Fasting vs. Loving One’s Neighbor

I once ate chicken pot pie on Good Friday. It was the day I got home from the hospital after the birth of my first child. My very kind non-Catholic neighbor made us a welcome home dinner. I did a quick mental appraisal of the situation. I could either stick with the Good Friday rules on abstinence and offend my neighbor, or I could eat the meal graciously and demonstrate my appreciation for her thoughtfulness. I chose the second course of action.

The rules of the Church on Lenten fasting and abstinence are good. We all do have an obligation to sacrifice. It shows our solidarity with others of our faith and also helps us on our spiritual journey. Yet, they come second to the primary law of Christian life — to love God and to love our neighbor. There are times, such as the instance I just related, when the two do come into conflict. In that case, the choice is clear. Fasting will gain us little spiritual merit if we offend our neighbor in the process.

In the second reading for this past Sunday, 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1, St. Paul is addressing the opposite issue, but the result is the same. He instructs the Christians that they have no reason to abstain from any food, but if they are sharing a meal with their Jewish brethren and the food offends them, they should refrain from eating it out of love for their neighbor. “Never be a cause of offense.” There is a difference between going out to a restaurant and ordering an appropriate Lenten meal and going to someone’s house and refusing to eat what they have prepared. The first is a witness to our Catholic faith (although it need not be announced); the second is rude and is likely to cause ill-feeling toward the Catholic tradition.

Many people, myself included, observe a personal fast of some type on Wednesdays and/or Fridays throughout the year. Perhaps one refrains from meat or from desserts. The same guidelines should apply. Sometimes, if one is with a large group, it is possible to adhere to one’s sacrifice without offending anyone. In a crowd of fifty people, no one is likely to care if you take a piece of cake or not unless you happen to be the guest of honor. In a small group, it is much more obvious. It is possible to enjoy parties and still sacrifice. If I know, for example, that I have some social obligation where I will be expected to enjoy a lavish meal and dessert, I adjust my fasting days accordingly in advance. If I find myself in a spur-of-the-moment celebration, I simply resolve to fast the next day instead. Indeed, sometimes this is harder — fasting on Saturday always seems more of a challenge than sacrificing on Friday. There is also the possibility of making some other sacrifice on Wednesday or Friday, perhaps to avoid media, for example.

Fasting and sacrifice are important parts of a Catholic life and can bring many benefits to both body and soul. Forgoing it should never be done lightly. However, it need always be subjugated to the need to love one another. Sometimes, the greater sacrifice is to fast from fasting.

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur


Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur writes from western Massachusetts where she lives with her husband and two sons. A Senior Editor with Catholic, she blogs at

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  • Thank you, Patrice. I’m afraid I have not always been a good advertisement for my faith. Maybe some day I will learn :s

  • cheongj

    Great article Patrice.
    Simple with lots of pratical tips and examples.
    ; )

  • yblegen

    Thanks for the insight.

  • bambushka

    I had a simular situation. I love southern bbq having lived in NC for a while. Now that I’m a Northerner, any chance I get to taste that wonderful bbq is quite a treat. My husband traveling through Lexington, NC, the home of bbq, requested a quart bag of the delicious meat to go after he had his supper at one of the local resturants. He took it to his motel and froze it in the mini refrigerator. He was just beaming when the next day, at home, when he pulled it out of his suitcase and presented it to me. Of course, it was Friday, in Lent. My heart did a leap at his kindness, my heart sank as I realized that I was fasting. So, into the fridge it went, and on Saturday it was even more delicious. Now, that was a sacrifice! My husband, a faithful Catholic understood completely.

  • momof11

    I don’t know….perhaps an explanation of the Lenten fast/abstinence rules to the neighbor along with a sincere thanks and reheating the meal the next day would have been more of a witness to taking the rules of The Church seriously. Should we compromise,bend, or twist the laws of The Church because we don’t want to make someone else uncomfortable by standing firm in the faith? Maybe it is more loving to be an example of a firm faith, causing the other person to wonder what makes you that way. Would you eat something you are severely allergic to in order to avoid the uncomfortable situation of having to say “Thanks, but I can’t eat that.”? Is it loving to do something which harms you to avoid having to explain to the other person? Just because the other person may not understand does not make it unloving to do/not do something.

    I agree though about the personally chosen fast being allowed to flex to circumstances…that is not a rule of The Church. We are not free to change the rules of The Church. I do think that faithfulness in little things is important. Too many today deal with every thing in a subjective manner.

  • Mary S.

