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The Year Without a Lent? Fasting and Abstinence in the Modern Age

The year was 1890, and a deadly pandemic was sweeping the globe. Hundreds of millions of people were sick and more than a million had died. It was a truly unprecedented situation, causing economic and social turmoil and crushing hardship for many.

For the Catholic Church, Lent was approaching. In light of the impact and suffering caused by the pandemic, the pope decided to take an unprecedented step: to grant a global dispensation from all Lenten fasting and abstinence obligations. 

Lincoln Evening Call newspaper, Feb 26, 1890, front page. Source:, public domain.


Any bishop or ordinary would have the ability to eliminate all Lenten fasting requirements to alleviate the burden on the faithful during this time of universal illness. 

Such a decree from the pope was shocking. Never before had such a thing been done for the entire Catholic Church around the world. 

But during the brutal 1889-1890 global influenza pandemic, Pope Leo XIII issued just such a decree, permitting the entire slate of Lenten fasting and abstinence regulations to be dispensed for the entire world, in an act of compassion for the millions of suffering people around the globe. 

The episode offers a glimpse into the somewhat forgotten history of Catholic fasting and abstinence rules in the modern era. 

It is well established that fasting and abstinence requirements for Latin-rite Catholics were much more strict in the past. These rules underwent major changes with the Second Vatican Council, removing most of the demands that had previously been placed upon the faithful. 

By the mid-20th century it was fashionable among some clergy to mock once-ordinary penitential practices, and to praise the enlightened new approach. 

These sentiments are aptly summarized in November 1966 by Msgr. Charles Owen Rice’s column in the official newspaper of the Diocese of Pittsburgh:

“Dispensations should have been more easily granted and exceptions should have been stressed. [...] In the past it was not so. For more than a half a century we were indoctrinated the other way. It extends back to saintly, strict, and popular Bishop Canevin, and before that, perhaps. We were conditioned not to seek dispensations. A good solid Catholic got the feeling that he should not ask. At one time it was about as easy to get a dispensation for Friday meat as it was for fornication or murder.

The siege mentality with its defensiveness made Friday abstinence more important to us in our mixed society than it was in Catholic countries, where it was just a man-made law. [...] In the last analysis there was a flaw in our Friday abstinence. This flaw, which made it incompatible with the spirit of Pope John and Vatican II, was its tie to grave sin. Really, in this day-and-age you cannot tell people that if they gobble meat on Friday they are wolfing down damnation. The very dispensations and exceptions emphasized another flaw, legalism.”

The full history of Catholic fasting and abstinence practices, from the early Church to the modern era in both East and West, is vast and complex.

But even a survey of the “modern era” - from roughly the mid-1700s to the changes following the Second Vatican Council - suggests that practices of fasting and abstinence were not nearly as black-and-white as Msgr. Rice had described.

A historical look at the modern era indicates that the Church consistently offered a variety of dispensations, indults, and customs which sought to provide generous pastoral care to the laity with regard to fasting and abstinence.  

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Historic norms and Lenten dispensations

On paper, the official norms of Lenten fasting and abstinence at the turn of the 18th century may seem quite strict to modern eyes. 

In English-speaking lands, fasting was required on every day of Lent, the Ember Days (the Wednesday, Friday, Saturday of four weeks throughout the year), the vigils of many significant feast-days throughout the year, and all Fridays throughout the year except for during Easter and Christmas seasons (with a few other exceptions). 

Abstinence from meat was required on all fasting days (during Lent this meant every day, and also included dairy products like milk, eggs, cheese, and butter), the Sundays in Lent, on the Rogation days (the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday), and on all Fridays of the year and all Saturdays outside of Lent, with certain exceptions.

Explanation of the fasting and abstinence days from a book for the laity, circa 1737. Source: Google Books, public domain.

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Despite these rigorous norms, pastoral concern for the laity and generous dispensations became increasingly common beginning in the mid-1700s.

