Monday, March 7, 2011

Fasting and Abstinence in the Philippines and for Filipinos: Part 1 - The Legislation Currently in Force

(Updated March 28, 2012 in preparation for Holy Week 2012. This is going to be the last revision of this article. I've added the actual 1985 papally-approved CBCP decision that laid down the laws of fasting and abstinence currently applicable in the Philippines.)

Those who have no time to read through this article, and who simply want to know what the law of the Church in the Philippines is regarding fasting and abstinence can scroll down to the section near the end of this post, entitled "IN SUMMARY". 


Lent is coming! I think it is important that we be reminded, on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, about the fasting and abstinence regulations currently in force the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines. 

In this article, I will simply present the current legislation for the Roman Catholic Church. This is not the time or place to debate the wisdom, or the historicity, or the fidelity to Catholic Tradition, of the current norms. I have my own opinions regarding these matters, but these are for a much later post or article elsewhere.

This article will focus on the obligations laid down by the Church regarding fasting and abstinence. At the very outset I would like to warn against two exaggerations so common to Filipino Catholics. The first exaggeration can be described as, "it is pharisaical to go beyond what the Church requires." Therefore, anyone who fasts or practices penance to an extent greater than what the Church herself requires, is immediately condemned as "pharisaical" or as "self-righteous". The second exaggeration can be summed up as: "it is not good to state what the law says, because that would be too legalistic; we should encourage people to do their best, and not bother with even discussing the minimum that is necessary." Both exaggerations have the same root error of not making a distinction between that which is required by the law of the Church and the spiritual ideal proposed by the Church. The law of the Roman Catholic Church lays down the minimum that she requires of her children, but does not prevent anyone from doing more than what the law requires. 

I am aware that there are some people (including some priests) who react negatively to any and all mention of the laws of fasting and abstinence. "This is legalistic! This is nonsensical! What is important is to love God!" This is not the time for me to debate with them; suffice it to recall that infidelity in small things only leads to infidelity in bigger things. If we can't even fast and abstain for a few days, then how can we be expected to put in the effort necessary to avoiding sin and exercising virtue? These reactions also make me wonder: what exactly is it that scares these people about the already very lenient laws of the Church on fasting and abstinence? 

This article will be divided into two sections:

I. Current law for penance, fasting and abstinence in the Roman Catholic Church today
II. Current law for penance, fasting and abstinence for Roman Catholics in the Philippines 

In a subsequent article I will write about the following:

-- The laws for penance, fasting and abstinence in the areas of the world with the largest expatriate Filipino populations
-- The laws for fasting and abstinence in the Philippines prior to February 23, 1966 (when the current legislation of the Roman Catholic Church took effect)
-- Some brief reflections on the state of fasting and abstinence in the Philippines

One last reminder: the laws of fasting and abstinence are for those who are healthy enough to observe these. Sick people or people who have might have health problems from observing the laws of fasting and abstinence should seek advice from a priest. They should at least do some other act of piety or penance if they really cannot fast or abstain. 

I. Current law for penance, fasting and abstinence in the Roman Catholic Church today

The laws of fasting and abstinence for the universal Church are regulated by two documents: the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini (Feb. 17, 1966) which came into force on February 23, 1966, and the Canons on the "Days of Penance" in the Code of Canon Law of 1983 (Canons 1249-1253.) The legislation in these two documents can be summarized as follows:

a) All Fridays of the year are days of penance. 

b) The season of Lent is a time of penance. (The General Directory for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar [Feb. 14, 1969] defines Lent as the period from Ash Wednesday until the evening Mass of Holy Thursday exclusive.) 

Although neither Paenitemini nor the Code of Canon Law specify any penance for the rest of Lent aside from Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays, the Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1438 states that all Fridays of the year and all of Lent "are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).In short, the faithful are obligated to do penance on all Fridays and during Lent, but it is left to them what kind of penance to do except on the few days when fasting and / or abstinence from meat are still required. Nevertheless, the Church exhorts (without commanding) the faithful to be generous with their penances. In the words of Pope Paul VI in Paenitemini:"it is strongly desired that bishops and all pastors of souls, in addition to the more frequent use of the sacrament of penance, promote with zeal, particularly during the Lenten season, extraordinary practices of penitence aimed at expiation and impetration."

