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Fasting is a Virtue

Fasting is a Virtue which is Necessary for Holiness

Among the many things from our fathers which are necessary for the restoration of Tradition, there are few things which are more neglected yet also more necessary than bodily fasting. Even among faithful Catholics who strive with zeal for the restoration of the Holy Mass and the reverence due to the Real Presence, the most basic fasting that our fathers practiced even in 1950 is rarely understood nor practiced. Moreover, the modern world’s captivity to its appetites of food and sensible pleasure invade Catholic families through the ubiquitous domination of the social media slave master. Therefore we intend in this article to provide readers with the necessary antidote both to rampant doctrinal errors in the spiritual life as well as the necessary practical wisdom from our forefathers in regaining this virtue of fasting.

The True State of Man

As we know from our catechism, Holy Baptism cleanses the guilt of Original Sin, but its effects remain in us, inclining us to the sin of our First Parents. The spiritual life is the effort done by the Christian to overcome these effects—by the power of God—and merit—by God’s grace—the everlasting reward promised to those united to Christ’s Passion.

The effects of Original Sin include a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and a general inclination to evil. This inclination is a result of our sensible appetites controlling our intellect and reason, instead of the other way around. In other words, our reason is a slave to our sensible appetites, and thus we act like animals who have no reason. A properly ordered soul uses the intellect and will to govern the sensible appetites so that they are properly ordered according to right reason.

What are these sensible appetites? According to the Dominican conception, these include the irascible and the concupiscible appetites, and are located in your body, not your soul. These appetites desire the natural goods that God created for the use of human nature and the fulfillment of his precepts. The concupiscible appetite desires all immediate, sensible pleasures but in particular is ordered toward two natural goods in particular: food and the conjugal act (procreation). These things are good in themselves, but through Original Sin they become the occasion for our ruin.

In the fallen state of man, the concupiscible appetite enslaves the intellect to its desires for food and the conjugal act, resulting in two overwhelming vices: gluttony and lust. Because these two goods—food and the conjugal act—are very strong natural inclinations due to their great good for human nature (as created by God and ordered by right reason), their associated vices are particularly dominating to fallen man.

Thus in our modern world which has thrown off all curbing influences to Original Sin, we see these two overwhelming vices: gluttonous consumption and the enslaving spirit of fornication. To these we can then add the pervasive domination of the social media slave master, which manipulates the immediate pleasures of this appetite using technology.[1] Indeed, the Modern epoch, which has attempted to dethrone Christ the King, may be called the “reign of the flesh”—that is, of the concupiscible appetite—in the same way as it is the Reign of Satan, who uses the sins of the flesh with particular effectiveness for his designs.

Fasting: a Foundational Precept of Natural and Divine Law

Because of the dominance of lust and gluttony in fallen man in particular, the Fathers tell us that these two vices are the first vices to overcome in the spiritual life.[2] Therefore it is very difficult to make any advancement in the spiritual life if the concupiscible appetite is still dominated by these vices. Lust especially has a particular darkening effect on the intellect, as is shown with the total irrationality of our modern world.[3]

It may be readily seen how fasting curbs gluttony, but how does it help fight against the vice of lust? The reason is that they are both vices which affect the same concupiscible appetite. By fasting, the soul governs the appetite which—by lust and gluttony—is rebelling against God. Thus by fasting a soul attacks both vices with the same action.

Fasting, then, becomes the means by which the concupiscible appetite is moderated according to right reason. This turns the vice of gluttony into the virtue of temperance, and the vice of lust into the virtue of chastity. For this reason Augustine, summarizing the teaching of all the saints, says that “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”[4]

St. Thomas adds: “everyone is bound by the natural dictate of reason to practice fasting as far as it is necessary for these purposes.”[5] The Natural Law itself indicates that fasting must be practiced, because a non-Catholic can see using his reason—as some do—that man is turned into a beast by his slavery to gluttony and lust.

Not only this, but God commanded the precept of fasting in the Old Covenant, establishing a severe penalty: Every soul that is not afflicted on this day [of fasting], shall perish from among his people (Lev. 23:29). At the time of Our Lord it was a common custom to fast on two days each week—Monday and Thursday—hence the mention of twice weekly fasting in the parable (Lk. 18:12). This practice was already established so that Our Lord gave no precept but simply said When you fast, do not fast as the hypocrites (Mt. 6:16). Therefore the Christian tradition was established from Apostolic times to fast on different days than the “hypocrites” did, in order to distinguish the Christian from the Jew. In the east, a very early document is witness to this:

[L]et not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week; but fast on the fourth day and the Preparation.[6]

Thus Christians in the east since Apostolic times have fasted each week on Wednesday—the day of Our Lord’s betrayal—and Friday—the day of Our Lord’s Passion. In the west a stronger focus was on the Passion of Our Lord, making Friday the primary day of fasting, although Wednesday and Saturday were also added during Embertide (Saturday fasting in Rome is also very ancient). Thus did the Apostles teach regular fasting, which developed into distinct customs in different regions.

