Fasting and Abstinence . . . in Prison?

by jimmyakin

in +Religion, Canon Law, Liturgical Year

How do the Church's disciplines of fast and abstinence apply to those in prison?

Recently I wrote about 9 things you need to know about Lent.

It covered the basics of the rules of fast and abstinence in Lent, but it didn’t cover every possible application of them.

Then, by email, I received this query, which deals with an application I hadn’t considered before:

Is fasting and abstinence practised by Roman Catholics who are incarcerated?

Thanks.  Your prompt reply is earnestly requested.

Interesting question!

In principle, both fast and abstinence are to be practiced by Catholic prisoners. There is no general exception for them (not that I have been able to find).

However, prison poses special challenges.

Could there be exceptions in individual cases?


How to Answer the Question

There are two ways to attack a question like this, where there is no explicit answer in the Code of Canon Law.

The first is to dive into the secondary literature (commentaries on the Code of Canon Law, handbooks of moral and pastoral theology, etc.).

Much of that will date from before the current, 1983 Code, and even before the Church’s current system of penitential practices was set up in 1966. However, it might still shed light on the question today.

I checked the main U.S. commentary and didn’t find anything on the question.

I’m sure there is some discussion of it out there, but it might take more time than we have before Lent begins for me to find it, so in the interests of providing a timely answer, let me pursue the other way of attacking the question, which is to try to extract the principles embedded in the law and apply them to this situation.


What’s the Goal?

The first question to answer is what is the goal that the Church’s requirements of fast and abstinence are trying to accomplish?

It isn’t to get people to eat less or fewer types of food, whether from reasons of diet, economy, health, or what have you.

Eating less food (in the case of fasting) or fewer types of food (in the case of abstinence) is just a means to an end.

What end?


That’s why this topic is dealt with in the section on penitential days in the Code.

By undertaking a form of limited hardship, we can express sorrow for our past sins and train ourselves in self-discipline to say no to sin in the future.

That’s fundamentally what we’re trying to accomplish here, and it leads to a second question . . .


How Much Hardship?

The Church, at least in the Latin Rite today, does not expect us to undertake extreme hardship in pursuit of these goals on Ash Wednesday and the Friday of Lent and Good Friday.

With the discipline of fasting, all that is required by law is cutting down a bit on what we’d otherwise eat. We’re allowed one full meal and two cases where we can have “some food.”

Comparing that to the normal practice of eating three full meals and allowing oneself a few snacks, that’s not a huge difference.

When it comes to abstaining from meat, that would not have been a big deal–historically–because until recently, many people did not eat meat every day (some still don’t).

The requirement of abstinence just meant not indulging in what was–then–a cultural sign of celebration (eating meat).

So in both cases, the Church is only expecting us to shoulder a quite modest form of hardship.

But this burden can fall disproportionately on some . . .


When a Little Is a Lot

Some people are in situations in which the disciplines of fast and abstinence would pose a disproportionate burden on them.

This is more common with the requirement of fast than of abstinence, since normally other foods can be eaten in place of meat. If meat were the only source of calories that was available, even abstinence could pose a disproportionate burden.

But more commonly the situation arises with fasting. This can happen, for example with various medical conditions, such as diabetes.

Diabetics needs to keep their blood sugar in a certain range, and this can require a more frequent intake of food than envisioned by the Church’s fasting discipline.

The situation can also arise from things other than medical conditions. The standard sources from before Vatican II note exceptions for workers who need to keep their energy level up during the day, lest a lack of food interfere with them fulfilling their job duties.

In such situations, people are excused from keeping the discipline of fasting (and/or, more rarely, abstinence).

Sound pastoral practice, though, would urge them to find another way of practicing penance on these days in order to honor the spirit of the day.


So What About Prisoners?

I am not fully conversant with how food is regulated in jails and prisons, and I imagine that it varies considerably from place to place. However, it seems certain that prisoners generally have less freedom in terms of when and what to eat than non-prisoners.

In some situations, they may also have less flexibility regarding their activity level.

If that lack of freedom would significantly increase the burden of keeping the disciplines of fast and abstinence then a prisoner would be excused from keeping them.

