Recently I noted that Paenitemini allows that on days of fast one may eat one full meal and also take “some food” in the morning and evening. It also states that the quantity and quality of this food may be regulated by approved local custom.
I then noted that the U.S. bishops do not have a complementary norm further specifying the quantity of food and that, as far as I know, no bishop has legally bound his subjects on this matter.
Therefore, so far as I know, American Catholics are not canonically required to adhere to the common idea that the two times they can eat “some food” on days of fast must not add up to a second full meal. That’s not what Paenitemini says, and I know of no requirement that they do this–which is problematic anyway since meals vary in size, and size can be measured in different ways (e.g., calories vs. volume vs. weight vs. fillingness or satiety).
People certainly can try to apply this rule if they wish. One may well choose to keep a stricter fast than what the law allows, and it can be very praiseworthy to do that, but this is a separate issue than what is legally required.
In response, a reader writes:
Regarding the “approved local custom”…does not the fact that it is expressed in this way constantly in the USA…in parish bulletins or diocese newspapers etc and that it is actually then the way it is observed…
does that not amount to “approved local custom”???
He also suggests:
perhaps Pope Paul VI was not speaking the language of Canon Law when he said ‘approved local custom’??? …and of course it came out prior to the 1983 Code….
Actually, Paul VI was speaking in canonical terms when he referred to approved local custom. The 1917 Code of Canon Law has a section on custom that is quite similar to the parallel section in the 1983 Code. One of the things that both Codes require for a local custom to attain the force of law is that it must be approved by the competent authority. Paul VI’s phrase “approved local custom” is a direct reference to the 1917 Code’s requirements for custom being able to regulate this subject.
Since the 1983 Code’s treatment of custom is very similar, and thus not an integral reordering of the law on this point, Paenitemini’s statement regarding approved local custom will still apply today (mutatis mutandis).
But the “two smaller meals that don’t add up to a second meal” concept simply does not have the status of an approved local custom in the United States under the Code of Canon Law.
To see why, consider the following canons:
Can. 23 Only that custom introduced by a community of the faithful and approved by the legislator according to the norm of the following canons has the force of law.
Can. 24 §1. No custom which is contrary to divine law can obtain the force of law.
§2. A custom contrary to or beyond canon law (praeter ius canonicum) cannot obtain the force of law unless it is reasonable; a custom which is expressly reprobated in the law, however, is not reasonable.
Can. 25 No custom obtains the force of law unless it has been observed with the intention of introducing a law by a community capable at least of receiving law.
The basic difference between a law and a custom is that a law originates with a legislator, while a custom originates with a community. The community cannot make its customs legally binding, however, without the consent of the legislator, though, which is part of the point of canon 23. Rome doesn’t want communities of the faithful telling their members that they must (or must not) do something unless the legislator competent for that community approves.
The custom also has to be reasonable, per canon 24 (more on that in a moment).
The canon also alludes to the difference between customs contrary to law and customs that go beyond the law. The alleged “can’t add up to a second meal” custom would be the latter since it adds an additional condition not found in Paenitemini.
Paenitemini just says that besides one full meal you can also have “some food” in the morning and evening. It goes beyond this law to add, “provided that this doesn’t add up to a second full meal.”
Finally, per canon 25, the custom the community of the faithful must observe the custom with the intention of introducing a law.
That did not happen in this case.
At no point has the community of faithful Catholics in America gotten together and said, “Hey, let’s start observing a custom that goes beyond the law Paenitemini establishes by requiring that the two receptions of “some food” doesn’t add up to a second meal, and let’s do with with the intention that it will eventually attain the force of law by the approval of our conference of bishops and thus restrict our actions beyond what Paenitemini requires.”
The basic condition required by canon 25–that the community of faithful, apart from its legislator, starts observing a custom with the intent that their future freedom be bound upon obtaining the legislator’s approval–simply has not happened.
This means that we don’t even have to get into the question of whether the legislator has approved the custom. The community of the faithful, nationally, has not introduced a custom with the intent of restricting their future freedom beyond what universal law requires.
If you went to 999 out of 1,000 Catholics (let’s make it among those who have heard the “can’t add up to a second meal” idea) and said, “Did you know that the law allows us to have one full meal and also take ‘some food’ in the morning and evening, without further specifying quantity?” they would say, “Huh?”
This shows that they don’t understand the “can’t add up to a second meal” idea as a matter of a custom introduced by the community.
They think it’s a law introduced by the legislator.
Which simply means that the law has been explained to them badly.
Some noble soul, out of a well-intentioned desire to offer pastoral guidance to help the faithful observe the spirit of the law, decided at some point to add the “can’t add up to a second meal” idea to his explanation of the law and it caught on as an ecclesiastical meme.
But a meme that misstates the law does not have legal force.
Badly explaining the law to someone does not restrict their actual legal freedom, much less create an approved legal custom.
It’s just making people mistakenly think they have less freedom than they do.
Now, as I said, I think the requirements regarding fast and abstinence today are quite mild, and I would certainly encourage people–if they are willing and able to do so–to go beyond those requirements.
But we should be clear about what the law actually is.
On another note, it appears that the “doesn’t add up to a second meal” idea does not pass the test of reasonableness required by canon 24. Given the fact that meal sizes vary and that “size” can be measured in different ways (some of which are noted above), this rule is so vague that it will frustrate and foster scruples among the faithful as they try to apply a test this confusing and ambiguous.
Hope this helps!