Continuing a stale debate: Distinction between Foods

I realised today that Pastor Weedon had asked me a question which I hadn’t followed up concerning the practice of abstinence and the “distinction of foods”. He said in the combox:

I know the diff between abstinence and fasting, but among my people the usual way to think of the Lenten “fast” is to talk about abstinence and think that’s fasting. It is clearly the “distinction of meats” that the Lutherans in the 16th century objected to, NOT the discipline of fasting. So I was simply trying to encourage my members to truly HUNGER and find in God the one who alone can satisfy that hunger.

I replied:

What I am complaining about, Pastor Bill, is the confusion of categories. “Abstention” has nothing to do with the “distinction of meats”. I believe it might have suited the Lutheran confessors to deliberately confuse this issue, as it was then easy for them to dismiss the practice of abstention from meat on Fridays etc. as “Jewish” legalism.

He replied:

Well, David, then I am confused. Distinction of meats is used in the AC to discuss the requirement of abstention from flesh meats on Fridays, for example. It’s not referring to the Jewish practice of kosher and non-kosher meat, but does draw the parallel that all foods groups are free to the Christian, for all is cleansed in Christ. I think I’m missing your point a bit. Help me out.

Although we have given up all abstention and fasting for Easter, my reply now is that of course all food groups are free to the Christian. That’s one thing that is perfectly obvious as soon as you begin working in interfaith relations: as far as Christians are concerned, there is no food which in itself is considered sacred (eg. cow) or unclean (eg. pig) or immoral (eg. alcohol). When the Church gives rules for abstinence to her children, this abstinence is not based on some “distinction” between the quality of the food itself–eg. cleanliness, sanctity, or morality.

It is based rather on the principle of self-denial, and is therefore closely related to fasting and to hunger. It is possible to have a full belly and still hunger for some special craving or luxury (witness the way a child can leave half his vegetables on the plate saying “I’m full” and still have room for dessert). Fasting has to do with denying oneself a percentage of ALL foods (which may be 5% or 100%) even though (as you say, Pastor) “all foods are free to the Christian”, so abstinence has to do with denying oneself those particular foods which might be regarded as luxuries (eg. meat, alcohol, chocolate). This might change from culture to culture too. For instance, it really isn’t in the spirit of things to substitute a lobster thermador for a beef stew in a place where beef is cheap and plentiful and lobsters expensive and rare.

Therefore, unlike the distinction between foods made in other religiouns, the Christian practice of abstinence has nothing to do with distinguishing between foods on the basis of any iherant qualities of the foods themselves. A distinction is made, but it is made on the basis self-denial. Thus, if you don’t have an argument with fasting (self-denial on the basis of quantity) you can’t really have an argument with abstinence (self-denial on the basis of tastes).

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9 Responses to Continuing a stale debate: Distinction between Foods

  1. William Weedon says:


    Very good points, but I would then add that self-denial on the basis of TASTES is by its very nature difficult to do communally, since tastes vary wildly. To eat asparagus my children count a hardship; I count a delight. For them to give up asparagus would be a relief; for me it WOULD be abstinence. Make sense?

    By the bye on another of our favorite subjects, have you read through in *Feast of Faith* the essay “Form and Content of the Eucharist” and particularly the second postscript. MOST interesting from the standpoint of our discussions about sacrifice. I believe that the Bishop of Rome is quite correct in noting: “For it gives us a genuine New Testament concept of sacrifice that both preserves the complete Catholic inheritance (and imparts to it a new profundity) and, on the other hand, is receptive to Luther’s central intentions.” p. 58

  2. Fr John W Fenton says:


    You’ve provided (once again) a very helpful, clear post. Thanks.

    Pr Weedon,

    Because self-denial by “tastes” is difficult communally, the Church has chosen (from earliest time; cf Didache) both the food to abstain from and the days of abstention. These two (food and days) are purposefully tied together in order to use abstention not merely to teach self-denial but also a spiritual truth; namely, that together we make the sacrifice of abstaining from meat on (a) the day Christ’s flesh was betrayed (Wed) and (b) the day Christ freely and willingly sacrificed His flesh (Fri). This pre-determined selection takes self-denial outside the realm of personal tastes or preference, and places it with the realm of corporate discipline. (As you can guess, I’m not much enamored with the recent practice of one choosing the item to “give up,” which clearly encourage personal “tastes” [i.e., individualism] as one of the bases for fasting.)

  3. William Weedon says:

    Fr. John,

    Thank you for some further things to think on. And I’m STILL waiting to see pictures!!!!

  4. Schütz says:

    Yes, Thanks, Fr Fenton, for that. I must say that I had not heard the reasoning for abstaining from meat connected to the “flesh” of Christ–although of course, I knew about the days.

    It is true that the Church has, in recent years esp. here in Australia, attempted to be more “pastoral” in allowing some choice of how an individual chooses to observe the penitential nature of Friday–abstaining from meat may be replaced with another penitential or charitable or devotional act. Nevertheless, here the Church’s flirtation with Lutheranism (“The Christian is the perfectly free Lord of all”) has predictably backfired just as it did within Lutheranism, and now the vast majority of Catholics in this country neither abstain from meat on Friday OR do any other act on Friday. Typical. Hence the need for rules. They at least remind one of one’s obligation. The Orthodox, of course, look down their noses at us for ever being so stupid, but you live and learn and we are both living and learning!

    Pastor William, thanks for the reference. Yes, I would have read it years ago, but I should pick it up again and have a good look. I will get around to commenting sooner or later.

  5. William Weedon says:

    Fr. John,

    One more question, if I may. Do you know of a place where the fathers set forth that rationale for those fast days? Or where canon law does? I honestly don’t know and would like to know.

  6. William Weedon says:

    I do remember the Didache giving those days, but the reason was “not to do the same days as the hypocrites,” if I recall correctly.

  7. Past Elder says:

    Well, back when we HAD to fast and abstain, ain’t nobody showed up at Barry’s for the walleye pike dinner on Mondays or Thursdays, so I guess we were apostolically correct.

    I’ll stick with the statement that there is no difference between the man who eats little and sees God and the man who drinks much and sees snakes.

    An abbreviated famine response, sending the body on its initial back up plans to find glucose, seems a strange sort of spirituality, a common element of man-made religion the world over, fine outward training for those who can keep it to just that, and absolutely nothing to legislate as an obligation.

    From a veteran of both fasting from midnight before Communion and and hoping for long winded priest so it’s an hour from the last bite of breakfast to Communion.

    What a joke.

  8. Schütz says:

    Yes, Pastor Weedon, I learned that the Christians chose Wednesdays and Fridays to be different from the Jews, who had a tradition of Mondays and Thursdays–but I did learn this from a Protestant teacher!

    I will add that it is either convenient or inconvenient (depending on what sort of interfaith event you are trying to organise) that Jews, Christians and Muslims have different holy days!

  9. orrologion says:

    I believe Wednesday and Friday were chosen because they were after the Jewish fasting days – the same reason why Pascha is always to fall after the Jewish Passover, the shadow that has been fulfilled. The other reasons were in remembrance of the Lord’s betrayal and crucifixion – other aspects of the Lord life (and the Lord wondrous in his saints) were than later celebrated, prepared for and remembered by similar fasts.

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