Hence does St. Thomas say that fasting itself is a virtue, and therefore a habit which must be obtained by a regular practice—usually every week. St. Thomas, however, makes a further distinction with regard to the obligation to fast between the natural law of fasting and the divine law as mediated through the ecclesiastical authority. This means that the Church established the fasting rules according to the custom of every region, and he quotes Augustine as saying “Let each province keep to its own practice, and look upon the commands of the elders as though they were laws of the apostles.”[7] Thus in the west and east different fasting rules obtained as we have said, established according to the local custom, but all with the foundational obligation that fasting was necessary for the spiritual life.

Fasting as Penance and Contemplation

But besides the moderation of the concupiscible appetite, St. Thomas identifies two other ends of the virtue of fasting. The first is penance and satisfaction for sin, for which St. Thomas cites Joel 2:12: Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. Therefore it was particularly during the penitential season of Lent that the the rules of fasting were enjoined by all Christian churches in every region (although with some particular differences in rules).[8]

But once moderation of the flesh and the penance were practiced, the third and highest end of fasting is shown:

We have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related of Daniel that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks.

Thus the fasting rules always enjoined not only flesh meats but also dairy products of milk and eggs. Why is this? The ancients could readily observe—even though their scientific terms were different—that these foods contained a great deal of fat which caused the bloating of the concupiscible appetite, leading to a sleepiness and dullness of the mind. Therefore fasting caused the appetite to be lightened with less food and less fat, and thus the intellect could be more easily raised to contemplation.

This is the reason that fish was the only meat allowed, due to it being a lean meat with little fat. This also explains the origin of Shrove or Fat Tuesday (or Carnival meaning “goodbye to meat”), the day on which all the eggs and milk were meant to be used up—with various customary delights such as the Polish Pączki—as they were not eaten again until Easter. And thus does St. Thomas summarize this importance of fasting for the devout contemplation on feast days throughout the year:

At the Easter festival the mind of man ought to be devoutly raised to the glory of eternity, which Christ restored by rising from the dead, and so the Church ordered a fast to be observed immediately before the Paschal feast; and for the same reason, on the eve of the chief festivals, because it is then that one ought to make ready to keep the coming feast devoutly. Again it is the custom in the Church for Holy orders to be conferred every quarter of the year [at Embertide]… and then both the ordainer, and the candidates for ordination, and even the whole people, for whose good they are ordained, need to fast in order to make themselves ready for the ordination.  

Thus did our fathers fast and abstain in this long established custom of fasting in every region of the Church. But it was not only the foundational precept to overcome the basic vices of lust and gluttony, but a regular discipline of rigor by which the saints ascended the heights of contemplation and offered to God reparations for the sins of men.

Enter the New Springtime

At the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Church had already approved some relaxation of the fasting rules. A significant relaxation happened under Benedict XIV in 1741, and more in the 20th century, especially during the scarcity of food during World War II. But in the years after the war, Church authorities recognized an ever stronger effort in society to normalize all sins against purity. The 1920s and 30s had already witnessed the “First Sexual Revolution” of the Jazz era.

By 1950, at the canonization of Saint Maria Goretti, Ven. Pius XII said in his homily:

During the past fifty years, coupled with what was often a weak reaction on the part of decent people, there has been a conspiracy of evil practices, propagating themselves in books and illustrations, in theatres and radio programs, in styles and clubs and on the beaches, trying to work their way into the family and society, and doing their worst damage among the youth, even among those of the tenderest years, in whom the possession of virtue is a natural inheritance.[9]

And thus at the eve of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Ottaviani could say in one of the preparatory documents:

The moral order defends the immutable principles of Christian modesty and chastity. We know the energies spent at the present time by the world of fashion, movies and the press in order to shake the foundations of Christian morality in this regard, as if the Sixth Commandment should be considered outmoded and free rein should be given to all passions, even those against nature. The Council will have something to say concerning this subject. It will clarify and eventually condemn all the attempts to revive paganism … contrary to the moral order.[10]

Even more, it was our Lady of Fatima whose message was reaching a crescendo throughout the world in anticipation of the revelation of the Third Secret in 1960. One of the most potent parts of this message cut to the root of what society had been facing for decades at that point: “More souls go to Hell because of the sins of the flesh than for any other reason.”[11]

But instead of this sober warning against the sins of the flesh, Teilhardian optimism about the post-war world dominated Church leaders at the Council and after. The Modern world, becoming more enslaved to its appetite every day, was to be given not the “charitable anathema” but the uncharitable “medicine of mercy.” And thus Modern man’s disdain for fasting—ostensibly a result of his unbridled lust and gluttony—was not curbed but confirmed. The modern fasting rules were relaxed in 1966 to such an extent that the practice of regular fasting—the fundamental weapon against the fundamental vices—has all but vanished from the Catholic faithful. After this disastrous decision by Paul VI in 1966, the filth was released—like a putrid flash flood of sewage—in the (second) Sexual Revolution of 1968, and the rest is history.

