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Ash Wednesday Fasting and Church Teaching

February 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Lent, Seasonal Meditations

Fasting and Church TeachingEvery year a bunch of questions come up concerning Lent and the details of the laws governing it. Sometimes these rules are misstated or not clearly stated in various places on the web, so let’s look at what the Church’s official documents say regarding the practice of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday.

Before we do that, though, let me offer a few notes of caution:

1) The Church’s laws regarding fast and abstinence today are very mild. As such, they are minimums. One can go beyond what they require and observe a stricter form of penitence, though one is not legally required to do so.

2) There are ways of technically staying within the letter of the law while violating its spirit–e.g., avoiding meat but having a lavish seafood feast. These should be avoided. We want to keep both the letter and the spirit of the law.

3) The Church does not mean us to hurt ourselves by observing penitential practices, and there are a number of exceptions to the law of fast in particular. Anyone who has a medical condition that would conflict with fasting is not obliged to observe it. For example, someone with diabetes, someone who has been put on a special diet by a doctor, someone with acid reflux disease who needs to keep food in the stomach to avoid acid buildup.

Now let’s look at the law.

Ash Wednesday is a day of abstinence and fast. According to Pope Paul VI’s constitution Paenitemini:

III. 1. The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat.

2. The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing–as far as quantity and quality are concerned–approved local custom.

Something to note about the law of fast is that while it acknowledges one full meal, it does not further specify the quantity of “some food” that can be consumed in the morning and evening. You sometimes hear or read about “two smaller meals as long as they don’t add up to another full meal” but this is not what the law says. It just says “some food.” That is certainly something less than a full meal, but the Church does not intend people to scruple about precisely amounts. (Also, the “doesn’t add up to another full meal” rule is very difficult to apply since people eat meals of different sizes during the day and the “size” of a meal can be measured in more than one way; e.g., calories vs. volume.)

The law does provide that approved local custom can regulate the quantity and quality of this food, but the U.S. bishops have not established a complementary norm regulating this. Nor has any U.S. bishop bound his subjects in this respect, to my knowledge. (Your mileage may vary.)

Now: Who is bound to abstain and fast? Here the governing document is the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

Canon 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

“Those who have completed their fourteenth year” mean those who have had their fourteenth birthday (your first year starts at birth and is completed with your first birthday). The obligation to abstain begins then and continues for the rest of one’s life.

Not so with the law of fasting. “Those who have attained their majority” refers to those who have had their eighteenth birthday, and “the beginning of their sixtieth year” occurs when one turns fifty-nine (the sixtieth year is the one preceding one’s sixtieth birthday, the same way the first year precedes the first birthday). The law of fast thus binds from one’s eighteenth birthday to one’s fifty-ninth–unless a medical condition intervenes.

What about those who are too young to be subject to these requirements? Here Paenitemini states:

As regards those of a lesser age, pastors of souls and parents should see to it with particular care that they are educated to a true sense of penitence.

As noted, these are legal minimums, and one certainly can do more.

By Jimmy Akin – To read more posts by Jimmy Akin, go to the National Catholic Register

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • underhermantle

    Good advice to make a good start for lent.

  • Claire

    Why age 59? Since 60 is the new 40 I’m much younger than I used to be.
    And did the obligation to abstain used to begin at an earlier age? That’s the impression we were given in Catholic schools lo those many years ago.
    Just wondering…

  • Kikyflorencia

    thanks, I hope I’ll finish Lent with a growth Spirit!!!

  • Debbie

    The homily I just came from for Ash Wednesday caught me off guard. The priest asked that we take the first part of Lent (he did not give a specific time frame) to determine what we should give up for Lent and it should be a bad habit. Then take the rest of Lent to slowly begin acting on it until you build up the resistance to give it up entirely. Is this right? I have never heard of something like this before, Please note that this is not the church I normally attend.

    • Claire

      Not a bad idea. Maybe some of the many people who show up on Ash Wednesday haven’t really prepared for Lent. Taking some time to think about what habit God might want us to change and then beginning to work on it slowly could actually be a good idea. Better than giving up smoking for Lent and celebrating Easter with a fresh pack of Winstons.

  • Sue Clark

    Love the pic you have included “God Alone”. Thanks for a wonderful post!

  • A good reminder of what the Lenten Season is all about.  Now, I used to chide my father who continued observing Abstinence and Fasting when he was well over 60 (he passed on at a ripe old age of 100 years!!! still observing the Lenten Season since his health was excellent).  Now since by God’s Unfathomable Grace, I am still hearty and healthy at 73, I am challenged by my late Father.  So, I feel I must do some sacrifice and abstain from I know not what I love so that he can see he taught me well. I wish you all a Faith-renewing and building Lent.

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