interdicted, but fish eggs are permitted on the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday, and on the feast of St. Lazarus. Wine and oil are allowed on Holy Thursday. During their Christmas Lent, Mary's Lent, and the Apostles' Lent meat is prohibited, but wine and oil are allowed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The same regulation applies to 14 September, 29 August, and 5 January. During Mary's Lent milk diet is interdicted; fish diet is permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. During the other two minor Lents the same injunction holds on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The same regulation binds on Palm Sunday, as well as on Wednesdays and Fridays of Paschaltide. Finally, the feasts of the Transfiguration, Mary's Nativity, Annunciation, Purification, Presentation, and Assumption, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Commemoration of St. John the Baptist, 7 January, occurring during Lent, or on Wednesday or Friday, are marked by this same degree of abstinence. Meat diet is under the ban, except during the whole of carnival week. Russian monks are obliged to observe this part of the program during the whole year. The Russian Church suspends the obligation of abstinence during Christmastide (25 December to 6 January, minus the vigil of Epiphany), during Eastertide, and during the octave of Pentecost.
All branches of the Syrian Church abstain on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Lent, in keeping with the Apostolic Canons (Can. lxviii, Hefele, loc. cit). The Council of Laodicea (can. 1), recognized by all Syrians, enjoins xerophagy for Lent (Hefele, op. cit., II, 320). Nevertheless, changes and abuses have been gradually introduced into various portions of the Syrian Church.
(a) Among the laity all adults are obliged to abstain on all Wednesdays and Fridays. On those days eggs, milk, and cheese are interdicted. During Lent their rigorous regime excludes the use of eggs, milk, butter, cheese, fish, and wine. The Apostles' Lent is observed from Pentecost to 29 June. Abstinence is then recommended, not imposed. Mary's Lent lasts fifteen days. The Christmas Lent is kept by monks forty days longer than by laics. During these periods a less rigorous regime is in vogue. Finally, their ninivitic, or rogation, abstinence continues for three days.
(b) Following the example of James of Edessa, the Jacobite monks and nuns observe alternately seven weeks of fasting and abstinence, with seven other weeks wherein such obligations apply on Wednesdays and Fridays only. Some eat no meat during the entire Year. Sozomen (Church History VI) speaks of Syrian anchorites who live on herbs without eating even so much as bread, or drinking wine. Rabulas, Bishop of Edessa (d. 435), and the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (420) (Hefele, op. cit., II, 449 sq.) forbade monks and nuns to eat meat.
As a general rule, the laity follow the same regime as the Jacobites. With them Lent begins on Quinquagesima Sunday. Contrary to their ancient discipline, they abstain on Saturdays and Sundays. They observe the same minor penitential seasons as the Jacobites. Their ninivitic, or rogation, season is kept on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the third week before Lent. The canonical regulations for monks and nuns prescribe fasting and abstinence as observed in other branches of the Syrian Church. Nevertheless, at various periods, innovations and relaxations have found their way into Nestorian communities of men and women (Vacant, op. cit., I, 268).
Lent for the laity commences on Monday of Quinquagesima week and continues until Holy Saturday. Saturdays and Sundays (Holy Saturday excepted), together with obligatory feasts occurring during Lent, are not fasting days, but even then meat and milk diet are strictly forbidden. Their Christmas Lent begins on 5 December and ends on 24 December. Mary's Lent begins on 1 August and ends on 14 August; 6 August is not included therein. The Apostles' Lent begins 15 June and ends 28 June, although 24 June is not therein included. Meat, eggs, and milk diet are interdicted on all Wednesdays and Fridays except such as occur during Christmastide, Eastertide, or the octave of Pentecost. This mitigation takes place during the week preceding their Major Lent and on the feasts of the Transfiguration, St. John the Baptist, and Sts. Peter and Paul. Their legislation for monks and nuns is simple and austere. They are forbidden to eat flesh meat under penalty of grievous sin, unless a physician should order it for them in case of illness. When obliged to make long journeys, they must have recourse to the bishop or their own local superior for permission to eat meat during the journey (Vacant, op. cit., I, 269).
