Thursday, March 2, 2017

You first: a discussion of making fasting difficult again

On my old blog, I wrote several posts about fasting. If you're interested in them, you can find them here by typing the word "fasting" into the search bar at the top left side of the page.

I don't want to rehash too many of my old posts, but I've recognized that there are two main reasons why typical discussions of fasting among Catholics these days annoy me, and I wanted to go into them just a little here.

The first is the idea, which I've seen expressed by many people, that the Church wimped out on fasting. Requiring only two days of fasting, and having those days include one full meal and two snacks, isn't really "fasting" at all, as someone recently said on Facebook. What kind of weakling can't even do that much? Accompanying this complaint is the idea that of course fasting produces holiness and grace, and that if, by sheer force of will, you keep an even stricter fast for the full forty days of Lent--maybe eating no solid food at all, like "real" fasters should--you will sort of automatically become a saint or something. Sort of like that neopelagianism I was talking about yesterday, in fact, this idea that by fasting we prove that we're worthy of great things and all we have to do is wait for God to recognize us in our awesomeness and bestow His mighty favor.

You can argue until your fingertips bleed (this is online stuff, mostly) that fasting isn't some kind of "Catholic superhero training" that will produce the desired effects if one can just man up and go hungry long enough. You can mention that in the past lots of people dealt with the obligatory fast by ignoring it (this is, of course, not a good thing, but we're talking about people many of whom only received Holy Communion a handful of times a year, if that, and skipping the fast was just one more mortal sin to confess right before making one's Easter duty). You can show that there were plenty of exemptions so that there was never a time when every single Catholic was fasting all through Lent, producing that magical solidarity of obedient suffering that allegedly made the Church great back in the past. You can even mention that it would be a bit hard on modern wives and mothers (or whomever does the cooking) to micromanage everybody's fasting requirements since we no longer live in societies (for the most part) where the main meal of the day is consumed somewhere between noon and three p.m. None of it matters, and oddly enough, neither does pointing out that if you really, really believe the strict fast will make you grow in holiness you are totally free to adopt it yourself, without fearing grave sin if you can't make it, and without jealous eyes on your neighbor's plate. You first, in fact, before you demand the Church change her current practice to obligate everybody else to do what you think everybody else ought to do--but this is a surprisingly unpopular suggestion.

The second thing that bothers me about the annual lament from certain Catholics about how weak and wimpy our fasting rules are today is that, by the way they often speak and write about the fasting situation, one would think that the greatest problem facing the Church right now, in the Year of Our Lord two-thousand-seventeen, is that the 20% or less of Catholics who actually take the faith seriously enough to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days and who will faithfully take on voluntary Lenten observances to the best of their abilities just aren't being made miserable enough via an obligatory and extremely strict fast through the force of ecclesiastical law. It reminds me of other ideas I've heard--that only the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is really a true Mass and the O.F. must be suppressed, for instance, or that we could end feminism in the Church tomorrow by bringing back mandatory head-coverings for women, or that the greatest danger facing Catholic young adults today is Communism and/or rock music, or that ordaining married men and or/women to the priesthood would solve the problems of clericalism and clergy sex abuse immediately, or that we could end abortion right away by taxing everybody's wages at 50% or so (because if you have a job, you are rich) to fund every social program that has ever been proposed by any utopian society anywhere...and so on and so forth. In other words, fasting becomes yet another hobby-horse, a magic charm by which we can Make the Church Great Again, and just like all those other proposals mentioned above the thinking seems to be that all we have to do is mandate extremely hard fasts to see throngs of weeping lax Catholics flood the local parish and say in their teary gratitude, "Yes, this is it! The only reason I stopped listening to Jesus in the Gospel, coming to Mass on Sundays, and taking my faith seriously was because you just didn't make fasting hard enough!" which seems like an extremely unlikely outcome.

The truth is that fasting is a matter of Church law and discipline, and if the Church requires only a rather small obligation (that is still too difficult for some people--why, yes, a woman experiencing morning sickness or a man taking a very strong antibiotic may not be able to fast even for just those two days!) that is her business. There is nothing wrong with opining in a sort of general way that you think you personally could go the distance by going forty days on one meal a day or on bread and water or without solid nutrition at all--and, in fact, you are completely free to try it (provided that neither your doctor nor your spiritual director forbids it). You first, in fact, and if the spiritual benefits really do blossom in your soul you won't have to say a word about your fast to convince others to try it too.