Sunday, February 14, 2010

Re-examining "Partial Abstinence"

Lent is approaching, and many people in traditionally minded circles will attempt to do something beyond the incredibly minimalist fasting and abstinence requirements set by the new Code of Canon Law.

It is commendable to keep the traditional fasting requirements, as outlined, for example, here:

Though it must be pointed out that even this pre-Vatican-II fasting is rather minimal compared to the medieval Black Fast (or the East's very complicated rules about Abstinence, which can extend to dairy, eggs, fish, oil, and wine as well, in various combinations).

One concept, however, that I find to unnecessarily complicated the traditional rules and to be rather legalistic is that of "Partial Abstinence".

First, to remind people of the definition of some terms.

"Fasting" means to take only one meal, usually assumed to be in the evening. Up to two smaller meatless "collations" (not together adding up to one full meal) were later allowed throughout the day as a concession to human frailty, but really should only be used "if necessary to maintain strength according to one's needs." This included all the days of Lent (except Sunday and any Solemnities), Ember Days, certain Vigils, etc.

Abstinence refers, in the West, to abstaining from flesh-meat, meat products, and meat juices, though fish is traditionally allowed (and some other crazy exceptions, like the capybara). This included Fridays throughout the year (except on Solemnities; in the USA the Friday after Thanksgiving was also dispensed, as often is St Patrick's Day [for corn-beef] if it falls on Friday), Fridays and Saturdays during Lent, certain Vigils, etc

On days of Fast and Partial Abstinence, which included the other days of Lent during the week, as well as Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays, meat was allowed at the main meal.

I find this triple division of "no abstinence," "partial abstinence," and "full abstinence," to be needlessly complex, though the possible combinations with fasting are somewhat simplified by the fact that fasting days were always at least partial abstinence and that partial abstinence was only for days that were also fasting days.

However, I find the category of "partial abstinence" to be unnecessarily semantically confusing for people. If one is allowed to take meat at the main meal on a fasting day...that is essentially the same as "no abstinence"...because when you fast you are only supposed to be taking the main meal anyway. The fact that the collations, which are already a concession to human weakness, can't have meat...should just be assumed, or included in the definition of collation, rather than creating this third category of abstinence which is really basically just non-abstinence for all intents and purposes. Excluding meat from just the collations, which you ideally wouldn't be taking anyway, hardly deserves its own name.

Though the concept (or at least the phrase) "partial abstinence" might be salvaged if the West adopted a more Eastern notion of abstinence. Then "partial abstinence" could refer to those days when meat only was forbidden (Fridays throughout the year, Ember Days, Saturdays of Lent, etc), and "full abstinence" could refer to days (I imagine these would be Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent, and Holy Saturday until the Vigil) on which we would also abstain from dairy, eggs, fish, oil, and wine, like in the East.

But, that's just my musings...


George said...

"If one is allowed to take meat at the main meal on a fasting day...that is essentially the same as "no abstinence"...because when you fast you are only supposed to be taking the main meal anyway[...]Excluding meat from just the collations, which you ideally wouldn't be taking anyway, hardly deserves its own name."

interesting. personally, i don't think it's really a big deal, but i guess the term "partial abstinence" might make people think they are supposed to do something else that day beyond limiting themselves to one meal (which may have meat)? having a third named category does make it seem more complicated than it really is, but it isnt all that confusing.

but i agree, just saying "collations should always be meatless" and then calling those days "days of fast only" (in opposition "days of fast and abstinence")...might be more linguistically and legally efficient and, in turn, encourage people to keep the old fasts.

A Sinner said...

If partial-abstinence and fasting were ever separated, then it might be a useful category.

If, for example, there was a separate category of "only fasting" where meat was allowed even at the collations, then this would be meaningfully distinct from "partial abstinence" (with meat only allowed at the main meal).

Or, if there were days of Partial Abstinence but Not Fasting (perhaps and Wednesdays and Saturday throughout the year?) where meat was allowed at 1 of your 3 meals (even though the other two meals need not be as small as collations)...then, likewise, there would be a meaningful distinction between "partial abstinence" and "no abstinence".

But, as it stands, that's not how it worked. "Partial abstinence" was essentially just a confusing way of saying "collations are always meatless".

You may think I'm over-reacting, and maybe I am, but this comes from experience. Several friends have approached me interested in adopting the older fasting rules, but been hesitant when they saw them. It was not the fact that every day of Lent was a fast (which they expected), or that there were some extra days (like Ember Days, certain Vigils, etc) that were fasting and/or abstinence.

Rather, they expressed intimidation at how "complicated" it was, and a worry that they wouldn't be able to keep track of all the different combinations of fast and abstinence. And it almost always came back to confusion over this category of "partial abstinence". When I explained, however, that days of partial abstinence basically just meant a day of Fasting without Abstinence (except that the collations, which are a concession to weakness anyway, are always meatless) this simplified things mentally for them, and they were no longer overwhelmed by the "complexity" of it all.

This was a problem in the past in the Church, in general: a byzantine multiplication of categories and terminology in Canon Law that needed some serious simplification and consolidation.

Jonathan said...

It isn't so much that it is complicated, but rather it is the language that is used to express this day and or that day of fast.

Your average Catholic (and I do mean your average lowest common denominator Catholic) has no clue what an Ember Day, etc. is. As much as you are going to hate this, the fact is Pre and Post Vatican II Catholics for the most part didn't/don't know what they are (I do believe you should do a blog entry as to why Vatican II is the reference point for every discussion (Trad and non Trad alike). I mean why can't I start a discussion with Pre/Post Council of Jerusalem (The decrees which are STILL MAINTAINED by The Oriental Churches (Maronites and such).)?).

Why can't the days of Fast/Abstinence just be expressed in simple terms like this:

Sure it is a Byzantine layout for the periods of fast/abstinence, but at least the common man knows that they are to fast/abstain during a set period (The Fast of The Nativity,Great and Holy Lent, The Dormition Fast, etc.)as well as what is and is not permitted.

My question however is, how come we do not observe Clean Monday/Ash Monday in The Latin West ? Every other Sacrificial Observant/Eucharistic Observant observes this day, yet for some reason we do not.

I should also add that The Churches of The Orient observe different customs in terms of fast. Eastern Christians (Syriacs etc.) keep a different, but similar fast (at least during Great Lent) to that of Byzantine Christians (Melkites, Greeks, etc.). Then there are all the Pesach-esque (Passover) rituals of fast during Holy Week observed in Eastern Churches. I'm not sure about The Armenian and Alexandrian Ritual Churches, but I would assume they observe a Fast similar to other Eastern Christians.

But before I get too off topic, I think that perhaps a guide as to what constitutes a MEAL should be published. Different cultures have extremely different understandings of what is meant by a MEAL. If I find the particular article published by an anthropologist of what makes a meal, I'll pass it on to you.

Just as a side, for those who observe The Great Fast, check the ingredients in the cereals you consume. Dairy products are used in quite a few cereals. I wish they would have a "Kasher for Great Lent" seal on foods during The Lenten season.