Fasting and the Call to Holiness

Our salvation depends wholly on God’s grace, of which we are completely undeserving. But through fasting, as well as through prayer and almsgiving, we can open up space for God’s grace to enter.

The Second Vatican Council’s document, Lumen Gentium, was issued in 1964. Its section on “The Universal Call to Holiness,” read on its own, is puzzling because it seems to suggest that lay Catholics had not realized before that they, too, like the clergy, were called to holiness. However, I’m trying to imagine who those Catholics were who didn’t know that they were called to holiness. As far as I can remember, Catholics well understood that the Church called everyone, everywhere, to be holy. The section on the Universal Call to Holiness appears in Lumen Gentium’s longer description of the hierarchical Church, and so should be read as an effort to emphasize that the laity, too, are called to pursue holiness as an explicit part of their vocation.

The document’s explanation of what this call to holiness for the laity entails, practically speaking, is sketchy. The main “new” practice that has resulted from it has been the encouragement in some quarters for the laity to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. We are also encouraged to attend daily Mass, and to receive Communion frequently. In this, the laity are to take up more seriously one of the three, long-established spiritual practices—prayer—the other two being fasting and almsgiving.

It seems doubly confusing and disconcerting that the 1964 “call to holiness” was quickly followed in February 1966 by a revision of Catholics’ fasting rules (in Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution, that relaxed and, in effect, nearly eliminated the fasting and abstinence requirements altogether.)

(See: hf_p-vi_apc_19660217_paenitemini_en.html>Paenitemini  
and in the USCCB’s: Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence).

To get some perspective on how lax today’s requirements are, compared to previous times, take a look at this description of the fasting and abstinence rules in effect in Britain in 1828, from Thomas Ignatius M. Forster, Circle of the Seasons, and Perpetual Key to the Calendar and Almanac:

Fasting Days Observed in the Catholic Church

1. The Forty Days of Lent. 2. The Ember Days, being The Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the first Week in Lent; of Whitsun Week; of the third Week in September; and of the third Week in Advent. 3. The Wednesdays and Fridays of the Four Weeks in Advent. 4. The Vigils or Eves of Whitsuntide; of the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul; of the Assumption of the B.V.M.; of All Saints; and of Christmas Day.

N.B.—When any Fasting Day falls upon a Sunday, it is to be observed on the Saturday before.

Days of Abstinence.

1. The Sundays in Lent. 2. The Three Rogation Days, being the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day. 3. St. Mark, April 25, unless it falls in Easter Week. 4. The Fridays and Saturdays out of Lent, and the Ember Weeks, or such as happen to be Vigils. But should Christmas Day fall upon a Friday or Saturday, it is not abstinence.

N.B.—Observe that Fasting implies that only one meal a day is to be taken; whereas Abstinence merely indicates the abstaining from animal food.

For modern readers, it is also necessary to note that “animal food” then included dairy and eggs (thus, “Fat Tuesday” before Lent began was a time when one used up the fats on hand). In some places, “animal food” also included fish and shellfish, as well as things like meat bouillon, and animal-derived gelatin—in other words, a vegan diet was expected. The abstinence rules were not expected to interfere with the fasting rules, so, for example, during the Fridays of Lent, one fasted and also abstained from animal food.

Also, everyone was expected to fast from midnight prior to receiving Communion.

Various religious orders also had additional requirements for fasting and abstinence in addition to the above.

The fasting discipline was strict in the main, but exemptions were not uncommon for reasons of health—sickness, frailty, or pregnancy—or for people in exceptionally taxing jobs.

Why then, if the “universal call to holiness” was a serious one, did the Church move to weaken one of the main practices that have long been understood to lead to holiness, that is, penitential fasting? Realistically, it is difficult not to get the impression that many in the Church were operating under an ill-considered optimism about human nature, and simply wished to de-emphasize the need for penance, preferring instead to rest in an imagined, simple, positive love, and joy. For them, it would seem, the universal call to holiness was a declaration of universal holiness.

It is also difficult not to get the impression that the penitential practice of fasting embarrassed those Catholics who were striving to assimilate thoroughly into the mainstream of non-Catholic, secular culture. Fasting and abstinence seemed to make Catholics carry their ghetto around with them. And that was apparently seen as bad.

Finally, it appears that many in the Church were prepared to accept the Protestant criticism that Catholicism, in its rules, regulations, and hierarchy, was “semi-Pelagian”—a usefully fuzzy, and possibly oxymoronic, phrase that meant something like “Pharasaic” and “superstitious” in the sense of believing that one’s salvation could be earned by one’s own merit through one’s performance of “works.” And, in truth, the very fact that Catholics took this criticism seriously, as relevant to penitential practices, meant that they were indeed confused about the purposes of such practices.  But does that mean that eliminating them was the way to help people become holy?

