The Law of Abstinence

by Jimmy Akin

in Liturgical Year, Moral Theology

The Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, and so every Lent gives rise to questions about what the law of abstinence involves. The Code of Canon Law establishes that "those who have completed their fourteenth year of age" (i.e., those who have passed their fourteenth birthday) are obliged to abstain (CIC 1251), but the Code does not give an explanation of abstinence itself. This explanation is found instead in a 1966 apostolic constitution from Paul VI called Paenitemini (in case you’re wondering, that’s pronounced PEN-ih-TEM-ih-nee in English). Here is an English translation of the relevant norm:

The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat [III:1].

The trouble is that this explanation–at least in its English translation–is not as clear as one would like. It does not, for example, mention the exception of fish and other seafood from the law of abstinence, and this is universally acknowledged as an exception. The reason the exception is not mentioned is that it is implicit in the original Latin of the text, which reads:

Abstinentiae lex vetat carne vesei, non autem ovis, lacticiniis et quibuslibet condimentis etiam ex adipe animalium [III:1].

The word for "meat" in the original is carnis (here inflected in the ablative as carne), which does not correspond exactly in meaning to the English word "meat." In contemporary English, "meat" tends to mean the flesh of any animal, whether it is a mammal, a bird, a fish, or what have you. But as used here, carnis refers only to the flesh of mammals and birds. It does not include the flesh of fish (or, for that matter, of reptiles, amphibians, or insects).

Another possible exception to the rule may be found by comparing the norm in Paenitemini to the original regulation in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which held:

The law of abstinence prohibits meat and soups made from meat but not of eggs, milks, and also whatever condiments are derived from animal fat [CIC(1917) 1250].

Since the 1917 law included an exclusion of soups using meat but the 1966 norm does not, in the common opinion of canonists today appears to be that soups using meat no longer violate the law of abstinence. (A few Lents ago, I did an extensive check on this.) Notice that the rest of the sequence (meat, eggs, milk products, condiments) is entirely undisturbed, suggesting that soup was intentionally dropped.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the fact that amphibian flesh is not excluded. If I knew where to get frogs legs here in Southern California, I’d go out and order them. I haven’t had frogs legs since I was a boy, when I’d go frog gigging in the piney woods of East Texas with the menfolk of my family on warm summer nights.

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Puzzled March 1, 2006 at 11:13 pm

The merfolk of your family? huh?
I must need sleep.

bill912 March 2, 2006 at 4:11 am

You must, Puzzled, as Jimmy wrote “meNfolk”. However, since they live in the ocean, you could eat merfolk on Fridays of Lent.

Chris Lauer March 24, 2006 at 3:58 am

This is great research. Your research is very thorough and informative. I am no expert, however, I think I see a different interpretation on the subject of soups “using” meat.
You infer (along with the opinions of canonists) that since the 1917 Code of Canon Law prohibits soups made “from” meat and the 1966 apostolic constitution omits this from the prohibited list, that soups “using” meat are now allowed.
In my common understanding, a soup made from meat (or carnis) would be beef or chicken stock, and not soup containing chunks of beef or chicken. There might also be some reasonable suspicion of the canonists’ view that just because Pope Paul VI omits a prohibition in 1966 he specifically reversed a prohibition from 1917 Canon Law. I think the more safe approach is to abstain from soups made “from” and “using” meat.

Fr. Stephanos, O.S.B. March 24, 2006 at 5:39 am

Many of the monastic regulations of St. Benedict (who died in A.D. 547) were reflecting Church usages of his day. He required monks to abstain from the meat of four-legged animals specifically, but made no mention of any other kind of animal. Since quadrupeds are the most expensive animals to raise, and since St. Benedict generally exhorts monks to poverty, one might further presume that poverty is the motive for excluding quadrupeds from the diet of monks.
It would be appropriate (and coherent) to exclude all COSTLY food items when one is penitentially abstaining today.
In exhorting us to abstain from meat, the Church has never said, “Thou shalt eat fish.”
Today, some seafood can be much more expensive than most of what is classified as “meat”.
Years ago, the monastery of St. John in Minnesota had hired a new cook whose first day at work was going to be Good Friday. The cook sought to impress the new “bosses” … and served up lobster…. Such suffering!

carl romeo March 27, 2006 at 11:34 am

The meaning of the Law of Abstinence is widely misunderstood in our society. The meaning is one of sacrifice or giving something up- meat just happens to be the thing. The focus was always meant to be on the sacrifice and not on the meat. So people go out to dinner on Friday in Lent and eat sumptious dinners of shrimp and lobster- nothing but the very best.
They are not really doing wrong- they are within the letter of the Law, but they are missing thepoint. They are not within the spirit of the law and are doing nothing special.