Vartan, whom the Armenians regard as the leading exponent of their ecclesiastical traditions, held that they were bound not only to abide by the legislation framed in the Council of Jerusalem, but also to adhere to the Mosaic law regarding unclean animals (Vacant, op. cit., I, 269). The Council of Florence condemned this rigorism and decided that the decrees enacted in the Council of Jerusalem concerning this matter, as well as the Mosaic regulations regarding unclean animals, have no longer the binding force of law. The Armenians recognize the sixty-eighth canon of the Apostles, which prescribes abstinence on Wednesdays and Fridays, and on all days of Major Lent. The Greek canonists Zonaras and Balsamon liken the abstinence of Wednesdays and Fridays to that of Lent. During Lent nothing save bread, salt, herbs, and wine is allowed the laity. Meat, fish, milk, cheese, butter, eggs, and oil are under the ban. Nevertheless, with time there become visible traces of innovation in this discipline. At present the Armenians observe the law of abstinence on Wednesdays and Fridays, except during the octave of Epiphany and during Eastertide, i.e. from Easter Sunday to Ascension Day. Their Major Lent begins on Monday of Quinquagesima week and terminates on Holy Saturday. From Ash Wednesday until Easter Day they keep xerophagy except on Saturdays and Sundays, when milk diet is allowed. Besides, they devote the week preceding the feasts of the Transfiguration, the Assumption, the Holy Cross, and St. Gregory to abstinence and fasting. They are likewise obliged to abstain for one week during Advent, one week preceding the feast of St. James, and another immediately before the Epiphany. The Armenian monks and nuns never eat meat. With them the law of abstinence is quite rigorous. They may eat fish whenever the laity are allowed to eat meat.
Lay people are obliged to abstain from flesh meat, eggs, and milk diet during all the penitential seasons. Such are Major Lent, Mary's Lent, Christmas Lent, and the Apostles' Lent. They are bound by the law of abstinence on all Wednesdays and Fridays, except during the interval between Easter and Pentecost, and whenever Christmas or Epiphany falls on Wednesday or Friday. The law of abstinence extends to Saturdays and Sundays during their penitential seasons. During Major Lent and Holy Week fish is prohibited. At other times its use is lawful. Some time has elapsed since the rigor peculiar to seasons of penance in the Orient was mitigated amongst the Copts. It was then restricted to the observance of abstinence during all seasons except Major Lent. Nevertheless, a goodly number of Copts continue to keep Mary's Lent with pristine rigor. While residing in their monasteries, the Coptic monks and nuns are bound to abstain from meat, eggs, and milk diet throughout the year. Whenever they dwell outside the monastery they may conform to the regulations binding the laity.
Motives of ecclesiastical laws pertaining to abstinence
According to the vagaries of the Manicheans, Montanists and Encratites, flesh meat is intrinsically evil and merits the most rigorous kind of prohibition. Keenly sensible of this heterodoxy, the Church of Christ has not based her ordinances enjoining abstinence on any such unwarranted assumption. As the exponent of revelation, the Church knows and teaches that every creature in the visible universe is equally a work of the divine wisdom, power, and goodness, which defy all limitations. This is why the first pages of the inspired text indicate that the Creator "saw all the things that he had made and they were very good" (Genesis 1:31). St. Paul is, if anything, still more explicit in condemning the folly of those sectaries, though they originated after his day. "Now, the Spirit manifestly says that in the last times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to spirits of error, and doctrines of devils . . . forbidding to marry, to abstain from meats which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving by the faithful and by them that know the truth. For, every creature is good, and nothing to be rejected that is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:1, 2, 3). Neither is the Church, in her legislation on abstinence, animated by any such gross superstition as influences the adherents of Brahmanism or Buddhism. Moved by their theories regarding the transmigration of souls, they are logically induced to abstain from eating the flesh of animals, lest they should unconsciously consume their parents or friends. In consequence of those notions their diet is vegetarian. So rigorous is the law prescribing this diet that transgressions are visited with social and domestic ostracism. At the same time this ultra conservatism has not been espoused by all who share the doctrine regarding the transmigration of souls. Many of them have not hesitated to temper their belief in this creed with a mitigated form of abstinence from flesh meat.
Eagerness to harmonize her disciplinary regime with the exigencies of the Mosaic legislation did not prompt the Church in shaping the measures which she set before her children in regard to abstinence. Though the Law of Moses embodies a detailed catalogue of forbidden viands, Christ abrogated those prohibitions when the Law was fulfilled. The Apostles, assembled in the Council of Jerusalem, gave definite shape to their convictions concerning the passing of the Old Law, as well as to their divinely founded right to shape and mould the tenor of ecclesiastical legislation so as best to meet the spiritual needs of those entrusted to their charge (Acts 15:28-29). Nevertheless, legislation alone is well-nigh powerless in attempting to change abruptly the current of traditions and prejudices, when they are so deeply rooted in national institutions as to form an important factor in the growth and development of a nation. This was precisely the sort of problem that confronted the missionary enterprises of the Apostles. Their converts were recruited from Paganism and Judaism. Though Jews and Gentiles were doubtless sincere in their conversion to the new religion, previous habits of thought and action had left more than superficial traces in their character. As a consequence, many Jewish converts were unwilling to forego the Mosaic law concerning unclean meats, while Gentile converts could see no reason whatsoever for adopting the tenets of Judaism. This diversity of sentiment paved the way to misunderstanding, and all but open rupture, in various communities of the early Church. This is why St. Paul speaks so unequivocally regarding the lawfulness of all meats, but recommends due consideration for those Christians whose conscience will not brook this liberty (Romans 14; Galatians 3:28; Romans 2). Centuries of Christian life have so greatly simplified this matter that it is now well-nigh impossible to realize how there could then have been anything more than a passing controversy. At the same time it is well to bear in mind that in the beginning of the present era the Apostles were called upon to deal amicably with those who based their conservatism on the traditions of two thousand years of adhesion to the Mosaic legislation.
