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Why No Chicken on Days of Abstinence

3/15/2006 - 5:45 AM PST

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And More on the Day Lent Starts

ROME, MARCH 15, 2006 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: An inquirer in our parish RCIA program asked why chicken could not be substituted for fish during Lenten days of abstinence. Can you explain the reasons for the preference for fish for the days of abstinence? -- T.W., Garberville, California

A: In the tradition of the Church, laws relating to fasting are principally intended to define what pertains to the quantity of food allowed on days of fasting, while those regulating abstinence refer to their quality.

The law of the fast means that only one full meal may be taken during the day while two light meals are permitted in accord with local custom as to the amount and kind of food.

While the consumption of solid food between meals is forbidden, liquids, including tea, coffee and juices, may be taken at any time.

The law of abstinence prohibits eating the flesh, marrow and blood products of such animals and birds as constitute flesh meat.

In earlier times the law of abstinence also forbade such foods that originated from such animals, such as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, lard and sauces made from animal fat. This restriction is no longer in force in the Roman rite.

Vegetables as well as fish and similar cold-blooded animals (frogs, clams, turtles, etc.) may be eaten. Amphibians are relegated to the category to which they bear most striking resemblance.

This distinction between cold- and warm-blooded animals is probably why chicken may not replace fish on days of abstinence.

This classification can scarcely preclude all doubt regarding the law of abstinence. But local usage and Church authorities usually provide a sufficient basis to resolve problematic questions.

Abstinence was technically stricter in former times. Yet, the actual observance of the law was, and is, confined to such circumstances as carry no insupportable burden.

This is why people who are sick, very poor or engaged in heavy labor (or who have difficulty in procuring fish) are not bound to observe the law so long as such conditions prevail.

Diversity in customs, climate and food prices also modified the law of abstinence.

For example, one indult dispensed people in the United States from abstinence from meat at their principal meal during Lent on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Another indult, issued Aug. 3, 1887, allowed the use of animal fat in preparing fish and vegetables at all meals and on all days. Similar indults were granted for other countries.

Although in past times penitential days and times requiring fast and/or abstinence were more abundant, present canon law (Canons 1250-1253) has somewhat reduced these days.

Canon 1250 states: "The penitential days and times in the universal church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent."

Canon 1251: "Abstinence from eating meat or some other food according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops is to be observed on every Friday of the year unless a Friday occurs on a day listed as a solemnity. Abstinence and fasting however are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday."

The bishops' conference may substitute abstinence from other foods for meat in those countries where eating meat is uncommon, or for some other just reason.

They also enjoy broad authority, in the light of Canon 1253, to "determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part for abstinence and fast."

In the United States, the bishops recommend abstinence on all Fridays of the year. Abstinence is obligatory on all Fridays of Lent.

Abstinence is obligatory after reaching the age of 14; fasting becomes obligatory from age 18 until midnight of one's 59th birthday.

Most Eastern rites, both Catholic and Orthodox, have more demanding laws of fasting and abstinence and retain the prohibition of milk and poultry products.

As described by one reader, the Byzantine tradition, for example, begins the great Lenten fast after "Forgiveness Vespers" on Cheesefare Sunday evening (the Sunday before our Ash Wednesday), with the anointing of the faithful with oil, not ashes.

"Cheesefare" refers to the "farewell" to dairy products in the diet of the faithful for the duration of the Holy Fast. The Sunday before that is Meatfare Sunday, indicating a farewell to meat in the diet.

This continues (as far as practicable for all who receive the Eucharist) throughout Lent. Holy Week is more stringent -- more of a fast than abstinence.

As well, daily celebration of the Eucharistic ...

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