What are the current rules for fasting and abstinence? How do I observe the traditional rules?
Why do we make Penance?
“Unless you do penance, you shall likewise perish.” (Lk. 13:5)
Because we are sinners, justice requires each of us to make recompense to God for the honor we have denied Him by our sins. Because we have misused our goods, our souls and bodies—as well as those of others—the natural law requires us to strive to restore the order we have disturbed by our sins. Thus, the natural law and the Divine Law bind us in a general way to perform acts of penance. In order to help us fulfill this requirement, Holy Mother Church, knowing our weakness and laziness, binds us under ecclesiastical laws to perform works of penance at certain times.
Penance is also useful to obtain better control over our wounded nature. One may refrain himself from a legitimate satisfaction (food, sleep, entertainment, etc.) in order to oblige the body and the passions to obey the direction of the soul. Doing penance, making sacrifices are part of a needed ascetical practice to reform of our inner disorder, the heritage of the original sin. Practiced with the grace of God and prudence (conferring with one’s confessor), it becomes a great means of salvation.
Penance can also be a prayer, a sacrifice of a legitimate good, given to God as a way to recognize His power, to beg for a grace or to manifest one’s love by imitating and being united to Our Lord’s Passion.
Fast and Abstinence required by the Church
Throughout the centuries, the Church has changed the ecclesiastical laws regulating penance, sometimes becoming more strict, sometimes relaxing the discipline.
Only the Church can hold us guilty of mortal sin for failing in this or that specific act of penance.
“Rules for penitential days under present Church law” details the bare minimum of penance which we must accomplish under pain of mortal sin.
However, we certainly offend God by neglecting penance completely over a length of time. Also, one will easily fall into mortal sin who confines penance to only those days and acts required by the current law.
“Guidelines for traditional penitential practices” spells out the strongly recommended practices which were observed until just after the Second Vatican Council.
Rules for penitential days under present Church law
In 1966, Pope Paul VI promulgated a new set of regulations for fasting and abstaining by his apostolic constitution, Paenitemini. These new rules are listed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canons 1249-1253 and all Roman Catholics are bound to strictly observe them.
There are two sets of laws that apply to the Church's penitential days:
Who is bound to observe these laws?
In the USA
In Paenitemini, Pope Paul VI gave authority to the episcopal conferences on how the universal rules would be applied in their region. On November 18, 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops legislated the following to be observed in the United States:
The local bishops also have authority to grant dispensations from these rules within their dioceses.
Guidelines of traditional penitential practices
Here are the traditional rules of fast and abstinence outlined in Canons 1250-1254 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law and observed per the 1962 liturgical calendar.
Who was bound to observe these laws?
What was forbidden and allowed to be eaten
In the Universal Church
Fasting and complete abstinence were obligatory on the following days:
Fasting and partial abstinence (meaning meat could be eaten at the principal meal) were obligatory on all other weekdays of Lent (i.e., Monday through Thursday). Friday was always complete abstinence).
Some further clarifications to universal laws
There are more rules about fasting and abstaining when a fast day was in concurrence with a Sunday:
Particular rules observed in the USA
On January 28, 1949, the United States bishops issued a statement modifying the regulations of fasting and abstinence in America (thus differing slightly from the universal laws) after receiving a ruling from the Sacred Congregation of the Council.
Fasting and partial abstinence was obligatory on the following days:
Liquids, including milk and fruit juices, might be taken at any time on a day of fast, but “other works of charity, piety, and prayer for the pope should be substituted” to compensate for this relaxation.
In 1931, Pope Pius XII gave an indult to the American bishops allowing them to dispense with Abstinence on any penitential day that was a civic holiday and on the Friday that followed Thanksgiving Day.
Rules of Fast and Abstinence for the members of the Society of St. Pius X
Day of Fast and Abstinence
Each Friday of the year