All those required practices that, through ambiguous words or “options” or “dispensations,” were made essentially voluntary (and therefore “authentic,” from a Progressive point of view) were, in truth, aids to holiness. We poor non-Perfecti need more than our own spiritual resources to answer the call to holiness. Being weak, we are helped when we are in a community that encourages, expects, and requires us to do what we should do. We need the Church to embrace us more tightly, not to cut us loose on our own. We need discipline. And that discipline is actually more beneficial if we can offer one another mutual support in undertaking it, rather than if we undertake it as a solitary practice. In doing it together—even as a requirement—we are less likely to make it a matter of spiritual pride, especially that sort of back-handed spiritual pride to which we moderns are particularly prone, which grows from the seed of thinking, “I’m doing this voluntarily, not because the Church tells me to do it.” Trying to avoid “semi-Pelagianism” by giving oneself credit for voluntary “works” would seem to miss the point altogether, and to be counterproductive.

Our salvation depends wholly on God’s grace, of which we are completely undeserving. But through fasting, as well as through prayer and almsgiving, we can open up space for God’s grace to enter. And yes, of course, the true point of penance is not just a formal abstention. And, the sacrifice of a circumcised heart is more pleasing to God than the sacrifice of circumcision itself (Romans 2:29; Acts 7:51).

That is the purpose of penitential practices, including fasting, when they are undertaken as spiritual discipline. They are like athletic training, as St. Paul exhorted us to “run the race to the end” (1 Corinthians 9:24; 2 Timothy 4:7), and like military training, in that they help us “put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11). Fasting trains us to deny ourselves, to make sacrifices, to rise above servitude to the inclinations of the flesh. It’s wonderful to give up sinful or destructive behavior for Lent. But, really that is not what “fasting” is all about: rather, one should (also) give up some of the good things of life as well.

According to one account in the Haggadah, a Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder:  Adam was to eat only the green things of the field.  But the prohibition against the use of animals for food was revoked in Noah’s time, after the deluge (Genesis 9:1-9), though even here, man was to abstain from eating the blood of animals (for that was God’s part), and so the rules for keeping kosher accompanied this new freedom.

Nevertheless, Adam was not cut off from the enjoyment of meat dishes. Though he was not permitted to slaughter animals for the appeasing of his appetite, the angels brought him meat and wine, serving him like attendants.

There was one necessity of fasting, however, from which Adam was never dispensed, and for which there was no angelic workaround: “Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat” (Genesis 2:15-17). Fasting is actually a positive way to make our way back to that “prelapsarian” (before the Fall of Adam and Eve) image of life in Eden. Post-Resurrection, it is a way to join with St. Paul in completing “in his flesh that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). In his Apostolic Constitution on Fast and Abstinence, Paenitemini, Paul VI adds, to “bear in his body and soul the death of the Lord,” so that such penance “neither excludes nor lessens in any way the external practice of this virtue, but on the contrary reaffirms its necessity with particular urgency.”

Paul VI also then asserted that the Church, keeping her eye on the “signs of the times,” notes that fasting, “in countries where the standard of living is lower,” could be said to constitute an unusual hardship, and might be better substituted with “exercises of prayer and works of charity.” He also noted that “where economic well-being is greater, so much more will the witness of asceticism have to be given,” suggesting that in developed countries, more fasting (not less) is appropriate.

However, he gives to episcopal conferences the task to “substitute abstinence and fast wholly, or in part, with other forms of penitence and, especially, works of charity, and the exercises of piety.”  So entered the “local option.”

The United States Bishops’ pastoral letter on the subject, issued nine months later, is clear in its individual points, but, speaking both as one of the faithful and as a historian of religion, I believe it appears fundamentally confused. In fact, it abrogates, almost in its entirety, the Friday abstinence law that includes Friday abstinence from meat. It is hedged about by statements that through praise, penitence, and expressions of hope, that the practice of penance, in general, will be deepened and expanded. And it praises “works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance.” Yet, the argument is made, essentially, that because meat is nowadays commonplace, rather than rare as it used to be, abstaining from it is no longer such a difficult thing to do, and so the penitent needs to do something harder. This is puzzling and highly debatable. If meat today forms a larger part of our diet than it did before, wouldn’t abstaining from it require more inconvenience and discipline than it used to require?

The argument for relaxing the fasting and abstinence requirement is that “Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.” So the point seems to be that if people do it “voluntarily,” it will be of more value. Well, maybe or maybe not. But does that mean the law—which I take it is supposed to help us, not just punish us—should be changed? How does that follow? Wouldn’t the same argument lead to concluding that this supposedly higher form of “voluntary” abstinence is an even greater outward sign during the deepest penitential season, that of Lent? Yet, that is the only season in which the bishops left the old discipline in place. Isn’t the Church a treasury of means to help us to holiness? How does the Church saying, “Okay, now you’re on your own. God bless you!” help us?