    The principal of not doing something because it may offend our neighbor can be problematic. Acknowledging the dilemna of the particular situation cited, I believe that it is a human tendency to fear offending others too much. I don’t know if this particular meal was already on the table or other details. I do believe that it is a bit much to undo the laws of the Church out of “charity”.
    It’s possible that the Lenten laws of fast & abstinence are not binding on new mothers, esp, if nursing, anyway. However, I believe it’s always good to do more rather than less. I am now past the age where the laws of fast obligate. However, it is now easier to fast than when I was young! For me to skip fasting simply because it is no longer binding would be a real lack of love for Christ & His Church. The author’s spirit of voluntary fasting and anticipating opportunities for such is inspiring. I find headlines such as fasting versus charity to be a cause for concern because I don’t believe they should be in conflict.

  • siobhan32

    I believe it was Saint Ambrose (who always fasted on Friday) who wrote that he did NOT fast when invited to dinner on those days. It was more important to him to honor his neighbor. Also, when Saint Monica was upset that in Rome they did not fast on Wed and Fri, Saint Ambrose told her that when he was in Rome, he also did not fast so as not to appear to be ‘spiritually’ proud.

  • Jim

    I am afraid I disagree with the author; fasting and giving witness to Catholic sotierology (sorry about spelling) is something that Protestants could benefit from. St. Ambrose was not dealing with Protestants as I recall. Right now, we seem to be giving in to a kind of enane ecumenism that says, “yes, we have differences, but they don’t matter.” I am currently debating whether or not to say anything over another “Rick Warren Purpose Driven Life” devotion for Lent in my parish. To understand that dilemma, go to and type Rick Warren in the search engine, and look for the article “Wrong Turn – The Purpose-Given Life Gives Bad Directions” by Ronald J. Rychlak and Kyle Duncan.

  • SolaGratia

    Having just come home from the hospital with a new baby would certainly be a significant factor here. We are not supposed to fast when we are ill or if we are nursing a baby, for example.

    While it’s not illness, of course, the author would have been recovering from a significant bodily “sacrifice” already and even the meat abstention in such cases needs to be weighed against the possible costs to the health of the mother & the baby. Really, how many women do you know who are up to fixing even a simple family meal after childbirth? What healthy alternatives were available?

    There really are a number of factors that should be considered, & based on what St. Augustine has said about such matters, giving thought to how the neighbor would have responded could certainly be an act of charity.

    It seems reminiscent of Jesus asking if man was made for the sabbath or the sabbath for man. What is the purpose of the Church’s Good Friday fast? I suppose I would have offered Jesus whatever I was able in order to unite myself with Him on the Cross & discussed it with a solidly orthodox priest at the first opportunity.

    After all, it’s one thing to fail to fast properly out of carelessness or indifference, but to do so while in a state of bodily recuperation hardly seems to fit the bill for condemnation…

  • neiders

    Thanks for your article. We are traveling out of state this Easter and will be with family members on Good Friday. We have only a few days to spend with them so we will go and enjoy the chance we have just to see them. I debated this with myself, but decided that it was important too. We will do a modified fast as to not draw attention to ourselves since this is not their practice. Thanks for the confirmation on my decision.

  • Lucky Mom of 7

    Stoicism is a heresy, yes?

    I’m troubled by some of the comments here. Jesus couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of the pharisees. I don’t think we should fall into self-righteous legalism either.

    There is nothing inherently evil about eating meat any day of the week, during any season. Eating meat is not a sin. Flagrant disregard for Church teaching is. One needs to consider the circumstances and make prudent decisions. I was raised in a home where I was ritually abused every Lent and food was part of the religious abuse I suffered. I still have a very hard time fasting in any capacity. It terrifies me. I’m not sinning by not fasting.

    This discussion reminds me a lot of discussions I have had with extreme providentialists about the use of NFP and the marital obligation to be open to life. Those conversations were scary, and not Christ-like.

    “Give to God in a state of conscious generosity.” -Pope John Paul II


  • Lucky Mom of 7

    P.S. I had a baby on Ash Wednesday and feasted on steak and shrimp afterward. I had a critical hemmorhage and friends brought me red meat to boost my blood iron. I don’t think I sinned. I was so weak that my friend had to cut my food and feed it to me while I stayed in bed. I couldn’t even lift my head.


  • momof11

    Fast and Abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the law of the church. Yes, there can be extenuating circumstances that will relieve us of the obligation to follow that law, but we must be careful to make sure that we are not frivolous in excusing ourselves. Are we assuming we would offend our neighbor without even explaining and asking if they would be offended? Is it because we would be uncomfortable giving an explanation? Who are we really thinking about in the situation? We must inform our consciences if we are going to follow them. The Church does have laws, and to break a law without a serious reason is a sin. We should always do so carefully and with regret. My concern is that many people will take this article in the wrong way and see it as a justification to ignore the Law of Fast and Abstinence.
    Below is an Artlcle on Fast and Abstinence that I found on EWTN’s website:

    Fast and Abstinence.

