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Fasting, fake meat, and what 'abstinence' isn't : A Lenten Pillar Explainer

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This fasting and abstinence explainer was originally published in Lent 2022. To help you remember how to fast on Good Friday, we’re re-upping it!

If you’re a regular reader of The Pillar, you probably know the basics of fasting and abstinence in Lent. 

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence, and Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence. (Unless a solemnity falls on a Friday, like the Feast of St. Joseph did last year, and the Annunciation does this year).

But do you know all the ins-and-outs of what’s allowed and what’s not?

At The Pillar, we decided to clarify some common - and some perhaps not-so-common - misconceptions about fasting and abstinence. 

I know what fasting means. I get one regular meal, and then “two small meals that combined do not equal the bigger meal.” Right?

Not exactly. The two-small-and-one-bigger-meal formula is commonly recited fasting guidance. It’s even listed on the USCCB website

But it’s not actually what the law says.

The Code of Canon Law simply says that fasting is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Pope Paul VI’s 1966 apostolic constitution Paenitemini elaborates:

“The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing — as far as quantity and quality are concerned — approved local custom.” 

So the two-small-meal principle is not exactly a rule, and certainly not a universal one.  Have a meal, if you like, and some food in the morning and evening. Use your judgment. Make it penitential.

Can I have drinks between meals when I’m fasting?

When it comes to the fast ahead of receiving Communion, canon law specifically states that Catholics are to fast “from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.”

But that stipulation is not included in references to Lenten fasting. So coffee, tea, and other drinks are permitted, although protein shakes, smoothies and other hearty drinks that take the place of meal might be considered a meal — some prudent discretion is required here.

If you’re anxious, don’t worry, there is no defined law on drinks during Lenten fasting, so you don’t have to be too hard on yourself. On the other hand, if you’re looking for loopholes, you’re not really doing this right.

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Abstaining means I can’t eat meat. But I can eat fish. What about chicken broth? And eggs?

While their Eastern counterparts observe much more rigorous Lenten regulations on days of abstinence, Latin Catholics are not required to go vegan when they abstain from meat. The USCCB says:

Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs – all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat. Abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are technically not forbidden. However, moral theologians have traditionally taught that we should abstain from all animal-derived products (except foods such as gelatin, butter, cheese and eggs, which do not have any meat taste). Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.

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And what’s the deal with alligator?

The Archdiocese of New Orleans says you can eat alligator (a reptile) when you’re supposed to be abstaining. And in some parts of Michigan, you can eat muskrat.

What about fake meat? The Impossible Whopper, or those vegan sausages that are supposed to be indistinguishable from meat – do those count?

Imitation meats do not come from animals, so they are not forbidden on days of abstinence. But refraining from meat is intended to be a sacrifice, so if the desire to eat an imitation meat is based on a desire to beat the system, you might reflect on whether that’s really in keeping with the purpose of the Lenten penance.

On the other hand, if you abhor even the thought of imitation meat, it might actually be a more penitential meal than a bean burrito or a veggie stir fry.


Do I…have to abstain from sex?

The word “abstinence” in Catholic circles might be commonly associated with waiting until marriage, or with the NFP concept of refraining from sex during periods of fertility — when a couple has a just reason to delay pregnancy, of course.

Sure, true love waits and all that. But to clarify any misconceptions out there, days of abstinence in Lent are referring to meat and do not require abstaining from sex — within the normal context of the Church’s moral teaching, of course.

If I’m pregnant or breastfeeding, I don’t have to fast, correct?

Right. And you actually are not bound to abstain from meat either.

The Church has historically exempted pregnant and nursing women from fasting and abstinence requirements, to ensure that they are able to get the adequate nourishment they need for their growing babies. In many parts of contemporary America, mothers may find that they are able to get sufficient calories and nutrition while still avoiding meat, but Church law does not require they do so.

If my kids are younger than 14, they’re off the hook, right?

Kind of, but not exactly. Fasting is obligatory for Catholics ages 18-59. Abstinence is obligatory for those 14 and older. But canon law adds that “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.” 

So if you have kids, you should still be working to help them to learn about and engage in penance, in an age appropriate manner.

But if I’m 60?

You should still abstain from meat, but you don’t have to fast.

Have as many vegan sausages as you want — or as many as you can stand, if you don’t want them.

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