Modern Errors Concerning Fasting

The innovators justified their suppression of fasting with a twofold error: one in the doctrine and spiritual life, the other in an erroneous assertion about the state of the modern world. This is the irrational and temerarious assertion that Modern Man had progressed beyond the need for rules for things such as fasting, and can control his own appetites. It should be self-evident to all that this assertion does not reflect reality.

But in doctrine, it was asserted (and accepted by Paul VI) that works of charity can replace the mortification of fasting without any loss to the spiritual life.[12] But works of charity—although good and laudable in themselves—do not check the excess of the concupiscible appetite. The spiritual life is hindered because the foundational vices are not attacked at their root.

Then a neo-Gnosticism prevailed, asserting that mortification was solely interior and need not concern the body. But this error was worse than the first, since it denied the basic constitution of man as both soul and body integrated into one person.

But this fed into the most egregious error of all, which said that man was suited more for liberty than law. This was nothing but a rhetorical cloak by which Fallen Man could hide forever the shame of his Original Sin. The denial of this dogma—at least in practice—lies at the heart of this twisted abuse of liberty against law, in order to give the sins of the flesh full license and no restraint, leading to a complete slavery to sin and spiritual blindness. Such is the state of the modern world in our day, due in large part to the surrender of the Catholic shepherds and faithful to the raucous demands of enslaved Fallen Man.

How To Fast: Practical Wisdom from The Fathers

Given all this, it is crucial that Catholics who wish to advance in the spiritual life reclaim once again the discipline of our fathers in the virtue of fasting. There is no better time to regain this than in the Great Fast of Lent.

Once a soul has been convinced of the need for fasting, it is crucial to avoid the most common error identified by the Fathers in this matter: immoderate zeal.[13] The Devil takes the pious intentions of a generous soul, and twists them to think that if they do not take on a rigorous discipline of full abstinence and daily fasting, they are not truly fasting. As a result these souls burn out and fail after two days and fall into despondency, and stop fasting all together.

Instead, have humility to look at yourself as objectively as possible: what amount of fasting can you do in order to gain a habit of fasting? Start by abstaining from meat on all Fridays (not just in Lent). Once you can do that with regularity, start skipping breakfast on Friday. Once this has become a habit, consider making it a full fasting day by eating only one meal on Friday. In Lent, you can do the same for Wednesdays as well. If you do this you are on your way to the virtue of fasting. The traditional Lenten fast is only one meal daily on six days a week in Lent and abstaining from meat and dairy every day, even on Sundays.

Be careful during Paschaltide: it is easy to lose your whole virtue of fasting by giving into an excess of feasting during this feast of feasts. It is proper to relax all fasting during this time, but it is also wise to not completely remove fasting. Continue, for example, some abstinence on Fridays during Paschaltide, then regain the full fasting discipline during the time after Pentecost.

It is also very helpful to do this with other faithful (as it was once practiced in Lent). Consider fasting with your spouse or joining an Exodus 90 group. By maintaining this regular fasting discipline you will, by God’s grace, have the fundamental weapon in place to combat the demon of lust and gluttony, and achieve holiness.


Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash

This article first appeared in modified form at Catholic Family News. 

[1] Social Media was designed by its creators to manipulate the concupiscible appetite in order to enslave it to the pleasures of likes, retweets, and followers for the maximum return on profit. This is openly admitted by its creators, for example Facebook creator Sean Parker.

[2] See John Cassian, Institutes, books 5 and 6.

[3] St. Thomas says that the vice of folly—the opposite of wisdom—comes as a direct result of the vice of lust (II-II q46 a3).

[4] De orat. et Jejun., Serm. lxxii (ccxxx, de Tempore). Quoted in II-II q147, a1.

[5] II-II q147 a3

[6] The Preparation was the day before the Seventh Day, the Sabbath. Didache, ch. 8. This is one of the earliest written records of the Apostolic teaching, written down circa 100 A.D.

[7] De Lib. Arb. iii, 18; cf. De Nat. et Grat. lxvii. Quoted in II-II q147 a8.

[8] The custom of eating fish during Lent never obtained in the east for example, which abstained not only from fish but from wine and olive oil. This is probably an indication of the economic differences between the rural western Provinces (especially to the north) and the many urban centers that dominated the eastern provinces.

[9] Pius XII, Homily at the canonization of Saint Maria Goretti. June 24th, 1950

[10] Preparatory Reports Second Vatican Council, trans. Aram Berard, (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1965), 51.

[11] St. Alphonsus says much the same in his Moral Theology: “I do not hesitate to assert that everyone who was damned was damned on account of this one vice of sexual impurity (or at least not without it)” Moral Theology Vol. II Book IVa, trans. R. Grant, (Mediatrix Press: 2017), p. 465.

[12] Paul VI (1966), Paenitemini.

[13] John Cassian, Conferences I, ch. 17.

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