    It is a traditional doctrine of Christian spirituality that a constituent part of repentance, of turning away from sin and back to God, includes some form of penance, without which the Christian is unlikely to remain on the narrow path and be saved (Jer. 18:11, 25:5; Ez. 18:30, 33:11-15; Joel 2:12; Mt. 3:2; Mt. 4:17; Acts 2:38). Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Lk. 5:35). The general law of penance, therefore, is part of the law of God for man.

    The Church has specified certain forms of penance, both to ensure that the Catholic will do something, as required by divine law, while making it easy for Catholics to fulfill the obligation. Thus, the 1983 Code of Canon Law specifies the obligations of Latin Rite Catholics [Eastern Rite Catholics have their own penitential practices as specified by the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches].

    Canon 1250 All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.

    Canon 1251 Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Canon 1252 All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.

    Can. 1253 It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

    The Church, therefore, has two forms of official penitential practices – three if the Eucharistic fast before Communion is included.

    Abstinence The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Moral theologians have traditionally considered this also to forbid soups or gravies made from them. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted, as are animal derived products such as margarine and gelatin which do not have any meat taste.

    On the Fridays outside of Lent the U.S. bishops conference obtained the permission of the Holy See for Catholics in the US to substitute a penitential, or even a charitable, practice of their own choosing. Since this was not stated as binding under pain of sin, not to do so on a single occasion would not in itself be sinful. However, since penance is a divine command, the general refusal to do penance is certainly gravely sinful. For most people the easiest way to consistently fulfill this command is the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year which are not liturgical solemnities. When solemnities, such as the Annunciation, Assumption, All Saints etc. fall on a Friday, we neither abstain or fast.

    During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory in the United States as elsewhere, and it is sinful not to observe this discipline without a serious reason (physical labor, pregnancy, sickness etc.).

    Fasting The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance.

    Those who are excused from fast or abstinence Besides those outside the age limits, those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment, manual laborers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offense or causing enmity and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.

    Aside from these minimum penitential requirements Catholics are encouraged to impose some personal penance on themselves at other times. It could be modeled after abstinence and fasting. A person could, for example, multiply the number of days they abstain. Some people give up meat entirely for religious motives (as opposed to those who give it up for health or other motives). Some religious orders, as a penance, never eat meat. Similarly, one could multiply the number of days that one fasted. The early Church had a practice of a Wednesday and Saturday fast. This fast could be the same as the Church’s law (one main meal and two smaller ones) or stricter, even bread and water. Such freely chosen fasting could also consist in giving up something one enjoys – candy, soft drinks, smoking, that cocktail before supper, and so on. This is left to the individual.

    One final consideration. Before all else we are obliged to perform the duties of our state in life. When considering stricter practices than the norm, it is prudent to discuss the matter with one’s confessor or director. Any deprivation that would seriously hinder us in carrying out our work, as students, employees or parents would be contrary to the will of God.

    —- Colin B. Donovan, STL

  • Samwise

    I do not believe that the Church mandates abstinence on Fridays except during Lent. I do try to fast and abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year, but it is not obligatory. It has been ‘suggested’ that people remember that Friday is always a remembrance of Our Lord’s passion …but this is not imposed in any way. Sam

  • Lucky Mom of 7

    With all due respect, Momof11, when I read things like the article in your post, I am ashamed to be Catholic. It really does come across as legalistic and self-righteous. But of course, I know that I am prone to be emotionally and physically triggered by this subject. Lent was a time of persecution and shame in my family of origin.

    Charity, prudence and reverence for the Church should guide our actions. I think within that context, one could legitimately eat meat on Lenten Fridays. We quickly wade in too deep to see the bottom when we start trying to micromanage church teaching in areas that are appropriately delegated to matters of conscience. If somebody’s going to disregard the Church’s guidelines for Lenten abstenance, they’ll use any excuse. No writer can compose anything that is exempt from misuse.

    Extreme providentialists say that using NFP to space babies or avoid pregnancy is always evil, that it is a lack of trust in God. Worse yet, many of them with whom I have had discussions say that having children is a “suffering” that God wills for us. I think that’s sick. It certainly isn’t Catholic.

    Denying the essential nature of human prudence in theological legitimacy makes any situation irreparably ludicrous.


  • Lucky Mom of 7

    Human prudence is an essential element in theological legitimacy. Holiness is never black and white.