Why Fasting and Abstinence is Essential to Catholic Life

by Br. Alexis Bugnolo

Fasting is a foreign conception for most Catholics in the modern world. It is such, because nearly all of us have never even had the grace to hear a homily about it, let alone be subjected to sound preaching on the matter.

So bad is the hostility to the concept of fasting, that in many translation of the Scriptures being read in Church, the famous passage of Our Lord, “This kind of demon cannot be driven out except with prayer and fasting”, the final two words are removed.

The biggest misconceptions about fasting are twofold: first that it is dangerous to your physical health, and second, that it is some sort of mystical superstition which has no value for modern scientific rational man.

These misconceptions are based on two profound errors. The first is, that our health is a consequence only of never refusing nature’s desires. And second, that a man can live a rational life, without mortifying his flesh.

Fasting, true, is a spiritual practice which has more value than merely not eating. It is a profound act of humility and of self-humiliation, as the individual Christian recognizes that in sinning, he is not only guilty in his soul, but in the misuse of his body.

Recognizing that we must make reparation for sins, too, is a work of justice. We have stolen from God in using that which He has given us so generously, so evilly. For just as even common sense, knows and recognizes, that if we drive a car in a way it was not designed to be driven, as the owner’s manual explains, that we are going to have to make more costly repairs and maintenance for misusing it, so a Faith filled sense of justice recognizes, that if we have sinned with our flesh, we need to confront the payments and work necessary to repair the damage done to brother body, in sinning.

Fasting, though few realize it, is not a work of supererogation, that is, of something done over and above duty. Rather, fasting is an absolute moral necessity for most Catholics who have come of age and have not yet passed into that phase of life where everything is breaking down and nothing is working.

For healthy adults, whenever we sense a temptation to impurity of any kind, this is is a clear warning sign, that we need to fast and practice abstinence. This is because, when the body is too prepared to do that which only married couples have the right to do, it is absolutely necessary that we reign in brother or sister body and bring it back into a proper self-controlled state of being. And this can only be done by fasting and abstinence, because, just as a fruit tree fruits when well watered and fertilizes, so the body inclines naturally as God intended toward being fruitful, when it has too much food and drink.

Fasting and abstinence are also necessary, because the drug most capable of overthrowing a rational mind, is found in the complex chemical processes which ignite and are ignited by temptations to impurity. And since this state of mind is highly addictive, such that those who fall into it rarely come out of it for decades, it is is necessary for all to be moderate and regulated in what they consume.

Most dangerous of all foods are those which cause the dilation of the blood vessels, which is why the Saints have always counsels and practices abstinence from all such foods.

Fasting and abstinence, thus, are THE easiest way to cooperate in your own salvation and those of others, because they return the balance of the body to that in which chastity and modesty come naturally, and in which the mind is free to practice the virtues toward God and neighbor.

Fasting and abstinence, moreover, are great ways of doing penance, because they effectively return the soul and mind back to a state in which God is more easily appreciated and perceived.

The Holy Season of Lent is neigh. For most of the history of the Catholic Church, before the reign of St. Pius X,  Catholics kept all of Lent, including Sundays, meatless. This was a stronger medicine, and that is why past ages had more virtue.

We need to get back to using this strong Catholic medicine, inasmuch as our health permits, and requires.

In fact,  a good short hand rule, for fasting and abstinence in Lent, is to undertake a practice in proportion to your sins of past year: and by mid-Lent you should already be in a better and more sober state of mind. Then go to confession and continue your fasting till Easter, to prepare to receive Our Lord worthily unto the expiation of your sins.

Here is a chart comparing the fasting and abstinence practices of Catholics throughout the centuries (click to see full sized image).


I recommend and would urge, that all who have committed a mortal sin of impurity, immediately begin what is called the Nicene Fast, show in the above chart, and keep this fast for 1-3 days, until the fires of impurity are extinguished. This should be done before confessing, because if there remains a latent inclination to gross impurity, in vain will your confession be. — I am not a priest, but if I were, I would impose this as a penance on all such sinners and with-hold their absolution until they completed it. Men who have lived lives of gluttony and impurity might have to do such a fast for more than 3 days. And certainly those who have committed such horrors many times, should with counsel of a spiritual director undertake days of fasting each week for the next month, year or for the rest of their lives. As for abstinence, after a sin of impurity, you should go a week at least without eating meat and drinking strong drink. And if you have a habit of such sins, then do a month, three months, or an entire year, or several years.


Credits: The source of the Fasting image is not know. The Featured image is from the film, Last Days in the Desert, about Jesus’ fast in preparation for His public ministry.

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11 thoughts on “Why Fasting and Abstinence is Essential to Catholic Life”

  1. Fasting is wedded to Prayer in a marriage that is so holy it will take down demons. Take the Blessed Mothers words for it at Fatima etc. 2 days per week Fasting was part of the Jewish faith. 2 days per week was part of Catholic Church. She says to fast on Wed Fri….Shes our Queen. Queens give orders. You obey or disobey her to your own eternal peril.

  2. Just yesterday our priest did an extensive homily on fasting. Yes, it was the first that I can remember. So grateful for it.

    1. Abstinence is part of the fasting, because abstinence means abstaining from eating red flesh meat.

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