Fasting and Abstinence in Australia & New Zealand

Does a Catholic have to fast every day in Lent? Can a Catholic eat meat on Fridays? What does the Church say? The SSPX District of Australia & New Zealand presents the mandatory and recommended practices for Catholics during Lent.

Why do we do Penance?

Unless you do penance, you shall likewise perish.

Our Lord tells us (St Luke 13.5) that penance is absolutely necessary if we wish to save our souls, but what is penance?

Penance is a virtue (a good habit in the soul), a sacrament (also know as Confession), and an act. The last two are related to the virtue which is the disposition of our soul whereby we are not only sorry for our sins, but we wish to make ammends for our sins. We first do this by confessing our sins, but then acts of penance are needed, because Justice demands we make recompense to God for the honour we have denied him by our sins.

By sin we have misused the goods that he has give us, especially our bodies and souls and so penances are acts of the body and soul which go beyond just the right use of our goods, but acts by which we do more than is necessary or deny ourself what is permitted, but not necessary.

God demands we do acts of penance in general, but the Church, in Her wisdom and knowing our weakness and laziness, binds us under by Her laws to perform works of penance at certain times.

Penance not only make up for sin, but it helps us to obtain better control over our wounded nature. By giving up some legitimate satisfaction (food, sleep, entertainment, etc.) we oblige the body and the passions to obey the soul. Doing penance is needed to reform of our inner disorder due to Original Sin. Practiced with the grace of God and prudence, it becomes a great means of Salvation.

Consider Archbishop Lefebvre's reflections on penance, especially fasting and abstinence.

What does the Church oblige us to do?

Only the Church can oblige us under pain of sin to perform certain acts of penance at certain times. She has modified her penitential demands many times throughout the centuries. The present practice which obliges under law in Australia & New Zealand is the following :

  • Catholics aged 18-59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday under pain of mortal sin;
  • Catholics aged 14 and older are obliged to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday under pain of mortal sin;
  • Catholics aged 14 and older are obliged to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year or substitute a proportionate penance under pain of at least venial sin.

This is the bare minimum expected of Catholics to avoid violating Church Law. It is a combination of the law for the universal Church as modified by the Australian & New Zealand bishops, and is current as of 2021.

What is fasting?

Fasting is the practice of eating only one normal-sized meal during the day (from midnight to midnight). Custom, and now Church Law permit someone to also take two small snacks during the day, provided these two snacks if taken together would not be as large as a normal-sized meal.

Fasting does not concern the quality of the food eaten. While a fine-dining meal would not keep the penitential spirit of the day and would violate the virtue of temperance, it would not break Church law.

The timing of the meal also, does not matter, so the meal could be taken at midday or evening, or whenever convenient. Eating between the meals, however, is forbidden.

Medicine and non-alcoholic liquids like juice, milk, tea, coffee, water do not break the fast, and could be taken at any time of the day. Obviously, puréeing solid food into a liquid does not make it legitimate to consume.

Fasting does not oblige those who are genuinely sick, especially those with diabetes or similar conditions where not taking regular foods would risk serious harm. These can keep the spirit by limiting themselves to only what they need and when they need it.

What is abstinence?

Abstinence is the practice of not eating the flesh or organs of a warm-blooded animal (including birds) during the day (from midnight to midnight).

What constituted "meat" has changed over the years, but the present law of the Church only forbids the flesh meat. Consuming meat-flavoured items (provided there is no meat in these), or using animal fat for cooking does not violate the law of abstinence. Eggs do not violate the law of abstinence, either.

On a day of abstinence, each time a person intentionally eats meat, this constitutes a new sin. If Robert knew it was a day of abstinence and still intentionally ate a hamburger at the main meal, and then had a small chicken sandwich for his snack, he has committed two grave sins.

Given the large number of meatless, vegan and vegetarian options available, abstinence is not very difficult. Neverthless, even if it is easy to comply with the law, the penance is in subjecting ourselves to the Church's demands.

Why is this penance obliged by the Church today not enough?

Because we do penance to repair for our sins, and certainly today, sins and disorder, even in our own souls are not less than in the past when the penitential demands were greater, it is absurd to think that the bare minimum will suffice for the Salvation of our souls. We may not violate Church Law by the bare minimum, but we will certainly offend God by neglecting to do more penance for a significant amount of time. Without extra penances, beyond what the Church demands it would be a sin of presumption to think one could long avoid grave sin if he confines his acts of penance to only those days and acts required by the current law.