For example: due to “difficult economic circumstances” in 1758, several English bishops gave permission for the consumption of meat on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays in Lent, and for the consumption of eggs and cheese until Holy Week. 

Meanwhile, by 1763, Scotland had established several other privileges and customs: milk, butter, and cheese were permitted as “common food” throughout the entirety of Lent due to harsh geographic and seasonal realities of the region. Additionally, the province of St. Andrews, among other regions, permitted eggs from the second Sunday of Lent through Palm Sunday. 

This pattern continued throughout the subsequent decades. The official regulations for Lent remained, on paper, fairly rigorous. But a variety of customs and dispensations were continually granted year after year, becoming part of the expected and “official” practice. Some of this was directed by regional or national councils (like the Councils of Baltimore in America), while much was done on a diocese-by-diocese basis according to the needs of the people and common custom.

From the “Lenten Regulations of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, 1878.” Source:, public domain.

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For example, in 1878 the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin published the following Lenten regulations:

  1. All the faithful who have completed their 21st year are, unless legitimately dispensed, bound to observe the fast of Lent.

  2. They are to make only one full meal a day, excepting Sundays.

  3. This meal allowed on fast days is not to be taken till about noon.

  4. Flesh meat and fish or oysters are not to be used at the same meal on fast days nor on Sundays during Lent, not even by those who are exempted from Fasting.

  5. A small refreshment, commonly called collation, is allowed in the evening, not to exceed the fourth part of an ordinary meal.

  6. It is lawful by general usage, to take in the morning a cup of tea or coffee or thin chocolate and a slice of bread or a cracker.

  7. It is permitted to use butter, cheese, milk, eggs, and hog’s lard instead of butter in preparing food on days of fast and abstinence. Only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday eggs and lard shall not be used.

  8. The following persons are exempted from the obligation of fasting: persons under 21 years of age, the sick, the convalescent, women that are nursing or with a child, persons of old age, those who are obliged to do hard labor, all who through weakness cannot fast without prejudice to their health, those who travel a long way on foot, school teachers who have to instruct more than three hours a day, and on such days only as they teach.

  9. By dispensation the use of flesh meat will be allowed at all meals on Sundays during Lent and once a day on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, with the exception of Holy Thursday and the second and last Saturdays of Lent. We also grant the faculty to the Confessors to allow to their penitents the use of flesh meat at the collation, if they consider it necessary. The faithful shall, however, say one “Our Father and Hail Mary” as often as they make use of this dispensation.

These Green Bay regulations are representative of many American dioceses of the period and demonstrate a significant array of pastoral concessions and dispensations which significantly lessened the severity of the fast and abstinence rules.


Pandemic Dispensations

There was also generous pastoral care extended during times of severe illnesses and epidemics. The 1890 influenza epidemic was not the only historical case of Lenten dispensations due to health crises.

For example,  in 1872, due to “the prevalence of small-pox and other contagious disease,” the Archdiocese of Dublin was dispensed from all Friday abstinence between January 9 and Ash Wednesday. As Lent approached, the epidemic had not abated, and the dispensation was extended through Lent. 

Ultimately, due to the severity of the suffering, the dispensation from all Friday abstinence lasted for much of the year and finally ended on August 4.

The global dispensation by Pope Leo XIII during the influenza pandemic of 1889-1890 would take place less than two decades later.

On January 30, 1890, less than two weeks before the beginning of Lent that year, Cardinal Raffaele Monaco La Valletta sent a letter to all bishops and ordinaries throughout the world, announcing the dispensation. It read, in part:

“The nature and attending circumstances of the disease which during these days has spread widely not only through Europe, but through other quarters of the globe, have laid an obligation upon the cares of the Apostolic authority and goodness. 

Our most Holy Lord, Leo XIII, influenced by the increase of the malady and the indefatigable zeal with which he labors to provide for the good of the faithful, not only in the things that are of the soul, but also that are of the body, has thereafter in his solicitude taken counsel to grant to the faithful, as far as lies in his power, the benefit of the remedies which may possibly be of avail to life and health against the power of this all-pervasive illness. 

