Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Sometimes, fuss is made about the Lenten fast. Some folks ask if it is currently strict enough and others have hopped on the story that Lent was more difficult in the past. There is also a continual buzz and a selection of comparisons to Islamic Ramadan. It’s important, then, for Catholics to unwind the tangled history of discipline and Canon Law, and to learn also about the implications of the Lenten Fast.
The Early Church Fathers and the preservation of early Christian writers accounts for a great deal of what we know about Lent in the early Church. We know that in general, the Hebrew people appreciated fasting to a greater degree than current Christian culture and took the practice as a requirement of normal religious practice. “When you fast...” Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 6:16), not if Canon Law require you to fast. The people of the apostolic era, then, must have been highly influenced by the regular application of fasting to a life where religious law and personal discipline were not divorced.
What historians are certain of, is that before Nicaea (A.D. 325), there was no singular tradition of Lenten fasting throughout the Church. Of course, prior to this, there was the Easter controversy between East and West, where there was considerable disagreement on when Easter should be celebrated. History depicts a fasting, in general, but not a specific duration or prescription. The historian Socrates (not the poet) offers,
Some abstain from every sort of creature that has life, while others of all the living creatures eat of fish only. Others eat birds as well as fish, because, according to the Mosaic account of the Creation, they too sprang from the water; others abstain from fruit covered by a hard shell and from eggs. Some eat dry bread only, others not even that; others again when they have fasted to the ninth hour (three o'clock) partake of various kinds of food.
Historians agree that this shows no consensus among early Christians; instead, it offers a willingness for such continuity and devotion to the season. The idea of fasting for 40 days, though, came from the pre-Middle Age practice of observing what grew from a 10 percent (36 days) rule to a 40 day rule somewhere between the time before Charlemagne, and after. By general application, this was considered 40 days of fasting. Records from Charlemagne’s historians depict that, even though the time of Lent was devoted to penance in fasting, the faithful were provided general direction for the consumption of solids and various liquids during this time. Between noon and the hour of none (3 p.m.), Christians were allowed to break their fast.
Still, some have said, the Lent of the Middle Ages was more arduous than any other period. However, the Catholic Encyclopedia recounts that:
The principle of parvitas materiae, i.e., that a small quantity of nourishment which was not taken directly as a meal did not break the fast, was adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas and other theologians, and in the course of centuries a recognized quantity of solid food, which according to received authorities must not exceed eight ounces, has come to be permitted after the midday repast. As this evening drink, when first tolerated in the ninth-century monasteries, was taken at the hour at which the “Collationes” (Conferences) of Abbot Cassian were being read aloud to the brethren, this slight indulgence came to be known as a “collation,” and the name has continued since.
These collations and acquittals from the fast, to some, are seen as relaxations from a more austere rule. But such antagonism is uncalculated, because the rule of the Church has always been one of personal accountability: if God is asking an individual or group to fast for a period of time, the Church’s law does not prevent this. Likewise, the Church’s law does not prevent a person or group from persevering in the Faith when in need of sustenance, such as those who are experiencing pregnancy, are regularly enduring poverty, or are otherwise in need of sustenance in order to stay alive and productive. The Church honors those who suffer in the Faith, but make no mistake, the Church does not condone unnecessary suffering in trade for an illusory sense of piety. Today, the Church’s Law, especially in the episcopal see that governs the United States, gives the individual a set of obligations that are accommodating for all situations, and leaves additional liberty—especially for those belonging to specific religious orders—to enjoy more austere disciplines. If you want to do more, do more.
Okay, so what about the comparison to Islamic Ramadan? Some have argued that, historically, Catholics are (or were) more austere. This is really a senseless argument and its rooted in the attempt to portray Christianty as better because it is (or was) more austere. The holiness of our Faith does not come from our Law, nor the collective discipline of the Christian faithful. There are monks of non-Abrahamic religions that infrequently sustain more difficult disciplines than both of these. But, that does not make them holier, or better. The value of Christianity does not rest in an austere lifestyle. The value rests in the active lifestyle of love. During Lent, holiness is not guaranteed.