Daily experience testifies that the phenomena circumscribing the evolution of life in the material world are rooted in laws involving a process of transition from death unto life. "The struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest" is simply the dictum of science admitting the presence of this law in the animal kingdom. This law, so widespread in the material order, has been embodied in that economy wherein they who would imitate Christ must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow Him. Hence, in molding her penitential discipline, the Church is inspired by the maxims and example of her Divine Founder. As a consequence, she is not the author of arbitrary measures in this matter; she simply frames her laws of abstinence to meet the exigencies of fallen nature. Darkness in the understanding, weakness in the will, and turbulence in the passions must ever remain to reveal the ravages of sin in fallen man. Though the passions are destined to satisfy the legitimate cravings of human nature, and enable man to develop his being according to the dictates of reason, still they give unquestionable evidence of a vicious propensity to invade the domain of reason and usurp her sovereignty. In order to check this lawless invasion of the passions, and to subordinate their movements to the empire of reason, man is obliged to labor unceasingly; else he is sure to become the slave of unbridled passion. This is what St. Paul means when he says: "The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh" etc. (Galatians 5:17). The substance of certain viands, especially meat, renders inestimable service to man in his efforts to gain and retain the desired supremacy. This is what St. Jerome means when, quoting Terence, he says: Sine Cerere et Baccho, friget Venus (Cont. Jov., II, 6), or, to use the words of St. Thomas (II-II, q. cxlvii, art. 1), "the ardor of lust is dampened by abstinence from food and drink." Besides, abstinence exercises a salutary influence in leading man to suprasensible pursuits. For, according to St. Augustine (De oratione et jejunio, sermo ccxxx, de temp.), abstinence purifies the soul, elevates the mind, subordinates the flesh to the spirit, begets a humble and contrite heart, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, extinguishes the fire of lust, and enkindles the true light of chastity. This is summarized in the official message of the Church found in the Mass-preface used during Lent: "Who by bodily fasting suppresses vice, ennobles the mind, grants virtue and rewards." It is no exaggeration, therefore, to maintain that Christians must find in abstinence an efficacious means to repair the losses of the spirit and augment its gains. Inspired by such motives, the Church wisely prohibits the use of flesh meat at duly appointed times. Seemingly harsh, the law of abstinence, in its last analysis, serves to promote bodily and spiritual well-being. The mechanism of the body stamps man as an omnivorous animal. Hence, all nations have adopted a mixed diet. Nay, more, a priori and a posteriori reasons prove that the occasional interruption of meat diet conduces to bodily and spiritual health. In case of less rugged constitutions, the Church tempers the rigors of her legislation with the mildness of her dispensations. Finally, the experience of nineteen centuries proves that transgression of this law neither promotes health nor prolongs life. Hence, consummate wisdom and prudence, seeking to safeguard the welfare of soul and body, inspire the Church in her laws pertaining to abstinence.
TERTULLIAN, De Jejunio, P.L., II, ST. LEO I, Sermones, P.L., LIV; HERMAS Pastor, in Ante-Nicene Fathers (New York), II; CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, ibid., II; Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, ibid., VII, DUCHESNE, Christian Worship: Its origin and evolution (tr. London, 1904); Pilgrimage of Etheria (Sylviae), in DUCHESNE, op. cit., 547-577; HEFELE, A History of the Councils of the Church (tr. Edinburgh, 1896), I, II, V; ST. THOMAS, Summa, II-II, QQ. cxivii, cxlvii THOMASSIN, Traité des jeùnes d' I'Egise (Paris, 16800; LAYMAN, Theologia Moralis (Padua, 1733); SPORER, Theologia Moralis super Decalogum (Venice, 1761), I; VACANT, Dict. de théol. cath (Paris, 1899), I, 262-277.
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APA citation. O'Neill, J.D. (1907). Abstinence. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 7, 2023 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01067a.htm
MLA citation. O'Neill, James David. "Abstinence." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 7 Apr. 2023 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01067a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by the Cloistered Dominican Nuns of the Monastery of the Infant Jesus, Lufkin, Texas. Dedicated to St. Antony of Egypt.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.