The Difference Between Fasting and Abstinence

Fasting and abstinence are closely related, but there are some differences in these spiritual practices.  In general,fasting refers to restrictions on the quantity of the food we eat and on when we consume it, while abstinence refers to the avoidance of particular foods. The most common form of abstinence is the avoidance of meat, a spiritual practice that goes back to the earliest days of the Church.

Depriving Ourselves of Something Good

Before Vatican II, Catholics were required to abstain from meat every Friday, as a form of penance in honor of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross on Good Friday. Since Catholics are normally allowed to eat meat, this prohibition is very different from the dietary laws of the Old Testament or of other religions (such as Islam) today.

In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10:9-16), St. Peter has a vision in which God reveals that Christians can eat any food. So, when we abstain, it's not because the food is impure; we're voluntarily giving up something good, for our spiritual benefit.

Observing Friday Abstinence Throughout the Year

One of the most frequent hurdles encountered by Catholics who abstain from meat on every Friday of the year is a limited repertoire of meatless recipes.

While vegetarianism has become more widespread in recent decades, those who eat meat may still have some trouble finding meatless recipes that they like, and end up falling back on those staples of meatless Fridays in the 1950's—macaroni and cheese, tuna noodle casserole, and fish sticks.

But you can take advantage of the fact that the cuisines of traditionally Catholic countries have an almost limitless variety of meatless dishes, reflecting the times when Catholics abstained from meat throughout both Lent and Advent (not only on Ash Wednesday and Fridays). You can find a nice selection of such recipes in Lenten Recipes: Meatless Recipes for Lent and Throughout the Year.

Going Beyond What's Required

If you would like to make abstinence a bigger part of your spiritual discipline, a good place to start is to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. During Lent, you might consider following the traditional rules for Lenten abstinence, which include eating meat at only one meal per day (in addition to strict abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Fridays).

Unlike fasting, abstinence is less likely to be harmful if taken to extremes, but, if you want to extend your discipline beyond what the Church currently prescribes (or beyond what it has prescribed in the past), you should consult your priest.

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What Are the Rules for Fasting and Abstinence in our Catholic Church?

The rules for fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church are set forth in the Code of Canon Law (for the Roman Catholic Church) and in the Code of Canons of Oriental Churches (for the Eastern Catholic Churches). To a limited extent, they can be modified by the conference of bishops for each particular country (or, in the Eastern Churches, for each particular rite).

The Rules for the Roman Catholic Church

The Code of Canon Law prescribes (Canons 1250-1252):

Can. 1250: The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251: Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 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.

The Rules for Roman Catholics in the United States

In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has declared that "the age of fasting is from the completion of the eighteenth year to the beginning of the sixtieth." The USCCB also allows the substitution of some other form of penance for abstinence on all of the Fridays of the year, except for those Fridays in Lent.

Thus, the rules for fasting and abstinence in the United States are:

  • Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.
  • Every person between the age of 18 and 59 (your 59th birthday begins your 60th year) must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
  • Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat on all other Fridays of the year, unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance for abstinence.

If you are outside the United States, you should check with the bishops' conference for your country.

The Rules for the Eastern Catholic Churches

For the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Code of Canons of Oriental Churches prescribes (Canon 882):

Can. 882: On the days of penance the Christian faithful are obliged to observe fast or abstinence in the manner established by the particular law of their Church sui iuris.

Thus, Eastern Catholics should check with the governing body for their particular rite.



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