Wherefore, through the channel of the Sacred Council of the Supreme Roman Universal Inquisition, he grants the Apostolic authority to all Archbishops, Bishops, and Ordinaries of the Catholic World, in all places which have been visited by the disease herein referred to, the power of absolving the faithful under their charge from the law binding to fast and abstain, as long as, in their judgment, the state of public health in these places calls for the exercise of this Apostolic indulgence.”

Reproduction of the Roman letter dispensing from the Lenten fast, published in the Boston Pilot, March 15, 1890, page 4. Source: Boston College Newspapers, public domain.

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Even with modern advances in communication and travel technologies by 1890, it took a while for this news to filter out throughout the world. 

News reached England shortly after Lent had already begun. On Sunday, February 16, announcements of the dispensation were read from the pulpits of most English dioceses. 

Bishop of Liverpool Bernard O’Reilly reflected on the dispensation in his Lenten pastoral letter:

“Our Holy Father, the common Father of all Christians throughout the entire world, has been moved with compassion by the widespread affliction which has fallen upon his children. The influenza, which is so much dreaded, so much spoken about, and of which so little appears to be known, has spread desolation in many cities and large tracts of country. [...]

Use the dispensation granted freely and without scruple, but at your meals, whether you be rich or poor, practise some mortification. We repeat what we have said – use the dispensation without scruple, but we add that we would highly commend those who, prudently judging that they do not require the dispensation, do not avail themselves of it.”

News of the landmark dispensation spread faster through the secular press than through the official communication channels of the Church. 

On February 24, at the start of the second week of Lent, the Pennsylvania Altoona Times newspaper sought comment about the news from Msgr. Stephen Wall, a prominent cleric who was at times rector of the cathedral, rector of the seminary, and vicar general of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. 

Wall was unaware of the dispensation: “We’ve received no official announcement that the Pope has issued such a brief [...]  If the Pope has issued such a brief and Bishop Phelan receives official notification of it, he will send out a pastoral letter and have it announced from the pulpits.”

The letter from Rome reached St. Louis around March 4 and was translated and sent to all pastors to read from the pulpits on Friday March 7 and Sunday March 9.

Interestingly, announcements of the dispensation were not made in every church, and at least two priests–including the rector of the cathedral–failed to mention it to their congregations. This incident caused quite a local stir, with many lay people confused or uncertain about what this meant for the dispensation or for themselves. 

It is unclear why the priests did not publish the announcement, but Rev. Eugene Coyle, rector of the cathedral, claimed in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he simply “had forgotten it.”

Such dispensations from Lenten fasting and abstinence, in response to epidemics, continued to be made fairly frequently in subsequent decades until well into the 20th century.

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Sailors, Soldiers, and Working Men

Beyond general dispensations and extraordinary concessions during illnesses, there were also regular Lenten concessions made for soldiers, sailors, and working men.

In 1857, at the request of Bishop John Timon of Buffalo, Pope Pius IX granted an extraordinarily generous concession to the soldiers and sailors of the U.S. Army and Navy: they were dispensed from all fasting and abstinence obligations throughout the entire year with the exception of only six days: Ash Wednesday, the last three days of Lent, the vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Christmas Eve. 

In early 1861, after the outbreak of the American Civil War, reminders of this dispensation were circulated through the secular and Catholic press.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 13, 1861, page 4. Source:, public domain.

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Some permutation of this indult for the armed forces remained in force for decades to come. 

In 1918, following the publication of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Diocese of Fall River included the following reminder in their Lenten regulations: “Men serving in the army or the navy are allowed by papal indult to eat meat on all days of the year except Ash Wednesday, the Vigil of Christmas, Good Friday, and the forenoon of Holy Saturday.”

Such generous dispensations were also not only reserved for soldiers and sailors. The Church also had great pastoral concern for the working classes. 

By the latter 19th century, the entire modern world had been reshaped by the Industrial Revolution and its attendant developments. Dramatic transformations had upended the existing social, economic, and environmental order: cities, towns, and countryside were altered beyond recognition. Millions of people lived and worked in unprecedented, difficult conditions. 

