Fasting is an integral part of every world religion. Catholicism has always encouraged this practice especially during the Lenten season. Catholicism stands apart among the many religions of the world because of its anthropology of the human person and its approach to fasting. The essential difference(s) is twofold. First, fasting assists in focusing one’s attention thereby increasing the individual’s desire for union with God. The second is that the Catholicism values the human person who is an embodied spirit. The soul is not better than the body but is a constituent to the whole of the body – the body gives expression and provides information for/to the soul.
Conversely, fasting in other world religions, Buddhism and Hinduism for example, use fasting as a way to eradicate the desires of the body through suppression and denial. As in all things, the end or means of travel dictates the journey and the vehicle to get there. For Buddhism and Hinduism, Nirvana or union with Brahman can only be achieved by the destruction of desire and neutrality of all likes, dislikes and perceived “goods” which is anti-human.
On the contrary, Catholicism promotes the good, truth and beauty of the body and the desires of the heart. The catch is in application – how one interprets, pursues and actualizes those desires.
Fasting has an ancient tradition and even by the time of Christ, fasting and abstaining had a long and venerable history among the Jews. Among devout Jews, Monday and Thursdays were days of fasting so that one was not fasting immediately before or after the Sabbath.
The early Church moved the days of fasting to Wednesdays and Fridays in honor of Spy Wednesday when Jesus was betrayed by Judas and Fridays when He was crucified. As with the Jews, Catholicism does not allow fasting on the Sabbath. This honors the resurrection, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.” (Mark 2:19). Additionally, it honors the body that needs to rest and recuperate from the strain of the week.
The following is an outline of the current discipline of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, #1249f:
- The Season of Lent preserves its penitential character.
- The days of penance are Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent.
- The manner of fulfilling the precept of penance:
- Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence.
- All Fridays are days of abstinence only.
- Church Law binds as follows:
- The law of abstinence (not eating meat) obliges those who have completed their fourteenth year.
- The law of fast (only one full meal each day, nothing between meals) obliges those who have completed their eighteenth year until the beginning of their sixtieth year.
- Proportionally grave inconvenience excuses law of fast and abstinence.
- The substantial observance of these laws is a grave obligation.
- Anyone who neglects all forms of penance violates divine law and is guilty of grave sin.
- Anyone who occasionally violates the law of fast and/or abstinence is not guilty of sin.