It is worth noting that, although neither Paenitemini nor the 1983 Code of Canon Law mention it, the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (Dec. 4, 1963) decidedly encourages (but does not command) the practice of fasting on Holy Saturday as well (see Sac. Conc. # 110). The 1988 Circular Letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship "Concerning the the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts" (Protocol 120/88) repeats Sacrosanctum Concilium's encouragement of the Holy Saturday fast. The Easter fast is sacred on the first two days of the Triduum, in which according to ancient tradition the Church fasts "because the Spouse has been taken away". Good Friday is a day of fasting and abstinence; it is also recommended that holy Saturday be so observed, so that the Church, with uplifted and welcoming heart, be ready to celebrate the joys of the Sunday of the Resurrection. (This can be found in # 39 of the aforementioned circular letter).

(It seems evident that the obligation to do penance for Lent is for the season of Lent as a whole, and not necessarily for each and every day of Lent.)

c) Abstinence from meat is required on all Fridays that are not solemnities. (Paenitemini exempted from Friday abstinence only the Fridays that were holy days of obligation. The 1983 Code of Canon Law extended this exemption to all solemnities, including those that are not holy days of obligation).

d) Fasting is obligatory on only two days of the year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence from meat is also required on these two days.

e) The episcopal conferences may decide, for the faithful in their respective territories, to  substitute (in whole or in part) other forms of penance (such as works of charity or piety) in place of fasting and abstinence. (Armed with this authorization, numerous episcopal conferences or the local bishops have de facto abolished obligatory abstinence from meat on non-Lenten Fridays in almost all  -- if not all -- countries. Abstinence from meat on Lenten Fridays has been "optionalized' as well in a significant portion of the Church, including the world's three largest Catholic countries, namely, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. In these countries, abstinence is obligatory only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; on other Fridays of Lent it can be replaced by any of a wide array of pious or charitable acts. See this for Brazil and this for Mexico. In Brazil, even on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday other acts of piety, charity and penance -- such as attendance at the sacred liturgy in those days -- can substitute for abstinence. The law in the Philippines is explained further below in this post.)

f) The obligation of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The obligation to fast is binding on those who have completed their eighteenth year until they complete their sixtieth year. Prior to the coming into effect of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, fasting was obligatory for adults who had completed their 21st year until they completed their sixtieth year. So, on this one matter, Pope John Paul II actually tightened the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church. From time to time, though, I still find some confusion on this matter, with some people still mistakenly assuming that people between the ages of 18 and 21 are not yet required to fast on the days appointed. 

(In layman's terms, what this means is that the obligation of abstinence binds a Catholic from the day after his fourteenth birthday onwards, while he is bound to observe the fasts of the Church from the day after his eighteenth birthday until his sixtieth birthday.

For instance, if the fourteenth birthday itself falls on a Friday in Lent, the person celebrating the birthday is not yet required to abstain from forbidden food on that day. However, if the fourteenth birthday falls on a Thursday in Lent, the birthday celebrant would be required to abstain beginning on the following day, Friday. Likewise, a person celebrating his eighteenth birthday on Good Friday will be obliged to abstain from meat, but not yet to fast. In contrast, a person celebrating his sixtieth birthday on Good Friday is still required to abstain and to fast.

The rules regarding time are to be found in Canons 200-203 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. See also footnote 64 in p. 64, and pp. 236-238 of the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Paulist Press, Mahwah, 2000) edited by John P. Beal, James A. Coriden, and Thomas J. Green. ) 

g) In his Apostolic Letter given Motu Proprio entitled Stella Maris (Jan. 31, 1997), Pope Bl. John Paul II declared that seafarers are not bound by the Church's laws of fasting and abstinence. This document defines seafarers very broadly as follows: Seafarers are those actually on board merchant ships or fishing vessels, and all who for whatever reason have undertaken a voyage by ship. 

