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Fast and abstinence

30 November, 1999

Gerard writes: Drinking too much leads to more serious consequences than overeating. Yet fast and abstinence in the Church is always focussed on food and never on drink. Why is this? Fr Bernard McGuckian SJ replies.

When you talk about drinking, I presume that you are not concerned about tea, coffee or fruit juice but about the consumption of alcoholic drink. Over-indulgence in alcohol often ends up in addictive behaviour, leading to sorrow and heartbreak for whole families. Overeating or even eating inappropriate food can lead eventually to health problems for the individual. It does not lead to misery on the scale brought about by abuse of alcohol.

However, you are right about the fact that drink, whether alcoholic or not, does not feature prominently in the precepts of the Church. Probably one reason for this is the very big difference in the effects that follow from abstaining from solid food as distinct from abstaining from liquids. The human being can survive for weeks without solid food but only for a short number of days without liquids. Consequently one has to be more careful when doing without water than when doing without bread. Church legislation has always taken this into consideration.

Another thing to remember, I think, is that the extraordinarily widespread abuse of alcohol around the world is a relatively modern phenomenon. There is little evidence, for instance, that the Irish drank any more than any other European nation in medieval times. Alcohol only began to loom large in the national consciousness in the period after 1800 for a variety of reasons that are well documented. The legislation of the Catholic Church on Fast and Abstinence long predated this situation and was never intended to deal with it.

The widespread abuse of alcohol by a largely impoverished people in Ireland required the special exertions of men like Fr. Theobald Mathew OFM, Cap., the charismatic preacher known as the Apostle of Temperance and later Fr. James A. Cullen, S.J. the founder of both this magazine and the Pioneer Association. Both of them saw widespread abstinence from alcohol as a way of bringing about a whole moral regeneration of a people.

Fasting, along with prayer and almsgiving, has always been considered one of the three marks of genuine religion. The Church saw in the practice of all three of them an authentic response to John the Baptist’s call ‘to produce fruit in keeping with your repentance’ (Lk.3:2). Any one of these without the other two is in some way deficient. Prayer without fasting and almsgiving can become so heavenly that it is no earthly use. Almsgiving without prayer and fasting has been described as ‘doing good and avoiding God’. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving is at best dieting and at worst some form of masochism.

Fasting concerns the amount of food, abstinence the type of it. What constitutes a fast is left to the discretion of each person but the abstinence is specifically from the flesh of animals. Self-denial of this kind has been a feature of human activity for religious and other purposes from time immemorial. It still flourishes in even the most secularized strands of our society. Think of the dietary extremes to which people will go to qualify themselves for the racecourse or the cat-walk.

The prescribed minimum for fasting and abstaining in today’s Church, in the sense you mean is pretty mild by any standards. There are no demands whatever made upon the sick and elderly. For the rest of us, besides the general rule that we abstain for one hour from food and restrict our liquids to water before receiving Holy Communion as a mark of respect, there are only two days in the year when we are asked to practise fast and abstinence: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

In Ancient Israel – where we find our religious roots – the concept of fasting was much wider than simply cutting down on food or doing without it over extended periods. People opted to forego other legitimate pleasures such as baths, perfumes or sexual relations as a prelude to more intense praise of God and humble trust in His providence in their lives. They tried to respond generously to the words of Isaiah:

‘Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me – it is the Lord who speaks – to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the man you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin? Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over’ (Is.58:6-8).

The purpose of the two days of fast and abstinence during Lent is to inculcate a spirit of restraint, increasing our awareness that there must be a penitential dimension in our lives if we wish to be true followers of Jesus Christ who once said, ‘Unless you do penance, you will likewise perish’ (Lk.133). He does not ask us to fast completely for forty days in the desert as he did himself. A reasonable service is all he asks from us. As our God, he knows the dust of which we are made.

The Irish faithful of an earlier generation expressed their approval of this benign attitude of the Lord and his Church in an amusing piece of doggerel that has come down to us from the past:

‘God bless and protect the Council of Trint (sic)
that put fast upon mate (sic) and not upon drink.’ 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.