Why Not Eat?

gluttonyOne of the pillars of Lenten penance, and of traditional Christian living, is fasting. We “give up” various things for Lent, but traditionally, the focus is on not eating. For almost the entirety of the Catholic tradition, you only got one real meal a day through the whole of Lent. (And although it wasn’t formally included in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, there was an older tradition of giving up another pleasure of the flesh for Lent, too.)

There’s wisdom in this practice.


Thomas Aquinas defines four central virtues of human life. There’s prudence (picking the smartest means to reach our ends), justice (giving people what they deserve from us), fortitude (doing what’s difficult), and temperance (giving up what feels good when it isn’t appropriate).

As the modern practices of “giving things up” for Lent makes clear, there are a lot of forms of temperance. Not getting distracted from your work is a kind of temperance. So is being simple. Humility, not getting angry, and gentleness are all forms of temperance.

And yet, being bodily creatures, there is a more basic kind of temperance: temperance from the pleasures of the flesh. On a biological level, the most basic temperance is about food, drink, and sex. Nowhere is temperance more vivid, more basic, more direct than in these fleshy passions. Nowhere is it more obvious that our desire for pleasure is out of control.

It must be said: temperance is the lowest of the four virtues. But fasting also requires a lot of prudence (both in picking how much to eat and in using fasting as a means to greater ends) and fortitude (because it’s tough). Justice is much higher than temperance – but the other three virtues all help us to be just. It’s hard to treat other people right when you have no self-control.


I often teach John Cassian’s Institutes, a classic piece of Egyptian-desert monastic wisdom from the early Church. Most of the Institutes is organized around what would later be called the seven cardinal sins, along with the deepest sin, pride. (Cassian’s seven are gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, self-pity, sloth, and vainglory. The later tradition would refine self-pity into envy, which is unhappiness focused on other people’s excellence.)

One of the many things I love about Cassian is the way he starts with gluttony. Gluttony is far and away the least of these sins. It is not connected to any Commandment, it doesn’t involve any grave disorder.

In fact, what makes gluttony interesting is precisely its naturalness. Of course, it’s not natural to eat too much. (Cassian adds pickiness and snacking to his description of gluttony.) And yet the desire for food is a healthy, normal desire.

You have to eat or you will die. All the other kinds of sins you can completely give up. But gluttony requires prudence. In fact, the greatest sin connected to gluttony would be hurting yourself by fighting too hard. Cassian has a lot of extreme things to say about fasting (he was an Egyptian monk) – but his closing word is “fast as if you were going to live a hundred years.” That is, fast in a healthy way.

It would be healthy to eat a lot less than we do. Many of us (especially fat Americans) would probably be healthier after forty days of one meal. Doctors even say that the biggest thing you can do to live longer is just eat less.

Fasting is not about killing yourself. It’s about learning to be prudent, learning that you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do.


After Vatican II, the rules on fasting were mitigated. Previously, fasting had been defined as one meal a day (with an allowance for two snacks); now–at least in Canon Law–there is no rule. Previously, there were three short seasons of fasting, the Wednesday-Friday-Saturday of Summer, Fall, and Winter Ember days, in addition to Lent; now they are gone. Previously, every day of Lent (except one Solemnity) was a fast day; now only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are. The fasting rules are much easier.

This is part of a greater pattern after the Council, including, for example, the modification of many liturgical prayers. There had been a genuine heresy running through the Church, Jansenism, which saw nature itself as evil. After the Council – for good reason! – things were revised to focus on love instead of on evil. We can only understand evil when we understand love. We are in a remedial time, when the Church tries to focus on the most essential of all, and rediscover the goodness of God. There was good reason for taking the emphasis off of self-denial.

But that doesn’t mean we should forget fasting. Precisely because eating is necessary, fasting is a good way to rediscover the difference between saying food is evil and simply saying we don’t need so much. It’s a good reminder that love goes beyond the law.

What have you learned from fasting?


One Comment

  1. Professor,
    Historically/theologically, where does the Church’s focus upon abstaining from meat (in particular among the food groups) come from?

    (I’m very happy to say I was a student in one of your classes at Seton Hall).

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