Fasting and Abstaining from Meat: Letter vs. Spirit

During Lent, Catholics must fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. On other Fridays of Lent, Catholics must simply abstain from meat. Here are some more specifics, for Catholics in the U.S., from the USCCB. In the U.S., the obligation to fast begins when you turn 18, and ends when you turn 59. This post discusses the difference between the letter and the spirit of the rules on fasting and abstaining from meat.

The usual discipline for the minimum required fast is one full meal only, two smaller meals, if needed to maintain strength; the two small meals should together equal less than one full meal. Also, a fast generally includes abstaining from meat.

The usual discipline for abstaining from meat allows no beef, lamb, pork, chicken, nor any other red or white meat at all. Seafood is permitted. Foods merely flavored with meat, such as beef broth or a pasta sauce with meat flavoring (not chunks of meat) are permissible. Foods cooked in fat from animals (beef fat, chicken fat, etc.) are permissible.

See also: Is it a mortal sin not to fast or abstain from meat during Lent?

Now there is nothing wrong with the above described letter of the law for fasting and abstaining. But the eternal moral law requires that interior observance accompany exterior observance. Without the former, the latter is a whitewashed tomb.

{6:16} And when you fast, do not choose to become gloomy, like the hypocrites. For they alter their faces, so that their fasting may be apparent to men. Amen I say to you, that they have received their reward.

{23:25} Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you clean what is outside the cup and the dish, but on the inside you are full of avarice and impurity.
{23:26} You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the dish, and then what is outside becomes clean.
{23:27} Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed sepulchers, which outwardly appear brilliant to men, yet truly, inside, they are filled with the bones of the dead and with all filth.

So what can we say about the interior discipline of fasting and abstaining?

First and foremost, fasting and abstaining must be done out of love of God. And since you might offer any of the sufferings of this life to God for the sake of your neighbor, fasting and abstaining can also be done out of love of neighbor. Love enlivens every true sacrifice. Without love, sacrifice is useless suffering.

Prayer should always accompany fasting and abstaining. For prayer exercises the three theological virtues of love, faith, and hope, making any sacrifice more effective and more meaningful.

Fasting and abstaining should not be sought as an end in themselves. They are a means to an end. We do not glorify suffering. We accept suffering in this fallen and sinful world as a way to reach eternal happiness in Heaven, where there is no suffering.

Self-denial of all kinds helps human persons become detached from passing goods, so as to more easily and more fully love God and neighbor. Self-denial strengthens love, faith, hope, and all the virtues.

And how does this interior discipline affect the exterior discipline?

You are not really fasting if your one full meal is very full, and includes all your favorite foods (other than meat). You are not really fasting if your two smaller meals are as large as possible, and contain all your favorite foods. The minimum for fasting is offered so that even those who are weak in body (or weak in faith) can participate, to some extent in the fast. But unless you are ill or injured or in a weakened state of health due to old age (or some other reason), you should try to do more than the minimum fast.

Make your one full meal less than a typical full meal, and exclude your favorite foods as well as meat. For the two smaller meals, if you find these necessary at all, try a very light meal, such as a bowl of soup (no meat), or a little toast with butter.

Conversely, some persons, with the proper interior disposition, might need to omit or break the fast. If you find that fasting is harming your health, you can cease from the fast (but continue abstaining from meat) for the sake of health. The Church does not wish the faithful to endanger their health or lives in their fasting. In such a case, you should substitute some other acts of self-denial (such as giving up television or the internet for the day), and be sure to spend sufficient time in prayer.

When abstaining from meat, you would violate the spirit of the law if you at no meat at all, but in its place had sumptuous meals with every non-meat delicacy: seafood, cheeses, nuts, desserts, etc. Catholics traditionally eat fish on Fridays of Lent, and that practice is fine. But in the spirit of self-denial, the food should be limited in quantity and should not be the most expensive or most desired of the non-meat foods. You should not have an indulgent lobster dinner on a Friday of Lent.

The spirit of fasting and abstaining is an attitude of self-denial. If you find clever ways so that your fasting and abstaining includes no self-denial, or even self-indulgence, then you have violated the spirit of the law, and you have therefore not fulfilled your moral obligation.

If you are a vegetarian, then when you abstain, choose one of the main foods from your usual vegetarian diet to omit: cheese or milk/yogurt or nuts or some other preferred food. A vegetarian who does not change his diet at all on days of abstaining from meat follows the letter of the law, but not its spirit. The same is true for a vegan. A vegan should find some favorite food to omit on days of abstaining, such as nuts and seeds, or desserts, or some other food.

If you truly love God and neighbor, you must practice self-denial so as to free your soul to increase that love, unto eternal love in Heaven.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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