I have heard people rag on the old tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays, and the possibility of reinstituting it by pointing out that eating fish or shellfish nowadays, given the rich and varied abundance of seafood available to us, is not really “penitential” at all.  Who can deny that ordering broiled lobster, say, with garlic-chili butter, and perhaps a dollop of chopped egg, and caviar en point, is hardly what comes to mind when penance is in order? My answer to that argument is that, if we are “keeping an eye on the signs of the times,” as Vatican II liked to put it, we should, therefore, probably abstain from seafood, as well as from meat, on Fridays.

But that is not the whole answer. Even if we were eating “luxurious” seafood on Fridays (I remember fish sticks, not lobster), it was nevertheless still an outward sign that we had restricted our freedom to eat whatever we liked, and were forbidding ourselves to eat meat. (Like:>Noah while on the ark.) Eating fish on Friday, at minimum was a marker of membership in a community of faith, establishing “solidarity” among the faithful, that goal so beloved of religious progressives. But actual solidarity presupposes “exclusivity” as well as “inclusivity,” and so I do not look to progressives to support the reinstitution of such community markers (Do I qualify for an IRS audit for writing that?).

In addition, the pastoral letter appears to encourage the idea that other things can substitute for fasting and abstinence—such as doing self-chosen volunteer work in hospitals, or “participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.”

The problem here is twofold. First, such other things may be quite virtuous and penitential if done with the right intention, but people do these sorts of things anyway—working in hospitals, serving on the school board, and so on—as a regular part of their lives. The inner attitude, then, is what is said here to make them “penitential.” But as a practical matter, this has allowed penance among the faithful, not to be deepened, but to be dissipated, ignored, and even to be understood as pharisaical and “overly-scrupulous.” At this point, almost 50 years after this pastoral letter, does this need to be argued? The evidence is everywhere around us. The bishops seem to have been influenced by a new utopian anthropology. Does anyone really believe that Catholics are more penitential on Fridays than they used to be, rather than less? What do the “signs of the times” point to now?

The bishops wrote that they wished to deepen and emphasize penitence, but the quite clearly observable effect is that Catholics, by and large, are far less penitent. The same phenomenon is evident in the reduction of the time required to fast before receiving communion. Ostensibly, the reason was to encourage the frequent reception of communion. And this, in fact, it appears to have accomplished, as whole aisles at a time are ushered down to the altar, with hardly anyone in the pews remaining behind. But receiving the Eucharist is only of benefit to those who have actually prepared themselves, and are in a state of grace. To those who are not, receiving the Eucharist is the worst thing they could do—it justifies them in their unrighteousness. This has been the “benefit” of reducing the fasting period effectively to zero:  not more worthy reception of the sacrament, but far more abuse of it.

The fact is that the passage from the pastoral letter appears to dissolve the worth of penitential fasting into that of penitential almsgiving (which would include visiting hospitals). The bishops were, perhaps, inspired by Isaiah 58, where the Lord castigates people who attest to their fasting, but who continue to exploit the poor, and undertake no charitable acts, at the same time. But the Lord does not at all, thereby, negate the virtue of fasting per se.

In addition, perhaps the bishops felt that fasting was too “self-centered” and wished to emphasize the outward acts of charity. But like the “social gospel,” this misses the point that volunteer work, and charitable donations, can be “works” that are every bit as “pharisaical” and self-centered as fasting. We are reminded of this in the Gospel passages about the widow’s mite (Mark 2:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4) that practically defines and attacks the formalistic “pharisaical” attitude.

Another problem with this pastoral reasoning is that fasting—which includes abstinence—is a very specific discipline. As a matter of practice, it is clear and easy to understand and to demonstrate, both to oneself and to others, and, therefore, to hold fast to in one’s mind, in a way that doing more ordinary acts (but with a penitential “attitude”) cannot. As thousands of years of accumulated wisdom in Christianity, and in other religions show, fasting has a particular effect on the body and the mind and the spirit (such as enhancing one’s ability to concentrate) that the other penitential acts the bishops recommend, no matter how virtuous they may be, do not have.  That very particular effect is lost when fasting is not practiced. Had the bishops become so immersed in a kind of angelism that they could so easily have conflated the bodily act of fasting with the largely mental act of changing one’s attitude?

The Eastern Church, at least, has never become confused about this truth of bodily ascesis.  Catholicism, too, was never confused about it until recently. It is a deep irony that the bishops appear to have forgotten the old wisdom of the body, and the need for personal discipline, and tilted toward the social Gospel just as the larger culture—at least, the most avant-garde part of it—was discovering yoga, and Sufi and Zen meditation.

Finally, the bishops’ pastoral letter even appears to express the hope that the self-discipline involved in Friday abstinence from meat will, in the future, be substituted by self-discipline in the use of stimulants and alcoholic beverages, thereby confusing penance with the virtue of temperance.

