Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The renewal inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council sprang in large part from the liberating discovery of the depth and variety of Catholic tradition. Yet paradoxically the post-conciliar reforms were sometimes implemented in a spirit of philistine dismissal of “tradition” as nothing more than the dead hand of the past. In shedding a past perceived as sterile and oppressive, much that was profound and life-giving was also lost. One of the saddest casualties of that process was the effective abolition of the Church’s ancient observances of fasting and abstinence.

The ritual observance of dietary rules—fasting and abstinence from meat in Lent, and abstinence from meat and meat products every Friday, as well as the eucharistic fast from midnight before the reception of Communion—were as much defining marks of Catholicism before the council as abstention from pork is a defining characteristic of Judaism. The Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting “good” and “bad” Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority.

But instead of seeing this as one of its greatest strengths, it was often used as an argument against Friday abstinence. Bad or badly instructed Catholics—who it was thought drank their wages or beat their wives, yet who were nevertheless punctilious in eating fish on Fridays—were adhering to the mere externals, it was claimed, while ignoring the essence of “real” Christianity. What was needed was a more spiritual sort of religion that offered no such crutches to lame practice.

So fasting is now confined to a derisory two days of the year, and compulsory Friday abstinence has been replaced by a genteel and totally individualistic injunction to do some penitential act on a Friday—an injunction, incidentally, that most Catholics know nothing about. What had been a corporate mark of identity has been marginalized into an individualistic option.

Why did it happen? Certainly not because fasting was in some sense peripheral to Catholicism, an inessential and minor aspect of the tradition that needed tidying away. Fasting was an important element in Israelite religion, and Christ’s own defense of his disciples’ failure to fast during his lifetime specifically envisaged that they would fast after his death. From at least the end of the first century Christians have observed Fridays, and later the forty days of Lent, as fast days in commemoration of the passion. At the heart of Catholicism for a millennium and a half lay a dialectical dividing of time, a rhythmic movement between the poles of fast and feast, Lent and Easter, renunciation and affirmation.

Catholics shared that rhythm with most of the world’s great religious traditions, a fact which ought to have suggested that there was something essential about fasting not only for our specific identities as Catholic Christians, but as religious human beings. But since 1967 what was once a truly corporate observance, reminding us of the passion of Christ, of our own spiritual poverty and, even more concretely, of the material poverty of most of the human race, reminding us what it was like to be hungry, has become another individual consumer choice, like going on a diet. Though we pay liturgical lip-service to the old dialectic, and still nominally observe Lent, in practice all our time now has become “ordinary time,” and there is nothing in this respect to distinguish Catholics from anyone else.

Yet religious communities depend on the differentiation provided by such shared observances to sustain their identities. The long and noble pilgrimage of Israel through a multitude of cultures and times, without a temple, without a priesthood, has been possible, at least in part, because of the unifying and sustaining effect of their dietary laws. The Jews knew who they were because of what they did and did not eat. Christian fasting and abstinence did not, of course, spring from a ritual distinction between clean and unclean meats, but it was just as deeply embedded in theological conviction as the older dispensation. Its abandonment was not therefore a simple change in devotional habit, but the signal of a radical discontinuity in the tradition and a decisive shift in theological perception.

The theological and practical shift represented by this abandonment of an ancient part of the tradition was not merely a matter of theological emphasis, and more, too, than a question of whether ascetical exercises like fasting are good for the character. What was also at stake was the Church’s prophetic integrity: its claim to solidarity with the poor. Considered from this perspective, compulsory fasting and abstinence, practiced regularly, routinely, and in common, was a recognition by the Church that identification with the poor and hungry, with those who know themselves to be needy before God because they were needy among men, is not an option for Catholics, but a necessary and definitive sign of their redemption, as essential in its way as attendance at Mass. The Church has always linked personal asceticism and the search for holiness with this demand for mercy and justice to the poor; the Lenten trilogy of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is both fundamental and structural. By making fasting and abstinence optional, the Church forfeited one of its most eloquent prophetic signs. There is a world of difference between a private devotional gesture, the action of the specially pious, and the prophetic witness of the whole community—the matter-of-fact witness, repeated week by week, that to be Christian is to stand among the needy.