Stella Maris goes on to state that:
Seafarers are not bound by the laws of fast and abstinence prescribed in can. 1251; they are advised, however, when taking advantage of this dispensation, to undertake a comparable work of piety in place of abstinence, and, as far as possible, to observe both laws on Good Friday in memory of the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ;

(A few websites claim that this declaration covers anyone who has ever traveled on a ship even just once. This is manifestly absurd. A plain reading of this declaration is that anyone who happens to be on a ship on the days of fasting and abstinence are not bound to observe the prescribed penance for these days, even as they are encouraged to underake some other works of piety and are especially encouraged -- but not required --to abstain and fast on Good Friday if they happen to be on a ship on that day.)

h) Fasting means eating only one full meal per day with two smaller meals, one in the morning, and one in the evening. In the exact words of Paenitemini: "The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom." Given that the "some food" in addition to the full meal is described as being taken in the morning and evening, the implication is that the one full meal is taken at mid-day -- lunchtime, in short. In practice, however, the one full meal is sometimes taken in the morning (breakfast) or in the evening (supper).

As can be seen, the current law of the Church appeals to “local custom” as the basis for calculating the amount of food that can be taken on fasting days. Needless to say, this rule is vague and allows for a lot of variation: what would pass for a full meal in some localities would be a mere snack in other places, and vice versa. One rule commonly used in the Philippines by those who still observe the law of fasting is that the two meals aside from the main meal should, when combined, not equal a full meal. This still leaves a lot of room for individual interpretation, and ultimately depends on what constitutes a “full meal” for each person. Prior to Vatican II, one widespread standard was for 8 ounces of food to be taken for dinner and only about 2-3 ounces for breakfast, while a big lunch was allowed. (This standard is rarely adverted to nowadays, but in my humble opinion it can still be useful.) No snacks are allowed in between meals on fasting days.

i) Abstinence means, in the exact words of Paenitemini: "The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat."

Abstinence is supposedly easier to understand: meat is not allowed, period. Unlike in earlier ages, the law of abstinence no longer forbids the consumption of eggs and dairy products. Furthermore, according to the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Paulist Press, Mahwah, 2000), in p. 1447, the current law of the Church forbids only the meat of warm-blooded animals  (thus, the meat of cold-blooded animals such as frogs, turtles, snakes, and various edible lizards can be eaten on days of abstinence) and also allows the consumption of sauces made from animal oil. 

However, despite the major relaxation of the Church's former discipline regarding abstinence, all sorts of rationalizations are still made by quite a number of Catholics. For instance, some say that abstinence only forbids the consumption of red meat but allows the eating of white meat. Sorry, but chicken meat is meat, and pork is definitely meat!

II. Current law for penance, fasting and abstinence for Roman Catholics in the Philippines 

As noted above, the canon law of the Church gives the episcopal conferences wide authority to modify the laws of the universal Church on fasting and abstinence. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines has, indeed, greatly relaxed the laws on fasting and abstinence for the faithful in the Philippines.

On September 27, 1985, Pope John Paul II approved and confirmed the "Norms approved by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines for the Local Implementation of Some Provisions of the New Code of Canon Law". These were published in the November - December 1985 issue of CBCP Monitor (Vol. VI, No. 6), pp. 32 - 43. The complementary norms for Canon 1253 (on penance) are as follows:

Can. 1253: Other Forms of Penance as Substitute for Abstinence 
Except on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, abstinence may be substituted with exercise (sic) of piety, such as reading the Bible, going to Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Holy Rosary, or with acts of charity, such as visiting the sick and prisoners, giving alms to the poor, teaching catechism. 

In an article published in 1997, and currently available as a pamphlet from Life Today Publications simply titled as “Canon Law”, Fr. Javier Gonzalez OP echoes the 1985 CBCP norms for fasting and abstinence in the Philippines as follows:

What are the norms for fast and abstinence? 
Fast and abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The general form for abstinence, which is binding on the faithful throughout the year, is abstinence from meat. It has been noted, however, that abstaining from meat cannot be considered a penance for a great part or number of Filipino people who can no longer afford to buy meat… The local norm is that, except on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, abstinence may be substituted with exercises of piety, such as reading the Bible, going to Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Holy Rosary, or with acts of charity, such as visiting the sick and prisoners, giving alms to the poor, or teaching catechism.

