“Approved Local Custom”

by Jimmy Akin

in Canon Law, Liturgical Year

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!

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Yeoman February 18, 2010 at 7:46 am

All me to ask a related question this discussion raises, and which has been now bothering me.
I’ve noted here that the rule apparently is one full meal, with “some food” in the morning and evening. That seems to suggest a time element to the rule.
I’m bothered by that “evening” requirement. Truth be known, on most days I’m darned near observing the fast law as it is, everyday, as I eat a very light breakfast, and often don’t eat any lunch, irrespective of the season. When I do eat a noon “meal”, it’s not much of a lunch. Then I eat dinner in the evening. I don’t care for deserts as a rule, so I almost never eat after dinner. And my practice on fast days is to do as noted. So I’m in good shape. Right?
Or am I?
This rule seems to contemplate the old farm type tradition, which was common in the US and Europe for eons, of a large noon meal, with light meals for breakfast and “supper”. Having strong rural roots myself I’d actually note that even now, in ranching country, most people are eating three full meals, everyone of which is at least as big as the evening meal that me and my family usually eat. This rule seems to be suggesting we eat a full noon meal, and in the morning, and “evening” it should be very light.
I never actually do that, reflecting I suppose the post ag rule in most of the US in which the big meal is an evening one. On fast days, we eat a light breakfast, a light lunch (or no lunch in my case), and a conventionally sized dinner.
As my one substantial meal comes in the evening, not at noon, am I acting in contravention to the rule?
Jimmy, or others, can you address this, as I’m now a bit concerned.

Yeoman February 18, 2010 at 7:46 am

Oops, that should start off “allow me”.

Kevin February 18, 2010 at 8:26 am

Perhaps it is simply from the fact that one is allowed only “one full meal” and thus ….since one is allowed only one…and yet are permitted ‘some food’ at two other times…it is simply the case that these can not add up to ‘a full meal’ for one is only allowed one ‘full meal’ (if the other two add up to another full meal…well then you will have had 2 full meals!)
This makes sense to me. (of course each persons judgment of a full meal may be different)
Also the bit about some food in the morning and evening…does that mean one can not have ones full meal in the evening and then have some food in the morning…and then perhaps around noon sometime?

Dr. Eric February 18, 2010 at 8:36 am

If one reads the history of Catholic fasting and abstinence, one will see that in the beginning West and East had exactly the same regulations: No meat, no dairy, no oil, no wine for all 40 days of Lent. Later, dairy was allowed as long as a person did extra penance- the “Butter Tower” of Rouen Cathedral was built with such alms. Slowly but surely the norms eroded until we have the current ambiguity.
I would say a nice statement reading that one is permitted one meatless meal and two snacks on a fasting day would be the easiest way to relate the norms to Americans.
It sure beats the xerophagic Black Fast which was the norm in the very early days of Christianity. (That’s dried fruits and veggies only, and no food before 3 pm- all through Lent.)

Jimmy Akin February 18, 2010 at 8:38 am

I’ll get to the morning and evening question. As to reading the passage by emphasizing the oneness of the full mean, this is a possible but certainly not certain reading (and an unlikely one). At a minimum we would have a doubt of law and cacon 14 would kick in and require the less restrictive interpretation.

Foxfier February 18, 2010 at 8:42 am

Yeoman –
it doesn’t actually say that breakfast and dinner have to be the small one– I know every Parish I’ve ever been a part of has the Ash Wednesday pancake feed at dinner time, so the two smaller meals would be breakfast and lunch.
From the other stuff Jimmy’s posted– specifically, the “less than a full meal” objection that meals are different sizes– I think you’d be supposed to eat less for breakfast and lunch. (My mom’s rule of thumb was that when you’re done, you should still be a bit hungry at least. Rule of thumb, yeah, but it helped me.)

Kevin February 18, 2010 at 8:55 am

still makes sense to me ….sort of like saying …well one is obliged to have only one meal….but one can have some other food twice …but since one can only have one meal…make sure those two do not become another full meal…;0

Joseph Bolin February 18, 2010 at 10:41 am

The primary point of reference for fasting in the Catholic tradition, the “ideal,” if you will, is eating once in the day. But because that was too much of a burden for many, the custom arose, and came into law, of allowing small amounts of food before and/or after the main meal.
In my view, given this tradition, Pope Paul VI would have needed to clearly alter this traditional understanding, in order to make a specific time (such as mid-day) an essential requirement of the fast. He did not do so, and I would therefore read the concrete terms corresponding to the practice common at that them in many countries, as descriptive rather than normative–the real point being still “before” and “after” the one full meal.

Yeoman February 18, 2010 at 11:15 am

Thanks Joseph, I think that may clarify it a great deal. That being the case, my small breakfast and small, if any lunch, would be the before, and I’d have no afters. At least I hope that’s right.
Otherwise, in order to get through the day I’d have to take up a big lunch, which would put me to sleep, or eat a tiny dinner. I’m hoping that’s not the rule, and your clarification makes a great deal of sense to me.

maiki February 18, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Hi, I have a question. This has sort of been bothering me, although I undertake a stricter fast this question is mostly academic for me anyway.
What are the limits of “Ash Wednesday”? Sundown to sundown? Sundown to sunup on thursday? Midnight to midnight? Whenever you go to bed to whenever you wake up?

Joseph Bolin February 18, 2010 at 11:32 pm

According to can 202, a day extends from midnight to midnight, unless explicitly stated otherwise:

Can. 202. §1 In the law, a day is understood as a period of time consisting of 24 continuous hours, and it begins at midnight, unless (nisi) otherwise expressly provided

Days of fasting are included in the general concept of “days of penance” (can. 1249), which, since they are not otherwise specified, extend from midnight to midnight. So this would apply to specific days such as the “Wednesday” of Ash Wednesday, so that the canonical requirement for fasting is from midnight to midnight.

Petra February 19, 2010 at 6:34 am

I believe that at least one source of the “two meals that add up to less than one full meal” is the Baltimore Catechism (see Q 1338): http://www.ourladyswarriors.org/faith/bc3-35.htm
Whether this constitutes “local custom” I do not know, but I live outside of Baltimore, and it has certainly always been what other Catholics I have known have pointed to as “the rule.”

Rob F. February 19, 2010 at 6:35 am

Hi Jimmy,
Thanks for reopening the Lent fight! Since comments are closed on your “Duration” post, I figured I’d comment here, if that’s okay.
The learned Anglo-catholic (i.e. a catholic Anglican) Father Hunwicke posted a brief and illuminating summary of the history of the “Duration” issue at his blog. I think it’s worth reading:

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