What was striking about the instructions issued by the English bishops in abolishing compulsory Friday abstinence in 1967 was the total absence of any attempt to explain the power and meaning of the traditional observances. The American bishops did much better: while also making the matter optional, they offered a powerful and sympathetic discussion of the religious reasons for the old observance and urged American Catholics to continue the practice as a gesture of solidarity with, and gratitude for, the passion of Christ, as an act of fidelity to the Christian past, and to help “preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world.” In total contrast, the English bishops recited the problems and inconveniences surrounding abstinence. Many people, they pointed out, have their main meal at work, in a canteen; social events are often arranged for Fridays; abstinence therefore put Catholics in an awkward position. As the bishops wrote: “While an alternative dish is often available, it is questioned whether it is advisable in our mixed society for a Catholic to appear singular in this matter. Non-Catholics know and accept that we do not eat meat on Fridays, but often they do not understand why we do not, and in consequence regard us as odd.”

This misses the point. The whole rationale of symbolic gestures requires that they disrupt and disturb the secular order. Their power to witness—not only to others but to ourselves—comes precisely from their awkwardness. The abolition of such observances strikes at the heart of tradition, the distinctive language of belief. Catholic value cannot be sustained without its proper symbolic expression. Spiritual needs are expressed in physical needs. People can know the fundamental neediness which is the foundation of faith only if they feel our involvement with those who fast because they have nothing to eat.

But none of those arguments prevailed, or were even explored. The bishops saw in the plight of the hungry not a reason for communal fasting as a gesture of solidarity and a call to justice and charity, but a demonstration of the emptiness of any such gesture. Many Catholics, they wrote, “have begun to ask themselves if going without meat on Friday is penance enough. Some find it no penance at all. Meanwhile in Asia, Africa, and South America many Catholics have to go without meat not only on Fridays but every day. Millions are starving or at least underfed. The bishops have therefore decided that the best way of carrying out our Lord’s command to do penance is for each of us to choose our own way of self-denial every Friday.”

The abandonment of fasting and abstinence was symptomatic of a more widespread leveling down and disappearance of much that was distinctive in the symbolic lives of Catholics. That drift continues. Holy days of obligation are celebrated on the nearest Sunday so as to avoid inconvenience or the interruption of secular patterns of living. Sunday Mass can be heard on a Saturday to make way for a day’s work or cleaning the car or a morning in bed with the papers, like our pagan neighbors. From time to time there is talk of a fixed date for Easter and Pentecost Sunday—all part of the minimizing of symbolic distinctiveness, in the service of secular convenience, and a slow form of ritual suicide for any religious tradition.

For this aspect of tradition—the dimension of symbolic distinctiveness preserved in the ancient patterns of the worship and ritual life of the Church—is at least as central to Catholic identity as many of the doctrinal positions worried about by those who conceive of tradition primarily as a body of authoritative teaching. Indeed, the massive desensitization to the meaning and value of symbolic gesture and symbolic differentiation in the two generations since the council would not have been possible had Catholics not long since parked responsibility for all that with an abstraction called the Magisterium, thereby absolving themselves from understanding and teaching the value of their symbols and traditional practices. How else could the Catholic people have allowed their pastors to assail and abolish these ancient continuities in the name of convenience and the avoidance of oddity?

The authoritarian narrowing of the tradition to, in essence, a body of doctrines to be believed and orders from above to be obeyed, was a decisive factor in desensitizing ordinary Catholics, clerical as well as lay, to the beauty and independent value of their inherited observances—matters over which no authority has or ought to have absolute control. The ordinary members of the Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholic Churches have a far less authoritarian mentality than Catholics, a far more widespread and lively sense of the richness of their traditions of prayer and practice, and a far more secure sense of ownership by the people of the symbols which provide continuity with the Christian past and guidance to its future.

The realization that perhaps too much was carelessly abandoned in the years after the council is now widespread—it is even something of an official view in the later years of the present pontificate—and has helped fuel sometimes scary projects for a restoration of “real Catholicism,” programs in which the vigorous exercise of authority from above looms very large. Such programs are at least as bad as the ills they seek to remedy. There are no quick fixes: tradition cannot be rebuilt to a neat program and by orders from Rome. Our shared past can only be excavated by shared endeavor, by a painful and constant process of reeducation and rediscovery; in that process, we start from where we are, not where we wish we had stayed. The Church cannot afford the pleasures and false securities of reaction. But that is not to say that in our march into the needs and opportunities of the twenty-first century we should not try once more to summon up some of the deeper resources of our own tradition, and try to rediscover within it once more some of the supports which helped our fathers and mothers to live the gospel. We could do worse than rededicate ourselves to the observance of fasting and abstinence.

Eamon Duffy is professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow and former president of Magdalene College. This essay originally appeared in the January 31, 2004, issue of the Tablet.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.