I have received several questions this week concerning abstinence in relation to Lent. Everyone seems to get fasting so, I thought we would address all the questions concerning abstinence at the same time.
In the Latin Rite, Catholics are bound to abstain from meat on Fridays from their fourteenth year till death. The Law of Fasting on the other hand is binding from their sixteenth year through their sixtieth year.
Canon 1252 All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.
The Why of Abstinence
The first question is usually what is the difference between fasting and abstinence. The Law of Fasting principally relates to the quantity of food one eats while the Law of Abstinence is relates to the quality of the types of food consumed.
The first example of abstinence is found in Genesis 2:16-17 when God establishes a law of what Adam and Eve may and may not eat:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
The law in Genesis included a curse, which is also present in the laws of the Church. The deliberate and conscious disregard of the law brings about spiritual death, otherwise known as mortal sin. As we know, Adam’s transgression was passed on to all of humanity. To fulfill the Law of Penance, which all humanity are naturally bound to perform, due to the treason of Adam, positive legislation (laws) were created to determine the nature of these acts. Thus, abstinence has been part of the Judeo-Christian from antiquity.
The second question related to abstinence that most people do not understand is “Why can’t we eat “meat” but may eat fish. The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
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. (Source: Catholic Encyclopedia – Abstinence)
Basically, we are talking about warm-blooded animals. Warm-blooded animals are considered to constitute what man “needs” to consume in order to survive. You may disagree, but it is likely you did not grow up wandering through a desert.
Abstinence is linked back to the 40 years of wandering through the desert. After the golden calf incident, God outlawed all animals that were not worshiped by the Egyptians and the surrounding pagan nations (basically all cold-blooded). He then commanded them to eat all animals that were worshiped. In fact, He gave directions on literally how to “assassinate” their gods for food. How does that relate to us? Really, the only food in the middle of the desert were the red meat animals they brought with them or were flying through the air. Thus, if you had to abstain, you went hungry for the day. This tradition is carried on in our faith though many have forgotten the reasoning behind it.
We also abstain to remind ourselves that we depend on God the Father for our “daily bread”. We also abstain out of respect for God the Son who was executed on Good Friday. To assist we could recall that each time Scripture mentions our Lord eating, he was partaking of bread and a couple of fish.
Something to remember. You do not have to stop at meat. Even a hundred years ago, the Lenten abstinence included all dairy products and marital relations throughout the entirety of Lent. Just remember that Sundays are never a day of fasting or abstinence (See Vivifying our Spiritual Senses)
When do we abstain?
All Fridays throughout the year are days of abstinence though all do not incur a penalty.
The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works). (CCC 1438)
Canon 1250 All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church. (1983 Code of Canon Law)
Thus, Fridays outside or Lent are abstinence days but the penance can be substituted by an equivalent act of charity or penance.
Abstinence with a Twist
For those who do not eat meat, you are clearly not bound by the Law of abstinence. The spirit of the law would encourage you to abstain from something equivalent..as if you were a carnivore. Remember, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta would say, “Don’t give unless it hurts.”