indianagal March 17, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Your comments are all helpful but we are looking for a defintive answer on can you eat pork rinds and braunschweiger (pork livers)? Thanks everyone!

carol February 9, 2008 at 6:22 am

I’m sure that the church fathers are less concerned with the letter of the law, literalism, than they are with the spirit of the law. What they, and us, want is for persons to do penance during this ‘penitential,’ season in remembrance of the fact that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and the sins of the world. Remember, the purpose of lent is to do penance, in reparation for our sins. If we must give something up, make it the occasion(s) of sin. The church suggests that we abstain from meat, that is red meat and poultry, why poultry, I never have been able to figure out, as I always was told that the rule was about the meat of mammals, as Jesus was a mammal as we are. The reason for the abstention was in remembrance that Jesus bled red mammalian blood for the remission of sins, and gave us his blood to drink, in the form of wine, at the 1st Eucharist.
This is a good form of penance, and obeying the mandates of Holy Mother Church many times are also penitential, for she (the Church) in following Christ’s teachings of “Take up your Cross daily and follow me.” (Gospels) is teaching us to do penance for the forgiveness of our sins.
I could go and go, but my “energizers,” are dyeing.
Carol SFO

ramy February 9, 2008 at 11:03 am

in Egypt catholics are expected to abstain even from fish and dairy products only vegetables and fruits are allowed. Is this derived from the strong influence of the Coptic orthodox church or did it exist all the time and then changed?

Anonymous February 10, 2008 at 7:18 pm

Actually, we are to abstain from “carnes”: warm-blooded land animals. So mammals such as dolphins and seals are okay to eat on Fridays of Lent.

bill912 February 10, 2008 at 7:20 pm

That was me. Don’t know what happened.

Teatao Tekitanga February 18, 2008 at 11:12 pm

Hi Jimmy. It is just happen that I found this site. So it is a chance for me to give some information and my interest in apologetics and defending the Catholic faith. I am the central pacific Kiribati (can see it on the map only the name). Can I keep in touch with you on these matters please. Can you see me your photoes and descrption please. Sorry for the inconviniences.
God bless.

Teatao Tekitanga February 18, 2008 at 11:17 pm

Lent is an expression of our faith. I truely believe in this lent expression.

JOJO RANESES March 4, 2008 at 9:10 pm

Hi Jimmy, I’m Jojo from the Philippines. You know in my hometown of Lucban in the Province of Quezon, we have a traditional celebration called “La Paz” during Quinquagesima Sunday (or the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) wherein most households prefer to eat “lechon” or grilled pork. I believed this is somewhat related to Mardi Gras. Am I right? Thanks

JD January 21, 2009 at 6:33 am

I was baptized and raised catholic, my disgust with the catholic “cult” lead me to give up the catholic cult for lent one year, it was so wonderful I have never gone back, best decision of my life, just think I can ask questions and have thoughts about what is so very wrong with the catholic “cult”.
My question is why does the catholic cult have to brain wash people, most catholic people can not ever have a thought that questions the catholic church, this is why I call it a “cult”.
Not eating meat on Fridays was something we did EVERY Friday (not just during lent)! Probably why I can hardly eat fish!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

bill912 January 21, 2009 at 7:51 am

“I did it My Way”, the National Anthem of hell.

Monday January 21, 2009 at 3:28 pm

It can also be a Christan hymn. In the words of Pope John Paul II, spoken at the Mass at the burial for Cardinal Pironio, “I wanted to mention this episode recounted by the Cardinal himself, because it highlights the reasons which sustained his journey of faith. His life was a hymn of faith to the God of life. He says so again in his Spiritual Testament: ‘How beautiful it is to live! You have made us, O Lord, for life. I love it, I offer it, I await it. You are my Life, as you have always been my Truth and my Way’.”

bill912 January 21, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Nope. JPG called meant “Christ is my Way”. “I did it my way” means exactly the opposite. But then you knew that.

bill912 January 21, 2009 at 4:01 pm

You do know that “My Way” is the name of a song, right? It was Frank Sinatra’s theme song.

Monday January 21, 2009 at 5:13 pm

My Way is the song of God. Everything belongs to God. Frank, “Frank’s” songs, Frank’s fine voice, all these posts, my thanks, all belong to God. The earth is the LORD’S and all it holds, the world and those who live there. All glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.

bill912 January 21, 2009 at 5:25 pm

No. I am NOT to do things my way; I am to do things His Way. That is why the song “My Way” is the national anthem of hell; live by its philosophy and that’s where you’re likely to wind up.

