The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Fasting Part 6: Fasting in the Early Modern Era

Read the previous article: Fasting During the Renaissance (Part 5)


At this point in our historical survey, the Catholic Church mandated three primary categories of fasts: the Lenten fast, the Ember Days, and the vigils of certain feast days. In addition to these fasts, both Friday and Saturday abstinence also was observed, as the 1649 Douay Catechism affirms.

Lenten Fast Is Dramatically Changed

Some of the most significant changes to fasting would occur under the reign of Pope Benedict XIV, who reigned 1740 – 1758. On May 31, 1741, Pope Benedict XIV issued Non Ambiginius, which granted permission to eat meat on fasting days. It also explicitly forbade 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.”

Sadly, Lent would only continue to wane in the centuries to come.

Fasting and Abstinence Weaken Throughout the 1800s

Changes likewise occurred early on in America’s history. At the time of America’s founding, the fast days observed by the new Republic consisted of the Ember Days; the forty days of Lent; Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent; and the vigils of Christmas, Whitsun Sunday (i.e., Pentecost), Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and preferred individual requests from each bishop in the United States.

In 1884, the U.S. bishops who were meeting at the Third Plenary Council decided it would be difficult to pass uniform legislation on the subject of fast and abstinence and hence left it to the authority of provincial councils to determine what was best for their territories. Leo XIII in 1886 granted U.S. bishops the authority to dispense each year from abstinence on Saturdays.”

Similarly, Pope Gregory XVI, in a rescript from June 28, 1831, granted to all Catholics of Scotland a dispensation from abstinence on Saturdays throughout the year, except on Saturdays that were also days of fasting. Dispensations were granted in many nations, illustrating a weakening in discipline not only in America. With the growing number of Irish immigrants to America in the early 1800s, special attention was given to dispense from the law of abstinence when St. Patricks’ Day fell on a Friday. This was done for the members of the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1837 and would become customary throughout the United States.

Pope Leo XIII Continues the Relaxation of Discipline

Throughout the centuries covered thus far, abstinence included not only abstinence from meat but also generally from eggs and dairy products, though exceptions were granted in various localities.

The laws of abstinence also required abstinence from fish at the meals where meat was eaten on a fast day as well as on Sundays in Lent, as Pope Benedict XIV had decreed in 1741. This too began to change. 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 piece of food in the morning (called a frustulum) was introduced only in the 17th century as part of the gradual relaxation of discipline. Morrow, in Sin in the Sixties, elaborates on the concessions given by Leo XIII:

“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 Manual of Prayers, published by order of 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 refraining from 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 abstaining from eggs and milk during Lent was to drastically change in a few years with publication of 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. Maria 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).

Fasting Wanes in Rome

Fasting days were also slowly reduced in Rome as well. By 1893, the only fasting days kept in Rome were the forty days of Lent, the Ember Days, and the vigils of the Purification, Pentecost, Feast of St. John the Baptist, Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Assumption, Feast of All Saints, and of Christmas.[1] In just a few years, the Vatican would abrogate the fast on the vigils of the Purification and of the Feast of St. John the Baptist.


We have come to the time of St. Pius X and the 1917 Code of Canon Law. While often held as an archetype for Tradition, the 1917 Code largely took the concessions granted to America and other nations and reduced fasting practices that were widely practiced elsewhere in the world. It was at this same time – precisely when fasting was quickly fading – that our Blessed Mother appeared at Fatima and called for more penance. As we will see in the next installment, the fasting practices would be drastically reduced in the 1900s, even before the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath.

[1] As stated in The Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome, published in 1897 and available at