Should we fast on Sundays during Lent?

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

I recently saw a post in which someone argued that we should fast even on Sundays during Lent. I think he was incorrect.

His argument was that you don’t hear about people breaking the fast on Sundays until recently. It seems like Lent used to be really hard on every day.

The source to go to on things like this is the Code of Canon Law. Now, St. John XXIII called for a revision of the Code of Canon Law at the same time that he called the Second Vatican Council (and, incidentally, a diocesan synod for Rome). He thought – and I don’t see how one could seriously disagree – that times had changed sufficiently to need some adjustment of Catholic practices. We don’t live in the Middle Ages anymore, in so many ways. (Apart from medicine, I wouldn’t mind going back to the way the Church was then – but that’s irrelevant: that’s not the world we live in.)

The revision he called for gave birth to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, promulgated by St. John Paul II. It’s a great document, easily found online, where you can see what the Church really asks us to do in our time. For example, Book IV is on the Sanctifying Office of the Church; part three of that book is on Sacred Places and Times; Title II is on Sacred Times; and Chapter II is on Days of Penance.

There you can read:

Canon 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

That is, that we do penance is a matter of natural (or divine) law. But then the Church sets aside some ways that we do communal penance, to draw us together. (In fact, Vatican II specifically asked for more communal penance – sadly overlooked. Strangely, the new Code drops the Ember Days, which were precisely communal days of penance.)

Canon 1250 tells us that every Friday is a day of penance, as is Lent. Canon 1251 says, “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” That’s helpful. It tells us (a) we are supposed to use some sort of abstinence from food as a penance on every Friday; (b) this is contradicted only if there is a solemnity – the highest kind of feast, but not just any kind; (c) meat isn’t necessarily the way to do it.

I tell my students, once upon a time, telling people who lived by the shore that they had to eat lobster was like telling them they had to eat bugs. It was nothing fancy; it was penance. But that’s not how it works in the United States today. For many of us, fish on Friday is more like a feast; maybe better to eat vegetarian, a long monastic tradition.

Canon 1252 tells us, by the way, that abstinence from meat (or whatever) is for those ages 14 and up; fasting is for adults (perhaps 18) until 59. Good to know!

Nothing here about Sundays, of course, because now only Fridays are penitential.


But the 1983 Code is a revision of something previous, and harder to access. In 1917 a previous effort was made to codify the law for the modern world. It is called the Pio-Benedictine Code, because it came out under Benedict XV, but its main instigator was St. Pius X, himself a reformer. It’s in Latin, and not as easily available online. I forgive the blogger who failed to check it!

There we learn, in its canon 1250, that abstinence from meat did not mean you couldn’t eat eggs, dairy, and condiments made with fat. Good to know! (That’s not how the Orthodox do it.)

In 1252.3, we find that every day of Lent was a fast day. But in 1252.4, we learn that on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, there is no fasting or abstinence from meat. That’s the Old Code, the hallowed way of the ‘50s: no fasting on Sundays!

Then comes the really exciting part: the 1917 Code has footnotes to the older laws. There was not a Code before 1917. There were lots and lots of rulings. The main ones had been gathered, in the twelfth century, by Gratian, into a book called Gratian’s Decrees. But then alongside that were tons of more recent statements. The 1917 Code tells you about these things.

Gratian is, of course, also in Latin, but a very nice edition is available online. There we learn that in the twelfth century “the fast is not to be lifted in Lent except on Sundays.” Even then. (Gratian also tells us, by the way, that Gregory the Great, in the sixth century, specifically exempted Sundays in Lent too. And he says we distinguish ourselves from some heretics who did fast on Sundays.)

According to the 1917 Code, there was no other legislation on the matter beween Gratian in the twelfth century and Pius X in the twentieth. So be at peace! Enjoy your Sundays!

How do you celebrate Sundays in Lent?


One Comment

  1. Dear Eric,
    I suspect thanks to your scholarship that the avoidance of extremes especially in fasting or penances might have arisen within the wisdom of the Church trough the experiences with groups like the Catharii or the Albigensians and perhaps even going back to some desert hermits. THere seems to be something in the psychology of some which which tends toward the extremes. For the long haul, for most of us, it is wiser and prudent to be cautious in this regard since what Our Lord asks of us that we creatively love ourselves and all others or as St. Augustine daringly said, “Love adn do what you will”.
    Yours in the mutual love of Christ, who ‘anointed’ us in the priesthood of the faithful,
    John Catan

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