Interestingly, I can see in the case of a prisoner how situations regarding abstinence could be more challenging.

On a Friday in Lent they might be served a food that has meat in it as their principal source of calories for a meal. Removing the meat might either be impossible, very difficult, or might so decrease the calories available to them that it would turn an occasion of abstinence into an occasion of fasting.

This is not required. In such cases the prisoner would be excused from abstinence.

Whether the burden of the disciplines of fast and abstinence are disproportionately high on a prisoner will depend on his individual situation and will require a judgement call.

A prisoner is bound to fast and abstain if he can do so reasonably. If the burden would be disproportionately high for either, though, then he is excused from that requirement, just as a person with a food-related medical condition or other situation would be.

In such cases, the prisoner should still seek to keep the spirit of the day in some way.

They could also choose to fast and abstain anyway, even with the greater burden. The Church’s requirements regarding these practices are minimums, not maximums, and we are all encouraged to do more than the minimum. This is not a matter of requirement but of free choice, and choosing to do more than the minimum is praiseworthy.


What About Prison Officials?

The above information applies to prisoners, but what about prison officials who are (to a significant degree) in control of the food Catholic prisoners have available to them on the Church’s penitential days?

Since there is no general exception made for prisoners to the disciplines of fast and abstinence (only need-based exceptions, where they exist), prison officials should accomodate Catholic prisoners’ abilities to fast and abstain on the Church’s penitential days.

There are two grounds for this: First, there is the simple humanitarian ground of trying to allow another person to fulfill his religious duties. Second, there are the protections of religious liberty found in U.S. law (most notably in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, although there are many other protections of the free exercise of religion as well).

Thus they should seek to allow Catholic prisoners to have meatless meals on days of abstinence and, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, they should not impose activity levels on prisoners that would be inconsistent with fasting.

They should also seek, to the extent possible, to have Catholic services available for prisoners on these days as well, particularly on Ash Wednesday, the Sundays of Lent, and the days of Holy Week, including Good Friday, leading up to Holy Saturday and Easter.


Remembering Those in Prison

I hope the above information is useful, and I invite readers to keep those behind bars in your prayers.

Our Lord took special note of the care we should have for prisoners, telling us,

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

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Robert Coogan February 11, 2013 at 7:46 am

In my 20 years of visiting the imprisoned, first as a lay minister and then as chaplain, I would like to share that many prisoners whom I have known do use fasting as part of their religious practices. This is based on the lived experience of fasting as a way to intensify the relationship with God, not based on trying to fulfill Church guidelines. The two types of fasting most common are a week-long fast or a Friday fast. The guys tend to observe a complete fast when they do a Friday fast, and a one meal a day fast when they use a week-long fast. The meals in the prison here in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, are based on an unvarying, monotonous, weekly menu. A free person who is fasting may well eat better than a prisoner who isn’t fasting. Even on a good day, they live with constant hunger. One of the reasons for fasting is to maintain one´s dignity before one´s God when one´s brothers have done everything that the society can do to strip one of that dignity. Like the people of Nineveh, the prisoners use fasting to help their clamor to rise up before the Lord. We remember that, in the Jubilee year of 2000, Blessed John Paul II recognized that worldwide prison systems were in need of a total rethinking. That has not been done by the world´s societies, nor has the call been adopted and promoted by the bishop’s conferences. The imprisoned, regardless of their crimes, carry the weight of the projected shadow of our societies. They are seen as monsters, not humans. What in fact they are are beloved children of God, and that conviction, that their dignity comes from God and not from society, and that what society does to strip them of a dignity that does not come from the society and that therefore the society has no right to attack, leads them to place themselves abjectly before the Lord as did Judith. Through their fasting, they place themselves before their only friend, their only defender, not so much seeking his mercy, as simply enjoying that heightened awareness of being in God´s presence that is a consequence of fasting.

JohnE February 14, 2013 at 3:20 pm

“The requirement of abstinence just meant not indulging in what was–then–a cultural sign of celebration (eating meat).”
Oh.  I guess scratch Lobsterfest.

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