In the Middle Ages—the Glory of Christendom—when nearly all of Europe was Catholic, the Church's obligations included Black Fasts (no food or water all day) for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; fasting every day during Lent; abstiennce from not only meat, but eggs and dairy; as well as many other more rigorous penances. These ages produced countless Saints, even if there was still plenty of sin to go around.

In the modern world where sin abounds far more than every before, it behooves Catholics to do more, not less. This especially is the case for Traditional Catholics, who are meant to be "the salt of the earth" (St Matt. 5.13) and the example for other Catholics.

The Society of St Pius X does not recommend the extreme penances of the Middle Ages or Early Church, but that Catholics make a real effort to try to keep at least some, if not all of the penitential practices in place at the time of the Second Vatican Council, just a mere 60 years ago.

The former penances prescribed for Lent

The 1917 Code of Canon Law detailed the following for Catholics to follow. These laws, except where a special indult from the Pope was obtained, obliged until 1966. They do not and cannot oblige under pain of sin, but serve as a good example of the extra penances that we ought to take up :

Catholics were obliged to Fast on:

  • All days of Lent From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, inclusive, except Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation;
  • All Ember Days (the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the First Week of Lent, the Pentecost Octave, the week following the Feast of the Holy Cross in September, and the Third Week of Advent)
  • The Vigils of Pentecost, Christmas and the Assumption
  • The Vigil of All Saints (until it was suppressed in 1960) 

Catholics aged 7 and older were obliged to abstain on:

  • All Fridays throughout the year;
  • Friday and Saturdays of Lent;
  • Good Friday;
  • Holy Saturday (until the end of the Easter Vigil);
  • the Ember Days;
  • Vigils of Pentecost, Christmas and the Assumption
  • Vigil of All Saints (until it was suppressed in 1960)

Rules for members the Society of St Pius X

The priests, brothers and third order members of the Society of St Pius X are, according to the Statutes, to keep these older customs (though not under pain of sin), but in particular :

Days of Fast and Abstinence

  • Ash Wednesday
  • Good Friday
  • Fridays of Lent
  • All Ember Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays
  • The vigils of All Saints, Christmas, Pentecost, Immaculate Conception.

Abstinence only

  • Each Friday of the year

What ought we do?

Members of the Society have the guidance of the Statutes to set their penitenial practices, but these are also a good guide for the laity who are not Third Order members. To keep Fast and Abstinence on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and the other Friday of Lent would be an excellent beginning to increasing the penance to a level that is reasonable. While more ought still to be done, this provides a good start. 

Nevertheless, as Our Lord encourages to those meant to be consecrated to Him "He that can take, let him take it," (St Matt. 19.12), those capable of prudently undertaking more, perhaps even to fast every day of Lent, are encouraged to do so. The key, however, is prudence. Given our extremely weakened condition, over-zealous penances often end up causing harm, not merely physically, but also spiritually. Many zealous Catholics, upon first discovering these older practices, jump right in without proper prudence, and undertake Black Fasts, or an attempt at fasting every day of Lent, and then fail out of weakness, lose Hope, and then give up.

Those well-practiced in these traditional ascetics should not let themselves off easily, but those first approaching, ought to prudent take up some, and then more can always be added as one is able, working up to the full pre-Vatican II practices.

These practices ought to be in addition to the other practices we choose during Lent to address our predominant faults and sins, which would, ideally, be guided by the help of the priests.

A safe rule of thumb is that one can take up, on one's own for one day, any penance that the Church would typically impose. Once can attend an extra Mass, Fast, abstain, or do something similar. Beyond this, for instance, to take up a "Bread-and-Water Fast" or a "Black Fast" or to impose corporal penances upon oneself should only be undertaken after the permission of one's Spiritual Director or Confessor, who can help us judge the motives for this and ensure those motives are upright and the work is possible for us.

Ultimately, however, as St Paul reminds us on Sexagesima Sunday, the whole motive for these works of penance must be Charity, and not Pride, self-aggrandisment, or some self-congratulatory purpose. As Our Lord warns us on Ash Wednesday, the hyprocrites do this to be seen, and they have their reward. With the help of God, though, and with Charity, our Lenten penances will help us to not only bring our wounded nature under control, repair for sin and lift our mind to higher things, but help to store up many treasures in heaven.