Fast and Abstinence

Traditional Laws of Fast and Abstinence for the USA


“But in 1949 the Holy See decreed that, until further notice, the law of abstinence may be reduced by the ordinary for the faithful of the Latin rite, to all Fridays of the year and the following fast days:  Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, the vigil of the Immaculate Conception (transferred from the Feast of the Assumption) and Christmas Eve. The application of this decree varies in details in different countries and dioceses.” — Donald Attwater’s A Catholic Dictionary

(Taken from Revs. Woywod-Smith, A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, 1957; Canons 1250-1254.)

The Catholic faithful are bound under pain of sin to observe the Church’s laws of fast and abstinence, unless lawfully excused or dispensed.


  1. All baptized Catholics, seven years of age or older, are obliged to abstain on the days appointed.
  2. Complete abstinence, which forbids the eating of meat, and soup or gravy made with meat, is required on: all Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Saturday, the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, and the Vigil of Christmas.
  3. Partial abstinence, which permits meat, and soup or gravy made from meat, to be eaten only once a day, at the principal meal, is required on: Ember Wednesdays, Ember Saturdays, and the Vigil of Pentecost.


  1. All baptized Catholics, ages 21 through 59 inclusive, are bound to observe the laws of fasting.
  2. The days of fast are: the weekdays of Lent, the Ember Days, and the Vigils of Pentecost, Immaculate Conception, and Christmas.
  3. On the days of fast, only one full meal is allowed.  Two other meatless meals, sufficient to maintain strength, may be taken according to one’s needs, but together they should not equal another full meal.
  4. Meat may be taken at the principal meal on a day of fast, except on days of complete abstinence. The Holy Office has decreed that even though abstinence is not required on days of fasting, neither is it safe to follow the opinion that one can eat meat several times a day on fast days. (Ed.: Meaning of several: “more than two but not many.” So it seems meat could be eaten twice in one day during Lent, but only for a good reason.)
  5. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids, including milk and fruit juices, are allowed.
  6. When health or ability to work would be seriously affected, the law does not oblige. In doubt concerning fast or abstinence, consult the parish priest or a confessor.
  7. There is no obligation for fast or abstinence on Sundays, or on a Holyday of Obligation, even though it may fall on a Friday.

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911: (Note: some of these laws were later rescinded by the Holy See.)

Fasting essentially consists in eating but one full meal in twenty-four hours and that about midday. It also implies the obligation of abstaining from flesh meat during the same period, unless legitimate authority grants permission to eat meat. The quantity of food allowed at this meal has never been made the subject of positive legislation. Whosoever therefore eats a hearty or sumptuous meal in order to bear the burden of fasting satisfies the obligation of fasting. Any excess during the meal mitigates against the virtue of temperance, without jeopardizing the obligation of fasting.

According to general usage, noon is the proper time for this meal. For good reasons this hour may be legitimately anticipated. Grievous sin is not committed even though this meal is taken a full hour before noon without sufficient reason, because the substance of fasting, which consists in taking but one full meal a day, is not imperiled. In like manner, the hour for the midday meal and the collation, may for good reasons be conscientiously inverted. In many of our larger cities this practice now prevails. According to D’Annibale (Summa Theologiae Moralis, 4 ed. III, 134) and Noldin (Summa Theologiae Moralis, n. 674) good reasons justify one in taking a collation in the morning, dinner at noon, and the morning allowance in the evening, because the substance of fasting still remains intact.

Nothing like a noteworthy interruption should he admitted during the course of the midday meal, because such a break virtually forms two meals instead of one. Common sense, taking into consideration individual intention and the duration of the interruption, must finally determine whether a given interruption is noteworthy or not. Ordinarily an interruption of one-half hour is considered slight. Nevertheless, an individual, after having commenced the midday meal and meeting with a bonafide interruption lasting for an hour or more is fully justified in resuming and finishing the meal after the termination of an interruption. Finally, unless special reasons suggest the contrary, it is not allowed to give immoderate length to the time of this meal. Ordinarily, a duration of more than two hours is considered immoderate in this matter.