Monday January 21, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Whose way is it to get hung up over words? Reminds me of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” that 1937 song by George and Ira Gershwin…
Things have come to a pretty pass,
Our romance is growing flat,
For you like this and the other
While I go for this and that.
Goodness knows what the end will be;
Oh, I don’t know where I’m at…
It looks as if we two will never be one,
Something must be done.
You say eether and I say eyether,
You say neether and I say nyther;
Eether, eyether, neether, nyther,
Let’s call the whole thing off!
You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto;
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!
Let’s call the whole thing off!
But oh! If we call the whole thing off,
Then we must part.
And oh! If we ever part,
Then that might break my heart!
So, if you like pajamas and I like pajahmas,
I’ll wear pajamas and give up pajahmas.
For we know we need each other,
So we better call the calling off off.
Let’s call the whole thing off!
Shall we dance? Or, just listen and watch as Fred and Ginger sing, tap dance and roller skate the Way.

bill912 January 21, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I suspected I was dealing with a troll, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Tim J. January 22, 2009 at 6:27 am

Hung up over words?
Words are extremely important. In the beginning was The Word.
There is nothing in the world more worth being hung up over than words. Every war worth fighting is a war of words, or over words.
Words mean things, even if this makes you uncomfortable.

Monday January 22, 2009 at 2:46 pm

In the words of Pope John Paul II,
“War cannot be motivated by religion.
May the words of religions always be words of peace!”
The Word is our peace, beyond words.
Babble on.

Dino February 25, 2009 at 8:35 am

Then there are those of us who like fish on ANY day.

Edward Curtis February 25, 2009 at 9:07 am

However, since they live in the ocean, you could eat merfolk on Fridays of Lent.
No, it is I who will eat you!!!
(Sorry, I know that comment was posted three years ago, but I just could not resist.)

Phil Garringer February 25, 2009 at 3:10 pm

A good friend of mine is Russian Orthodox (I’ve been working on him…). When they abstain, it is from all animals with a backbone (insert joke here.)
I have actually given up eating fish on Fridays during lent (and, this year, all “carne” every day for lent) precisely for the reason others have pointed to.
For example…
I grew up in New England, in the most “Catholic” part of New England. On Fridays, during Lent, folks would literally line up and wait to get into restaurants well known for their great fish and chips. I love fish and chips. It is one of my favorite foods. It hit me that by indulging in fish and chips during lent, I was not really in the spirit of abstainence, though within the letter.
I will not give up mer-persons (which is the CORRECT word), nor Loch Ness Monster steaks, nor gnome meat. I will, indeed, cut down on my intake of St. Lawrence Manatee, though. I am sure that I am not the only one out there that feels this way.

Paul February 27, 2009 at 4:36 am

You have JP II saying that war cannot be motivated by religion…cruelly ironic given that pope Urban II and pope Eugene III promised indulgence from sin for making war on Muslims [pope Urban II called his war, bellum sacrum, or holy war, and so no stranger to jihad was pope Urban II]. I suppose that the motto was, Kill a Muslim and make reparation for sin. Explains my current heretical state [though I don’t see my state as heretical]. Well, there’s that and the fact that there’s a story about wheat and its near imposter, and we weren’t told to murder the near imposter. And so once I learned that the one pope [Boniface] decreed that none had the option of declining to enforce an order of death by the Inquisition, lest one be found in mortal sin and worthy of hell, well, that about did it for notions of pope and papal infallibility. No need for a pope and an infallible dogma if they don’t prevent murder.
And not that the Protestants didn’t do their fair share of murder, but at least they weren’t claiming to be infallible and that I’d be in mortal sin and perish in hell should I refuse the order to murder.
Oh, and did you ever come across this perfectly disturbing report of the glory of Crusade:
“If you had been there, your feet would have been stained up to the ankles with the blood of the slain. Not one of them was allowed to live. They did not spare the women and children.”
Call that reparation for sin. And tell your pope to save the apology and to tread lightly where matters of obedience to moral authority are concerned, as the moral authority was surrendered long ago. In other words, as I’ve remarked elsewhere, it is inconsistent, to say the least, to believe in the moral perfection of an insitution that commits (and admits to) moral error.
Lastly, since there is no apostolic tradition to support Lent, well… And, Jimmy, to save you the time, the 40 day Lent is unknown to the New Testament and so too Irenaeus and Tertullian [Christmas didn’t make their lists of feast/holy days either]. Matter of fact, there is no evidence that the anti-Nicene church ever kept a 40 day lent. So much for claims of tradition [though in fine Pauline tradition, I will be observing both Yom Kippur and the Feast of Booths].

bill912 February 27, 2009 at 8:46 am

Paul’s anti-Catholic bigotry and alternate-reality “facts” are certainly coming through loud and clear.

bill912 February 27, 2009 at 8:49 am

I’ll be keeping the 40 days of fasting and prayer of Lent as Jesus kept His 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert.

Natalie March 6, 2009 at 10:01 am

You guys sure do have a penchant for getting off topic in your comments! LOL

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