Why then shouldn’t the Church again strengthen the fasting requirement? Obviously, I think it should. My Orthodox friends and relatives still fast under a regimen as rigorous as Catholics once did. And there are vegetarians and vegans almost everywhere whose abstinence rules are every bit as demanding as the Catholics’ rules once were. It is embarrassing, when I think of them, to tune into Catholic radio, and hear call-in listeners complain about—or brag about—the slight difficulty of abstaining from meat under the current rules.

It is no secret that the Catholic Church, at least in the West, is entering a time of tribulation and severe testing. The harvest is coming; the wheat will be separated from the weeds; in the winnowing that follows, the grain will remain and the chaff will be blown away in the wind.  What remains will be the Church of the Faithful. It will have prepared itself to persevere through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

John B. Buescher About John B. Buescher

John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in religious studies at the University of Virginia, and has published books and articles on Tibetan Buddhism, and on the history of spiritualism in 19th- century America. For twenty years, he directed the Tibetan Broadcast Service of the Voice of America, and now writes for the Catholic press. He is a parishioner of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, Virginia.


  1. Avatar Bill Bannon says:

    I eat light amounts and abstain three days a week ( includes Friday) from the delicious and trust me, it is far harder than giving up meat on one day …at least for those of us who actually like a host of things more than we like meat. You can circumvent the sacrifice of meat abstention by having anything delightful….pasta with butter e.g. which I prefer to meat.
    But you can’t circumvent giving up all delightful things on a given day. On my three penance days, I eat nothing that I relish. I like it. I think the one day a week, no meat was too light all along. Three days a week is heavy. Two days a week might be good for many who want to increase the ascetical outlook or do penance…two distinct goals.

  2. Avatar Gladys H. Mariani says:

    Wow! I am impressed by this post’s clarity! It has the unmistakable sound of “truth” to it. I think I am one of those Catholics that has never understood the point of penance very well…regretably! Although I have generally followed the meatless Friday rule, I think I have done it by rote. The concept of fasting (with the right intention) as an action that uniquely frees you from certain sins has always sounded mysterious to me. Your post somehow sheds some light…It sort of intuitively explained something…Oh, I give up trying to explain it! But, thank-you. I will give it serious thought.

  3. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    “But actual solidarity presupposes “exclusivity” as well as “inclusivity,” and so I do not look to progressives to support the reinstitution of such community markers (Do I qualify for an IRS audit for writing that?).” I wonder what this means? Fasting yes, obligation as in the past no. And that is not just a progressive idea.

  4. Thank you for the sharp edge in your thoughts on fasting. There needs to be a cutting away of much that obscures the path to righteousness, the path of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is too “easy” (if that word can be meaningful here) to replace each of these three – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – with something else, something sadly sterile, a counterfeit.

    An article on prayer, and on almsgiving, could be written as lengthy as yours here on fasting, to the same point: what we have is inadequate! “Easy” is not what we need. Not that “hard” is what we need, in itself, either. We need the true light of holiness as our beacon and guide. It seems we have settled for much, much less.

  5. Thank you for this fortifying piece. At present, I’m experimenting with the Orthodox practice of abstinence on Wednesdays and Fridays. It essentially means following a vegan diet, except that shellfish but not fish with a backbone are allowed. It seems to have quite a purgative effect on the body! As to the mind and spirit, we’ll have to see.

  6. I cannot imagine where in the Bible it says that angels brought Adam meat. But it does say “let every seed bearing plant, and every seed bearing fruit be your food”. And God gave every green plant to the animals for food. What did I miss in the Bible?
    Man did not start eating meat until some time after the fall of Adam and Eve. Nutritionally, we know this to be true biochemically even today. The amount of protein found in animal products is too much for human biochemistry. After man migrated out of the garden, (out of the tropics) he did not find plants or fruit to eat in the winter months, so he ate whatever he could find. Enter the consumption of animal products and that history continues until today.

    • Avatar Bill Bannon says:

      The author may have been confusing Adam with Elijah in this detail. God has ravens bring meat to Elijah…
      1Ki 17:6 And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the brook.

      • Avatar Bill Bannon says:

        In addition, while some may avoid meat for health reasons in their case, no one may contradict God and preach against meat. Read Acts 10:
        * The next day, while they were on their way and nearing the city, Peter went up to the roof terrace to pray at about noontime.*
        He was hungry and wished to eat, and while they were making preparations he fell into a trance.
        c He saw heaven opened and something resembling a large sheet coming down, lowered to the ground by its four corners.
        In it were all the earth’s four-legged animals and reptiles and the birds of the sky.
        A voice said to him, “Get up, Peter. Slaughter and eat.”
        But Peter said, “Certainly not, sir. For never have I eaten anything profane and unclean.”
        The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.”
        This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into the sky.


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