To wrap up our treatment of the law of fasting, let's look at a question that has occurred to lots of people upon reading Paenitemini's provision that:
The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom.
The question that occurs to people is how much this constrains when people can eat their full meal and their two lesser amounts of food. Do they have to confine one of the smaller portions to the A.M. hours, eat a big lunch as their full meal, and then have only a small amount in the evening (whenever that starts)?
On its face, the passage seems to reflect the eating practice of having only a small breakfast, a big midday meal, and a small evening meal. This practice is common in Italy, and in some other parts of the world, such as (formerly) in the American South (I remember as a boy that my family in Texas referred to the larger midday meal as "dinner" and the evening meal as "supper") and other places where agriculture was a key means of making a living (you need those calories while you're still working, not when you're done or near done for the day).
Is the pope mandating this eating pattern for Catholics all over the world on days of fast, regardless of their culture and what their bodies are used to?
This does not seem plausible.
First, as we have noted (and will see further in my Monday post), the overall project here is one of relaxing the legal requirements regarding penance. This is obvious just from looking at the dramatic drop in the number of days on which fasting was required. Prior to Paenitemini there were waaaaay more days of fast on the calendar than afterwards. This document dropped it from dozens to two.
Combine this with the following passage from the 1917 Code of Canon Law regarding the law of fasting and an interesting situation results.
Can. 1251 §2. It is not forbidden to mix meat and fish in the same meal; or to exchange the evening meal with lunch.
The first part of this refers to a prior requirement (prior to the 1917 Code) that prohibited mixing meat and fish during the same meal on days of fast (but not abstinence) during Lent.
The second part expressly permits exchanging lunch and supper as the full meal (I'm avoiding the word "dinner" to avoid confusion).
This was part of the law up until Paenitemini, when the Church's laws regarding penance were integrally reordered.
Ordinarily when something expressly allowed in the former law is not repeated in the newer law, it could be a signal that this allowance is revoked, but that seems remarkably implausible in this case, given Paul VI's unmistakable intent to relax legal requirements and allow even greater adaptation to local situations and the exigencies of (rapidly changing) 20th century life.
It seems much more plausible that he simply took it as obvious that the two meals could be exchanged.
One reason is that, even before the 1917 Code expressly allowed the switching around of the meals, it had already become a recognized and accepted practice. See the article on Fasting in the Original Catholic Encyclopedia, which predates the 1917 Code.
Also note this: He doesn't identify when the full meal can be taken. He doesn't say anything about lunch or noon or midday.
Given only what he says, you could have the full meal at 12:01 a.m. or 11:59 p.m. (eat fast if you want to get it done before midnight!) and then also have "some food in the morning and evening."
Another thing to keep in mind is that Italians themselves don't eat the midday meal exactly at noon. Depending on the region of the country you're in, they may start it around 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., and they may finish eating it as late as 4:30 p.m. So there is considerable flexibility there as well.
The subject of when evening begins is a thorny one in canon law. You hear different starting times for it, ranging from noon to 5:30 p.m. In the absence of a legal definition, and in keeping with the trend of the foregoing considerations, the broader interpretation (i.e., any time after noon) may be presumed in terms of legal requirement (per can. 14).
So, while Paul VI may have been thinking in terms of the normal Italian eating pattern of the time, it does not seem plausible to think he was legally mandating it on days of fast for Catholics the world over.
I consequently don't see any reason why one could not legitimately do any of the following eating patterns on days of fast:
- (AM) full meal + some food; (PM) some food
- (AM) some food + full meal; (PM) some food
- (AM) some food; (midday-ish) full meal; (PM) some food
- (AM) some food; (PM) full meal + some food
- (AM) some food; (PM) some food + full meal.
That's assuming you exercise the full amount of eating. You don't have to do that, of course.
What is less clear is the status of patterns like this:
- (AM) nothing; (PM) some food + full meal + some food
- (AM) full meal + some food + some food; (PM) nothing
In other words, if you're going to have "some food" twice in the day, does one of the instances have to be AM and the other PM?
I can see opinion legitimately diverging here. My sense of the legislator's intent isn't strong enough.
I could see one legitimately holding that Paul VI is simply being illustrative and not normative regarding the times, in which case you could have "some food" twice in either the A.M. or the P.M. (but not both).
I could also see one saying, "No, he says 'morning and evening' and means it; if someone has a really compelling reason to need to eat in a different way then that reason itself will excuse from the law of fast."
So I could go either way on that question, at least at the present state of my thought.