Besides a complete meal, the Church now permits a collation usually taken in the evening. In considering this point proper allowance must be made for what custom has introduced regarding both the quantity and the quality of viands allowed at this repast. In the first place, about eight ounces of food are permitted at the collation even though this amount of food would fully satisfy the appetites of some persons. Moreover, the attention must be paid to each person’s temperament, duties, length of fast, etc. Hence, much more food is allowed in cold than in warm climates, more to those working during the day than to those at ease, more to the weak and hungry than to the strong and well fed. As a general rule whatever is deemed necessary in order to enable people to give proper attention to their duties may be taken at the collation.

Moreover, since custom first introduced the collation, the usage of each country must be considered in determining the quality of viands permitted thereat. In some places eggs, milk, butter, cheese and fish are prohibited, while bread, cake, fruit, herbs and vegetables are allowed. In other places, milk, eggs, cheese, butter and fish are permitted, owing either to custom or to Indult. This is the case in the United States. However, in order to form judgments perfectly safe concerning this point, the Lenten regulations of each diocese should be carefully read. Finally, a little tea, coffee, chocolate or such like beverage together with a morsel of bread or a cracker is now allowed in the morning. Strictly speaking, whatever may be classified under the head of liquids may be taken as drink or medicine at any time of the day or night on fasting days. Hence, water, lemonade, soda, water, ginger ale, wine, beer and similar drinks may be taken on fasting days outside mealtime even though such beverages may, to some extent, prove nutritious.

Coffee, tea, diluted chocolate, electuaries made of sugar, juniper berries, and citron may be taken on fasting days, outside mealtime, as medicine by those who find them conducive to health. Honey, milk, soup, broth, oil or anything else having the nature of food, is not allowed under either of the two categories already specified. It is impossible to decide mathematically how much food is necessary to involve a serious violation of this law. Moralists as well as canonists concur in holding that an excess of four ounces would seriously militate against the obligation of fasting, whether that much food was consumed at once or at various intervals during the day because Alexander VII (18 March, 1666) condemned the teaching of those who claimed that food so taken was not to be regarded as equaling or exceeding the amount allowed (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum, tenth ed. Freiburg im Br., 1908, No. 1129).

Though Benedict XIV (Constitutions, Non Ambiginius, 31 May, 1741; in superna, 22 Aug. 1741) granted permission to eat meat on fasting days, he distinctly prohibited the use of fish and flesh at the same meal on all fasting days during the year as well as on Sundays during Lent. (Letter to the Archbishop of Compostella, 10 June, 1745, in Bucceroni Enchiridion Morale No. 147). This prohibition binds all exempted from fasting either because they are compelled to labour or because they are not twenty-one years old. Furthermore this prohibition extends to those allowed meat on fasting days either by dispensation or by Indult. Sin is Committed each time the prohibited action takes place.

Inability to keep the law of fasting and incompatibility of fasting with the duties of one’s state in life suffice by their very nature, to extinguish the obligation because as often as the obligation of positive laws proves extremely burdensome or irksome the obligation is forthwith lifted. Hence, the sick, the infirm, convalescents, delicate women, persons sixty years old and over, families whose members cannot have the necessaries for a full meal at the same time, or who have nothing but bread, vegetables or such like viands, those to whom fasting brings loss of sleep or severe headaches, wives whose fasting incurs their husband’s indignation, children whose fasting arouses parent’s wrath; in a word, all those who cannot comply with the obligation of fasting without undergoing more than ordinary hardship are excused on account of their inability to fulfil the obligation.

In like manner unusual fatigue or bodily weakness experienced in discharging one duty and superinduced by fasting lifts the obligation of fasting. However, not every sort of labour, but only such as is hard and protracted excuses from the obligation of fasting. These two conditions are not confined to manual labour but may be equally verified with regard to brain work. Hence bookkeepers, stenographers, telegraph operators, legal advisers and many others whose occupations are largely mental are entitled to exemption on this score, quite as well as day-labourers or tradesmen.