(Source: Fr. Javier Gonzalez OP. CBCP Norms and Authentic Interpretations. Boletin Eclesiastico de Filipinas. Vol. LXXIII No. 802. September – October 1997, pp. 543 – 584.)
Fr. Gonzalez, in turn, bases his article upon the Canon Law Digest of the Philippine Catholic Church. A Text and Commentary of Fr. Florentino Testera OP, published by UST Press in 1995.

In the passage quoted above, there is a puzzling sentence: “The general form for abstinence, which is binding on the faithful throughout the year, is abstinence from meat.” On face value, what this would mean is that the faithful are bound to abstain from meat all year round. However, it should be obvious that this is not what Fr. Gonzalez means, because the Church has never placed an absolute ban on the eating of meat by all the faithful. The only sensible meaning that can be attributed to this sentence is that abstinence from meat is the “abstinence” normally required on days of penance. This is precisely what the current legislation for the Roman Catholic Church says.


1) In the Philippines, fasting and abstinence remain obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. There can be no “substitution” of some other penance, or exercise of piety, or act of charity, for fasting and abstinence on these days.

(Yes, my friends: going on Visita Iglesia on Good Friday is no excuse for you to eat meat on that day!)

2) In the Philippines, on all Fridays of the year (including Lenten Fridays) except for Good Friday, the faithful can either abstain from meat or do some exercise of piety or act of charity.

3) Given the large number of Filipinos who regularly travel on ships or who work on fishing vessels and merchant ships, the dispensation of 'seafarers' from the observation of abstinence and fasting on the prescribed days (if they happen to be at sea on these days) ought to be noted. (See section I-g. above.)

These norms are echoed by the Philippine Jesuits in their website's page on fasting and abstinence (FAQs about Fasting and Abstinence) and in the following article from CBCP News: Canon lawyer says fast, abstinence on Good Friday is mandatory. 

It should be noted as well that the list of exercises of piety or acts of charity given by Fr. Gonzalez – reading the Bible, going to Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Holy Rosary, visiting the sick and prisoners, teaching catechism – are, evidently, introduced merely as examples of what can be substituted for abstinence from meat; these do not form a strict and exclusive list of such substitutes.

Aside from the above-mentioned modifications, Catholics in the Philippines are still bound to observe the rest of the laws of fasting and abstinence legislated for the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world.


  1. i am happy to see this article. In the Syro Malankara Catholic Church in the Antiochene Tradition the law for abstinence and fasting are more stricter (though not as much as our Orthodox non - catholic sister churches). first of all we dont have an Ash Wednessday. for us the lent starts on Monday (not Wednesday. istead of Ash ceremony we have the reconciliation service known in Syriac as "Subkono"service. in the great lent we have fasting on the Monday the lent begins, all Fridays (except 40th Day ) the middle day (25th day.these days fish, meat and egg are avoided. Meat is avoided all the 50days of the lent. fish and egg are permitted in the other days of the lenten season, but not in the passion week. on Good Friday complete fasting and abstinnence from milk, egg, fish, meat etc... in fact meat is prohibited on all Fridays of the whole year. exception are only for the season preceding the Great Lent (two Fridays) and during the Easter Season till Pentacost. We have at least 6 lents in our Tradition of which 3 are compulsory and the other three are optional. further details later.

  2. 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.
    benefits of abstinence

  3. very informative article. thank you! i am on a journey now to discover more about fasting. your post is very helpful. God bless! :)

  4. Why is it that I constantly have to explain to my neighbor Filipino Catholics what it means to give something up for Lent. How did Maundy Thursday & Good Friday become days for big time partying? My friends are genuinely clueless when I tell them they can't come & party at my place on Good Friday.