Attempting to grapple with the onslaught of problems and new situations created by global industrial modernity was one of the foremost challenges for the Church during this period.

Pope Leo XIII, known for being solicitous towards the rights and dignity of laborers in his encyclicals and teaching, also sought to grant relief via significant concessions regarding fasting and abstinence. 

On March 15, 1895, the pope granted what has become known as the “working men indult” to the United States. The obligation to abstain from meat was reduced to only Ash Wednesday, Wednesday and Saturday of Holy Week, Christmas Eve, and Fridays throughout the year for working men (or women) and their entire households. 

While it was originally anticipated that this privilege would only be granted to men who did hard manual work (factory workers, mechanics, general laborers, etc), the papal indult merely used the term operarii (working people). 

Many canonists and moral theologians of the day taught that the indult was quite expansive. It was for both men and women and covered what we would now deem white collar and blue collar work alike, including both manual laborers and any other profession.

This was a significant act of pastoral generosity, long-sought after by the American bishops who were concerned about the lives of the faithful in their care. In the words of one New York priest, in an interview given to the New-York Daily Tribune, “This practically abolishes what remained of the old-fashioned Lent.”

Reproduction of letter of the Archdiocese of Boston, announcing the “working man indult,” published in the Boston Pilot, July 13, 1895, page 4. Source: Boston College Newspapers, public domain.

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Meat for St. Patrick’s Day

In addition to dispensations granted for challenging circumstances or occupations, the Church in the modern era has also offered dispensations from fasting and abstinence in far less dire situations.

Perhaps the most prominent example is St. Patrick’s Day, the beloved feast day and holiday that falls on March 17.  Because this often coincides with Lent, the day would typically be a day of abstinence, fasting, or both (this held even despite the fact that it was a holy day of obligation in some places).

Under the traditional approach to Lenten penance, there would appear to be no real compelling reason for the Church to grant dispensations from fasting and abstinence on St. Patrick’s Day, which carries with it no vocational or lifestyle hardship which might need such a concession. 

Nevertheless, the Church has repeatedly granted such dispensations for more than a century–out of recognition for widespread cultural customs and desire of the laity to celebrate on this day.

The Boston Globe, March 14, 1916, page 14. Source:, public domain.

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There are a number of these dispensations across the years which demonstrate how regularly this occurred - and how widespread it was.

In 1837, St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday during Lent, and Bishop of Boston Benedict Fenwick granted a dispensation from the Lenten fast for those attending the centennial dinner of the Charitable Irish Society of Boston.  

Other historical examples include the Archdiocese of Tuam, Ireland (1869), the Diocese of Cleveland (1879), the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia (1890), the Diocese of Cork, Ireland (1897), the Archdioceses of Boston and New York (1916), the Diocese of Great Falls and the Archdioceses of New York and Chicago (1922).

St. Patrick’s Day was not the only holiday that received a dispensation in the United States.

In the early 20th century, there were other dispensations granted for secular American civic holidays like Columbus Day, the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington, and (beginning in 1958) even on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

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Post-Vatican II

In 1966, the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral statement recognizing that changing social, economic, and dietary conditions had led some people to believe that abstinence from meat was no longer the most effective Friday penance.

“[W]e hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday” outside of the Lenten season, the bishops said.

They added, “We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”

That same year, a professional nationwide survey of American Catholics found that only 41% approved of the changes to fasting and abstinence and that more than half (55%) vowed to continue to abstain from meat on Friday. 

Today, debates about fasting and abstinence have arisen in some corners of the Church, with some people calling for a return to a more universal practice of abstinence from meat on Fridays year-round in the United States.

As these debates take place, any serious discussion of resurrecting this Friday obligation may find it useful to take into account the robust history of dispensations in the modern era - from general dispensations to those granted in times of illness or economic hardship, based on vocation, or even issued for celebration of holidays by the faithful.

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