Author: Matthew Plese
The Lenten Fast Begins Deteriorating in the 1700s
Some of the most significant changes to fasting would occur under the reign of Pope Benedict XIV who reigned from 1740 – 1758.
On May 31, 1741, Pope Benedict XIV issued Non Ambiginius which granted permission to eat meat on fasting days while explicitly forbidding the consumption of both fish and flesh meat at the same meal on all fasting days during the year in addition to the Sundays during Lent. Beforehand, the forty days of Lent were held as days of complete abstinence from meat. The concept of partial abstinence was born even though the term would not appear until the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Yet even with these changes, Pope Benedict XIV implored the faithful to return to the devotion of earlier eras:
“The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.”
Yet changes continued during the 18th and 19th centuries as Antoine Villien’s “History of the Commandments” from 1915 documents:
The use of meat on Sundays [of Lent] was at first tolerated, then expressly permitted, for the greater part of Lent. Old people still remember the time when its use was completely forbidden in France from the Friday of Passion week to Easter. Later, new dispensations allowed the gradual extension of the Sunday privilege to Tuesday and Thursday of each week, up to Thursday before Palm Sunday. About the beginning of the pontification of Pius IX [c. 1846], Monday was added to the days on which abstinence need not be observed; a few years later the use of meat on those four days began to be permitted up to Wednesday of Holy Week. Lastly the Saturdays, expect Ember Saturday and Holy Saturday, were included in the dispensations.”
Mitigations to fasting also began to accelerate for other periods in the 18th and 19th centuries and this is seen strikingly in the series of changes to occur to fasting in the American Colonies which can be read in detail in the two-part series: A History of Holy Days of Obligation & Fasting for American Catholics.
Father Anthony Ruff relates in his article “Fasting and Abstinence: The Story” the changes made by Pope Leo XIII in the document entitled Indultum quadragesimale:
“In 1886 Leo XIII allowed meat, eggs, and milk products on Sundays of Lent and at the main meal on every weekday [of Lent] except Wednesday and Friday in the [United States]. Holy Saturday was not included in the dispensation. A small piece of bread was permitted in the morning with coffee, tea, chocolate, or a similar beverage.”
While the evening collation had been widespread since the 14th century, the practice of an additional morning snack (i.e. a frustulum) was introduced only around the 18th century as part of the gradual relaxation of discipline. Volume 12 of The Jurist, published by the Catholic University of America in 1952, writes, “It is stated that the two-ounce breakfast arose at the time of St. Alphonsus, since which time the usage of the popular two and eight-ounce standards for the breakfast and the collation, respectively, has been extant.”
Mara Morrow in Sin in the Sixties elaborates on the concessions given by Pope Leo XIII which in the late 19th century expanded the practice of the frustulum and further reduced strict abstinence:
“It also allowed for the use of eggs and milk products at the evening collation daily during Lent and at the principal meal when meat was not allowed. [It] further allowed a small piece of bread in the morning with a beverage, the possibility of taking the principal meal at noon or in the evening, and the use of lard and meat drippings in the preparation of foods. Those exempt from the law of fasting were permitted to eat meat, eggs, and milk more than once a day.”
Consequently, the Baltimore Manual published by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 states: “Only one full meal is allowed, to be taken about noon or later. Besides this full meal, a collation of eight ounces is allowed. If the full meal is taken about the middle of the day, the collation will naturally be taken in the evening; if the full meal is taken late in the day, the collation may be taken at noon. Besides the full meal and collation, the general custom has made it lawful to take up to two ounces of bread (without butter) and a cup of some warm liquid – as coffee or tea – in the morning. This is important to observe, for by means of this many persons are enabled – and therefore obliged – the keep the fast who could not otherwise do so.”
The Catechism of Father Patrick Powers published in Ireland in 1905 mentions that abstinence includes flesh meat and “anything produced from animals, as milk, butter, cheese, eggs.” However, Father Patrick notes, “In some countries, however, milk is allowed at collation.” The United States was one of those nations whereas Ireland and others were not granted such dispensations. The use of eggs and milk during Lent was to drastically change in a few years with the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
In 1895, the workingmen’s privilege gave bishops in the United States the ability to permit meat in some circumstances. Mara Morrow summarizes that these circumstances occurred when there was “difficulty in observing the common law of abstinence, excluding Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and the Vigil of Christmas. This workingmen’s privilege (or indult) allowed only for meat once a day during Lent, taken at the principal meal, and never taken in conjunction with fish. This particular indult was extended not only to the laborer but to his family, as well. The motivation of such an indult was no doubt to allow for enough sustenance such that the many Catholic immigrants to the United States who worked as manual laborers could perform their difficult, energy-demanding physical work without danger to their health” (Sin in the Sixties).
To be continued…