From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,

For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.

What do "obligatory" and "binding" mean in this context? Is a person who fails to participate in a fast required to confess and offer penance?

  • 1
    Are you asking if there is a punishment in Canon Law for those who violate prescribed fasts?
    – Geremia
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 13:56
  • 1
    @Geremia Not asking if there is a prescribed punishment, but if punishment is indeed prescribed.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 0:34
  • 1
    Pregnant women, the aged and the ill are not bound to fast.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 13:19
  • According to the Canon 69 of the Apostolic Canons, any cleric who does not keep the Lenten Fast is to be deposed and any layperson to be excommunicated. I have no idea what canonical standing the Apostolic Canons still have in the Roman Catholic Church, but they are observed in the Eastern Orthodox Church ("excommunicated" in the Orthodox interpretation does not mean to be ejected from the Church, but rather not to be able to receive the Eucharist for a time).
    – guest37
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 21:24
  • @guest37 That's exactly what I was looking for. Can you write an answer to that effect?
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 25, 2017 at 14:23

2 Answers 2


Yes. "Binding" and "obligatory" mean exactly what it looks like: "are binding upon" means "apply to", and "obligatory" means "mandatory" or "compulsory."

From the Code of Canon Law:

1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.

This means that a Catholic within the ages of 14/18 and 59 who does not practice abstinence on Fridays or does not fast on Holy Wednesday or Good Friday is guilty of violating Canon 1251.

However, you will find that Canon Law is rather forgiving in actually imposing penalties for violation of its canons, unless that lack of imposition were to constitute a scandal:

1399 In addition to the cases established here or in other laws, the external violation of a divine or canonical law can be punished by a just penalty only when the special gravity of the violation demands punishment and there is an urgent need to prevent or repair scandals.

That being said, attending Mass on Sunday is also an obligation:

1247 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.

Here we see "obliged" again, and not participating in Sunday Mass is thus a violation of a Canon. But beyond that, it is a sin against the Third Commandment (cf. Ex 20:8–10). Analogously, not fasting or not abstaining from meat when demanded is a sin against Temperance (the virtue of self-restraint or moderation, opposed to the deadly sin of Gluttony), as well as against Obedience to one's Bishop, who requests this Work of Mercy from his flock.

Sins, however, can be classified as mortal or venial; a mortal sin rejects sanctifying grace and binds a soul to damnation, unless confessed, but a venial one, though it impedes the communion of a soul with the Lord, doesn't condemn them. The difference between the two is that the former involves "a grave matter," according to Canons 1854 and following:

1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. the distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture,Cf. I Jn 16–17 became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 17 #12

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother."Mk 10:19 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

Because the Decalogue does not mandate fasting, I would be tempted to say that the sin of neglecting abstinence and fasting is venial, but I disclaim that my opinion here should be taken as authoritative. In doubt, it's best to consult one's spiritual director. Of course, we must strive to avoid even venial sins, so the possible venial character of neglect of abstinence and fast should not be taken as a license to ignore it.

In summary, while there is no canonical sanction against failing to uphold this obligation, it is still a violation of a Canon, as well as a sin. While it probably does not impede Holy Communion, it is still something we should try to avoid if we can and confess if we cannot.

  • Guilty of violating Canon 1251?Also you have commited a sin against Temperance and have disobeyed your bishop — although, admittedly, not an explicit order from him. If you mean what formal penalty you are under, there is none; but it does not retract from the reality that you've sinned and disobeyed the Church.
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 14:42
  • @Wrmute Guilty of sin then, is the most direct answer to my question in the previous comment. Is it a venial or mortal sin?
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 15:58
  • @Andrew: I'm not necessarily competent to offer a definitive position on this, but I would say it is venial, since the Decalogue does not mandate fasting. The thing about venial sins is that they do not "involve a grave matter", and the scale of gravity is somewhat nebulous. I guess it is not any more grave than eating to excess outside of fasting, which is almost certainly venial.
    – Wtrmute
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 17:36
  • This sounds like a good answer, all together with your replies. If you edit to include your comments here I will accept it as the preferred answer.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 28, 2017 at 3:43
  • @Wtrmute Failing to fast on Ash Wednesday is not a delict. Delict is a precise, canonical term that refers specifically to a crime (something like procuring an abortion, or charging money for the Sacraments—in other words, it has to be something major). As it is, skipping the fast is a fault against a disciplinary norm; the current Canon Law does not say that it binds under the pain of mortal sin (or of any kind of sin in particular), but does affirm that penance is necessary. Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 20:47

To add to the answer given by Wtrmute, I would point out that it is not the Church that demands it but Christ himself. The Catholic Church Confirms and conforms to the teachings of Christ in it's Canon.

Matthew 6:16-18 the wording is clear. It says "When" not "If", "you fast". The understanding of the Church is that Fasting is something that is required and is an obligation, it is a distinct part of the intimate relationship that the Catholic Church shares with our savior.

Additional, fasting can be a form of Penance, as would be Alms Giving and Prayer. These actions are death blows to sin and temptation and are deeply routed in Christ's Church as a call to action against the Lust of the Flesh, Lust of the eyes, and the Pride of life.

These activities as Wtrmute has pointed out, are practices with heightened awareness during the Lenten season. The doctrine comes from the biblical awareness that sin, although forgiven, has still done damage in this world to others and the sinner themselves and it must be addressed through the fires of Gods Love, yes, punishment in this life by means of fasting, alms giving and Prayer, if not addressed fully in this life, the saved Christian will address it in the next.

To elaborate, if a Christian fails to fallow God's ordinances and statutes they are sinning, sinning does damage, although the guilt of the sins are forgiven by Christ through the sacrament of reconciliation, even venial or mortal, the damages done to the sinner and to others has to be addressed through Penance. Penance is the prescribed temporal punishment, if that prescribed temporal punishment is ignored the damage has not been accounted for. This thread of thought goes into merits and demerits for actions committed by Christian and continues with the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences. A lengthy journey.

These ideas, are very hard to transmit to those who embrace Penal Substitutionary atonement. The very idea, that faith in Christ does not address temporal punishments, is often alien to Christians outside the One Holy and Apostolic Church.

  • I went ahead and edited your phrase "separated Christian" in the final sentence to "Christians that do not practice Roman Catholicism", as I interpreted the former to be intentionally pejorative toward Protestants and other non-Catholics, as is your custom.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 1:00
  • Separated Christian is offensive, I. Want to write separated brethren. Your correction works just as well.
    – Marc
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 1:03
  • @andrew it os a pretty common saying
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 2:18
  • @andrew practicing Roman Catholism, is just not a term Catholics relate to. Although being a practicing Catholic works.
    – Marc
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 11:09
  • @Marc Being a practicing Catholic: works indeed.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 12:15

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