Some Food in the Morning & Evening

by Jimmy Akin

in Canon Law, Liturgical Year

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.

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{ 17 comments }

Suzanne from Oklah. February 20, 2010 at 5:37 am

I guess it doesn’t allow for very small amounts (small baby food jar sized) meals eaten 5 times a day. Uh-Oh, I’m in big trouble.
But it didn’t even closely add up to the big meal/two smaller meals that I would normally eat.
I was very hungry all day. Does that count?

bearing February 20, 2010 at 5:52 am

I can’t remember, do caloric liquids (and by that I mean ordinary ones, like milk or juice, not chocolate malts) count as food?

Jimmy Akin February 20, 2010 at 6:54 am

Drinks, however caloric, even chocolate malts, do not count as food.
Soups, however low in calories, do count as food.

Mike Finn February 20, 2010 at 8:33 am

The first thing that struck me as I was reading is that these rules seem to be written from the point of view of someone who works days and sleeps nights. Some late night shift workers don’t have many options about the time of their meals and are out of sync with the meal taking of day crew. I’d support the “illustrative and not normative” approach; you don’t need as many appeals to having a compelling reason to ‘self-excuse’ oneself from law of fasting.

mmm February 20, 2010 at 8:36 am

This is so sad — so much time and “ink” completely wasted on something that we are required to observe on only two days of the year! Mr. Akin, this reveals to me that you probably are suffering from the spiritual disorder known as scrupulosity.

bill912 February 20, 2010 at 8:50 am

This is so sad–so much time completely wasted reading something that “so much time and ‘ink’ (are) completely wasted on”. mmm, this reveals to me that you probably are suffering from the spiritual disorder known as believing that you have been assigned as the conscience of another.
BTW, perhaps Jimmy or SDG can tell us what handles mmm has trolled under in the past?

bill912 February 20, 2010 at 8:59 am

Props to The Sarge on the “Lenten Resolutions” thread.

Terentia February 20, 2010 at 9:31 am

I always thought the instruction meant: 1 full meal OR a small amount of food in the AM and the PM, so basically you’re eating the same amount of food either once a day or divided up into 2 portions. When I was evangelical, the argument was if you could drink anything other than water and still call it a fast. The expectation was no food at all. Some people (not me) would fast like that one day every week.

Tim J. February 20, 2010 at 9:41 am

“BTW, perhaps Jimmy or SDG can tell us what handles mmm has trolled under in the past?”
Funny you should mention that, bill912. This one is apparently more obsessed and yet more cowardly than most, having set up some sort of rotating IP address to avoid detection! HAR!
I’m sure Jimmy can get past that if he cares to go to the trouble, but… meh… at this point mmm is merely aother pest. In addition, if you reads his/her posts in a mirror, as it were, you may even derive some benefit. There are those who’s opposition can be seen as a positive comfort!

bill912 February 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

Well, a rotating IP address device would make it harder for the submolecular disgronificator to track him, but I’m sure that our Albino Monks are up to the challenge.

Tim J. February 20, 2010 at 10:53 am

“submolecular disgronificator”?
Was that in Calvin & Hobbes?

Pat February 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Drinks, however caloric, even chocolate malts, do not count as food.
Sister Mary Martha doesn’t seem to agree. She says, “You also cannot eat between meals. Or drink something that would seem like a meal. (You can’t have a milk shake. That would be a meal. You can have milk. You just can’t drink anything that would be considered a meal, like one of those diet meal substitutes that you drink, like SlimFast. If you’re fasting you’ll be slim fast enough anyhow.)”
But then, if milk is allowed, then why wouldn’t a SlimFast be allowed, because that’s really just chocolate milk in a can. On the other hand, if the person considers it a meal substitute, then would it count as a meal even if it’s a drink?
Meanwhile, a milk shake is like a SlimFast plus a bowl of ice cream, and if it’s real thick, and you eat it with a spoon, wouldn’t that then be considered food rather than drink?

The Pachyderminator February 20, 2010 at 1:47 pm

This sort of speculation is the path to madness. It would even be possible to consider soup a drink: Chesterton’s The Blue Cross includes this quotation: “Two clergymen came in and drank soup here very early, as soon as the shutters were taken down.” In addition, Miss Manners, who has been praised on this blog, though not by Jimmy to my knowledge, writes that when soup is served in a bouillon cup, “One of the little known thrills of formal dining is that one may scorn the bouillon spoon entirely, pick up the cup by the handles, and drink directly. It looks shocking, but it is proper.”
Of course, anyone who considers the question more than purely academic is not trying to follow the spirit of the law.

Yeoman February 20, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Thanks for the answers here. I was one of the ones who was wondering.
On liquids, I was always taught that the liquids on fast days had to be light, and I’ve always just stuck to water for between meal liquids. My mother always said fruit juices were allowed, and I see she’s right, but I’ve just figured what the heck, water is safe. Now that I’m sure other liquids are good to go, I’ll still stick to water, I’m pretty sure.

Ed Peters February 21, 2010 at 8:31 am

“(AM) nothing; (PM) some food + full meal + some food”
Exactly my daily pattern. :)

Maureen March 6, 2010 at 5:12 am

Re: night shift
If you’re working the night shift, you have your own personal time zone, and your own “morning” and “evening”. Use your own prudential judgment. If that doesn’t satisfy you, consult your priest and get dispensed to fast however seems sensible.
Canon law isn’t like American civic law. It’s supposed to be interpreted by sensible grownups in the way that makes most sense for their situation. So it’s not necessary to write up every possible variation; it’s only necessary to establish the principle of the law, and let people extrapolate from there.

rosemarie kury March 31, 2012 at 7:24 am

I can tell you it is very difficult to fast.  I’m a senior(and although I don’t have to participate in this I have been trying both on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent and haven’t been too successful at this.  Yesterday, I had no problem (Friday) but did have an overwhelming taste for a “ham on rye” which I didn’t have.  I usually don’t eat much meat anyway, but its uncanny how many temptations you get on the Fridays during Lent.  I hope to do better during Holy Week and especially Good Friday.  It worries me that I can’t even keep “self denial” in check during Lent, as far as food.  So I’ve been trying to fast from “gossip” and show more kindness toward everybody,  It grieves me how much Jesus suffered for us, but yet I am so weak in this.

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