Why No Chicken on Days of Abstinence

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Why No Chicken on Days of Abstinence


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: An inquirer in our parish RCIA program asked why chicken could not be substituted for fish during Lenten days of abstinence. Can you explain the reasons for the preference for fish for the days of abstinence? — T.W., Garberville, California

A: In the tradition of the Church, laws relating to fasting are principally intended to define what pertains to the quantity of food allowed on days of fasting, while those regulating abstinence refer to their quality.

The law of the fast means that only one full meal may be taken during the day while two light meals are permitted in accord with local custom as to the amount and kind of food.

While the consumption of solid food between meals is forbidden, liquids, including tea, coffee and juices, may be taken at any time.

The law of abstinence prohibits eating the flesh, marrow and blood products of such animals and birds as constitute flesh meat.

In earlier times the law of abstinence also forbade such foods that originated from such animals, such as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, lard and sauces made from animal fat. This restriction is no longer in force in the Roman rite.

Vegetables as well as fish and similar cold-blooded animals (frogs, clams, turtles, etc.) may be eaten. Amphibians are relegated to the category to which they bear most striking resemblance.

This distinction between cold- and warm-blooded animals is probably why chicken may not replace fish on days of abstinence.

This classification can scarcely preclude all doubt regarding the law of abstinence. But local usage and Church authorities usually provide a sufficient basis to resolve problematic questions.

Abstinence was technically stricter in former times. Yet, the actual observance of the law was, and is, confined to such circumstances as carry no insupportable burden.

This is why people who are sick, very poor or engaged in heavy labor (or who have difficulty in procuring fish) are not bound to observe the law so long as such conditions prevail.

Diversity in customs, climate and food prices also modified the law of abstinence.

For example, one indult dispensed people in the United States from abstinence from meat at their principal meal during Lent on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Another indult, issued Aug. 3, 1887, allowed the use of animal fat in preparing fish and vegetables at all meals and on all days. Similar indults were granted for other countries.

Although in past times penitential days and times requiring fast and/or abstinence were more abundant, present canon law (Canons 1250-1253) has somewhat reduced these days.

Canon 1250 states: "The penitential days and times in the universal church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent."

Canon 1251: "Abstinence from eating meat or some other food according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops is to be observed on every Friday of the year unless a Friday occurs on a day listed as a solemnity. Abstinence and fasting however are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday."

The bishops' conference may substitute abstinence from other foods for meat in those countries where eating meat is uncommon, or for some other just reason.

They also enjoy broad authority, in the light of Canon 1253, to "determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part for abstinence and fast."

In the United States, the bishops recommend abstinence on all Fridays of the year. Abstinence is obligatory on all Fridays of Lent.

Abstinence is obligatory after reaching the age of 14; fasting becomes obligatory from age 18 until midnight of one's 59th birthday.

Most Eastern rites, both Catholic and Orthodox, have more demanding laws of fasting and abstinence and retain the prohibition of milk and poultry products.

As described by one reader, the Byzantine tradition, for example, begins the great Lenten fast after "Forgiveness Vespers" on Cheesefare Sunday evening (the Sunday before our Ash Wednesday), with the anointing of the faithful with oil, not ashes.

"Cheesefare" refers to the "farewell" to dairy products in the diet of the faithful for the duration of the Holy Fast. The Sunday before that is Meatfare Sunday, indicating a farewell to meat in the diet.

This continues (as far as practicable for all who receive the Eucharist) throughout Lent. Holy Week is more stringent — more of a fast than abstinence.

As well, daily celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy is forbidden — but the faithful receive the Eucharist at the special vesperlike Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, which employs Eucharistic bread consecrated on the previous Sunday. 

The motives for practicing abstinence are admirably expressed by St. Augustine in his Sermon on Prayer and Fasting: Abstinence purifies the soul, elevates the mind, subordinates the flesh to the spirit, begets a humble and contrite heart, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, extinguishes the fire of lust, and enkindles the true light of chastity.

This is summarized in the IV Preface of Lent: "Who by bodily fasting suppresses vice, ennobles the mind, grants virtue and rewards" (a literal translation, as the present official version bears little resemblance to the original).

In short, the Church mandates fast and abstinence in order to help free us from the chains of slavery to sin. Rather than an onerous obligation it is a cry of freedom from all that binds us to ourselves and to our passions. ZE06031423

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Follow-up: Why No Chicken on Days of Abstinence [03-28-2006]

Several readers asked for further clarifications on some aspects of the laws of fast and abstinence (see our March 14 column).

Some inquired as to the use of derivatives such as chicken broth and the use of beef and chicken stock and animal fats in preparing foods.

Present canon law allows the use of sauces made from animal fats, as well as their use in cooking, so the use of beef or chicken stock would enter into this category.

While the use of chicken consommé (that is just the liquid) might fall within the law, it would be more in accordance with the spirit of abstinence to prefer a fish or vegetable soup.

Other readers pointed out occasional incongruities such as when fish is more expensive than meat.

The purpose of the law of abstinence is to educate us in the higher spiritual law of charity and self-mastery. Thus, fast and abstinence have always been tied to almsgiving.

In this way, it makes little sense to give up steak so as to gorge on lobster and caviar. The idea of abstinence is to prefer a simpler, less sumptuous diet than normal.

We thus have something extra to give to those less fortunate than ourselves and also train ourselves in freedom from slavery to material pleasures. Even a Catholic vegetarian can practice abstinence by substituting a typical, yet more expensive, element of the diet for something simpler.

All the same, the laws of fasting exist to give clear directions and preserve us from subjective indulgence in choosing our "sacrifices." But these laws have always been tempered by the reality of the situation.

For this reason the Church has continually granted indults so that nobody be involuntarily deprived of necessary foods. In some cases this has meant suspending abstinence on some days or for some categories of people; in others it has meant permitting meat when fish is an expensive delicacy or when eating meat is itself a rarity. In other cases it has meant substituting another kind of food for meat.

In all of these cases the basic rule of thumb is that the law of fast and abstinence should never impose a grave or unsupportable burden on an individual or family.

These indults are still very pertinent in poor countries where the basic diet varies little and consists of a few basic commodities such as rice, beans, corn or potatoes accompanied by small quantities of meat and other vegetables.

In the developed world the vast array of assorted foodstuffs available at the local supermarket make living the laws of abstinence relatively easy. In most cases one can forgo meat and still maintain a simple yet well balanced diet.

However, while being faithful to these laws we must always strive to penetrate the inner reasons for fast and abstinence and not just stay on the superficial plane of rules for rules' sake. ZE06032820

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