Fasting / Abstinence: Any difference?

Topic |  

Fasting / Abstinence: Any difference?

Topic |  

jayChristians have begun observing lent.

One of the things we lay people encounter in the season of lent are the words “fasting” and “abstinence”.

It is a joy to hear Pope Francis explain that fasting is not confined to refraining food consumption. Fasting should involve acts of compassion and mercy.

According to Francis, fasting must never become superficial.


He often quotes the early Christian mystic John Chrysostom who said: “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”

In any event fasting and abstinence are part of the practices observed by the faithful

My friend and BCBP brother Jozef Sarach, a former SVD priest, explains the difference between fasting and abstinence:

Fasting and Abstinence are the two main penitential practices observed by Roman Catholics.

The purposes of practicing them are distinct also.

However, the two practices are commonly inter-changed.


There is a third penitential practice which is called Eucharistic fast, which is done before communion.


The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honour of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday.

On the other hand, the law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th year to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal and is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.



The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday.

Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl.


Moral theologians have traditionally considered this also to forbid soups or gravies made from them.

Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted, as are animal-derived products such as gelatine, butter, cheese and eggs, which do not have any meat taste.

Substitute a penitential?

On the Fridays outside of Lent the U.S. bishops conference obtained the permission of the Holy See for Catholics in the US to substitute a penitential, or even a charitable, practice of their own choosing.

Since this was not stated as binding under pain of sin, not to do so on a single occasion would not in itself be sinful.

However, since penance is a divine command, the general refusal to do penance is certainly gravely sinful.

For most people the easiest way to consistently fulfil this command is the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year which are not liturgical solemnities.

When solemnities, such as the Annunciation, Assumption, and All Saints etc. fall on a Friday, we neither abstain nor fast.

Meatless obligatory

During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory in the United States as elsewhere, and it is sinful not to observe this discipline without a serious reason (physical labor, pregnancy, sickness etc.).


The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity.

Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk).

Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance.

Those who are excused from fast or abstinence

Besides those outside the age limits, are those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment,  manual laborers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offense or causing enmity and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.

Aside from these minimum penitential requirements, Catholics are encouraged to impose some personal penance on themselves at other times.

It could be modeled after abstinence and fasting.

A person could, for example, multiply the number of days they abstain.

Some people give up meat entirely for religious motives (as opposed to those who give it up for health or other motives).

Some religious orders, as a penance, never eat meat.

Similarly, one could multiply the number of days that one fasted. The early Church had a practice of a Wednesday and Saturday fast.

This fast could be the same as the Church’s law (one main meal and two smaller ones) or stricter, even bread and water. Such freely chosen fasting could also consist in giving up something one enjoys – candy, soft drinks, smoking, that cocktail before supper, and so on. This is left to the individual.

One final consideration.

Before all else we are obliged to perform the duties of our state in life.

When considering stricter practices than the norm, it is prudent to discuss the matter with one’s confessor or director.

Any deprivation that would seriously hinder us in carrying out our work, as students, employees or parents would be contrary to the will of God. (By Atty. Jay I. Dejaresco)

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