Those who have permission from the  Holy See to eat meat on prohibited days, may avail themselves of this concession at their full meal, not only on days of abstinence but also on fasting days. When age, infirmity or labour releases Christians from fasting, they are at liberty to eat meat as often as they are justified in taking food, provided the use of meat is allowed by a general indult of their bishop (Sacred Penitentiaria, 16 Jan., 1834). Finally, the Holy See has repeatedly declared that the use of lard allowed by Indult comprehends butter or the fat of any animal.

No student of ecclesiastical discipline can fail to perceive that the obligation of fasting is rarely observed in its integrity nowadays. Conscious of the conditions of our age, the Church is ever shaping the requirements of this obligation to meet the best interests of her children. At the same time no measure of leniency in this respect can eliminate the natural and divine positive law imposing mortification and penance on man on account of sin and its consequences. (Council of Trent, Sess. VI. can. xx)

Revs. McHugh and Callan’s Moral Theology, A Complete Course, 1930, taken from St. Thomas and the best modern authorities:


  1. The purpose of the law ceases to exist as follows:

(a) adequately, when all the reasons on account of which it was made are no longer in existence; in such a case the law itself ceases, for the lawgiver is not considered as intending to oblige when the reason for obligation has ceased. Example: If the bishop orders prayers to be said for rain, the prayers cease to be obligatory when rain has come;

(b) inadequately, when the reason for the law has ceased partially, but not entirely. In such a case the law does not cease, for it still remains useful. Example: If the bishop orders prayers for peace and rain, the prayers are obligatory until both requests have been obtained.

  1. A law ceases, therefore, in greater or less degree, according to circumstances. (a) It ceases entirely or partially, according as it is revoked or as it becomes useless as to all its provisions, or only as to one or more of them; (b) it ceases permanently or temporarily, according as the revocation or cessation is only for a time, or for good.


  1. (c) Exceptions.–Physical or moral impossibility excuses from the fast and gives the right to eat meat as often as moderation allows on days that are not meatless days. The chief persons who labor under impossibility are those who are too weak to fast (e.g., the sick, the convalescent, pregnant and nursing mothers, the nervous), those who are too poor to get one square meal a day (e.g., street beggars who have nothing may eat as often as they are given an alms, if it does not buy them a dinner), and those who cannot do their necessary or customary hard work if they fast. Hard work is such as is exercised for many

hours continuously, or for a less time if it is very intense, and which is greatly fatiguing to the mind (e.g., daily teaching, lecturing, studying, hearing confessions, preaching, etc.) or to the body (e.g., heavy manual labor, the difficult jobs in offices or stores, work that

requires one to be on one’s feet for hours at a time, necessary journeys made under hardship). The confessor or physician can decide about cases of impossibility that are not manifest, but dispensation should be had from the pastor (Canon 1245). Those who are dispensed from the ecclesiastical fast or abstinence should remember that they are not dispensed from the natural law of temperance, and they should practise some abstemiousness according to their ability (e.g., by self-denial in alcoholic beverages, tobacco, sweets, etc., or mortification in the quantity or quality of food).

In short, as Rev. Dominic Pruemmer states in his Handbook of Moral Theology: “All who possess prudent judgments such as superiors of nuns, priests or in fact anyone at all can state in a particular case that the law of fasting and abstinence does not bind owing to grave obstacles… A confessor should not be excessively rigorous in granting dispensations from fasting since in these days there are not so many of the faithful who can keep the fast perfectly for one reason or another… However the faithful should be encouraged to undertake special works of mortification or spirituality during times of fasting.” On the one hand we must not be overly indulgent; we must be perfectly honest and not excuse ourselves without sufficient reason. On the other hand, we should not be afraid to judge the situation ourselves since we can have no recourse to the superior.

  1. a) If without serious inconvenience the decision can be delayed, reliable advice should be obtained from approved theological works, if possible.
  2. b) If a decision cannot be delayed, choose the lesser of two evils. And it is less evil to sin against a law of the Church than a law directly from God.
  3. c) If the decision cannot be delayed and one does not know what is the lesser of two evils, one can choose either one.

In other words, do your level best, but do not let scruples overtake you. Those over 60 who are still trying to observe the fast laws should allow themselves certain leniencies. Those involved in strenuous labor or in other types of straightened circumstances, and these vary widely, should do likewise.

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