It better disposes us for prayer, Monsignor Pope noted. Because we feel greater hunger or thirst when we fast from food and water, “it reminds us of our frailty and helps us be more humble,” he said. “Without humility, prayer and then our experience of God really can’t be unlocked.”
Thus, the practice is “clearly linked by St. Thomas Aquinas, writing within the tradition, to chastity, to purity, and to clarity of mind,” Lew noted.
“You can kind of postulate from that that our modern-day struggles with the virtue of chastity, and perhaps a lack of clarity in theological knowledge, might be linked to an abandonment of fasting as well.”
A brief history of fasting
The current fasting obligations were set in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but in previous centuries, the common fasts among Catholics were stricter and more regularly observed.
Catholics abstained from meat on all Fridays of the year, Easter Friday excluded. During Lent, they had to fast — one main meal and two smaller meatless meals — on all days excluding Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. They abstained from meat on Fridays and Saturdays in Lent — the days of Christ’s death and lying in the tomb — but were allowed meat during the main meal on the other Lenten weekdays.
The obligations extended to other days of the liturgical year. Catholics fasted and abstained on the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost Sunday, and on ember days — the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the feast of St. Lucy on Dec. 13, after Ash Wednesday, after Pentecost Sunday, and after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September — corresponding with the four seasons.
In centuries past, the Lenten abstention was more austere. Catholics gave up not only meat but also animal products like milk and butter, as well as oil and even fish at times.
Why are today’s obligations in the Latin rite so minimal? The Church is setting clear boundaries outside of which one cannot be considered to be practicing the Christian life, Carnazzo explained. That is why intentionally violating the Lenten obligations is a mortal sin.
But should Catholics perform more than the minimum penance that is demanded? Yes, Father Lew said.
The minimum may be “what is due to God out of justice,” he explained, but we are “called not only to be just to God,” but also “to love God and to love our neighbor.” Charity, he added, “would call us to do more than just the minimum that is applied to us by the Code of Canon Law today, I think.”
In Jeremiah 31:31-33, God promises to write his law upon our hearts, Carnazzo noted. We must go beyond following a set of rules and love God with our hearts, and this involves doing more than what we are obliged to do, he added.
Be wary of your motivation
However, Lew noted, fasting “must be stirred up by charity.” A Catholic should not fast out of dieting or pride but out of love of God.
“It’s always dangerous in the spiritual life to compare yourself to other people,” he said, citing the Gospel of John where Jesus instructed St. Peter not to be concerned about the mission of St. John the Apostle but rather to “follow me” (John 21:20-23).
In like manner, we should be focused on God during Lent and not on the sacrifices of others, he said.
Lent (is referred to) as a joyful season ... It’s the joy of loving him more.
“We will often fail, I think. And that’s not a bad thing. Because if we do fail, this is the opportunity to realize our utter dependence on God and his grace, to seek his mercy and forgiveness, and to seek his strength so that we can grow in virtue and do better,” he added.
And by realizing our weakness and dependence on God, we can “discover anew the depths of God’s mercy for us” and can be more merciful to others, he added.
Giving up good things may seem onerous and burdensome, but can — and should — a Catholic fast with joy?
“It’s referred to in the preface of Lent as a joyful season,” Lew said. “And it’s the joy of deepening our relationship with Christ, and therefore coming closer to him. It’s the joy of loving him more, and the more we love God the closer we draw to him.”
“Lent is all about the cross, and eventually the resurrection,” Carnazzo said. If we “make an authentic, real sacrifice for Christ” during Lent, “we can come to that day of the crucifixion and say ‘Yes, Lord, I willingly with you accept the cross. And when we do that, then we will behold the third day of resurrection.’”
A version of this article was originally published on CNA Feb. 20, 2016, and was updated on Feb. 21, 2023.
Matt Hadro was the political editor at Catholic News Agency through October 2021. He previously worked as CNA senior D.C. correspondent and as a press secretary for U.S. Congressman Chris Smith.