I'd like to give a bit of Scriptural and historical context for "Rome's stupid rules" about fasting...
In addition to teaching the unchanging moral law, the Apostles had the authority to make disciplinary regulations on abstinence from certain foods: “It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right.” (Acts 15:28-29).
Christians recognized this authority, and that these decisions were binding on all Christians (“necessities”), even though the disciplinary parts were subject to later adaptation as circumstances changed in the Church.
In the Didache (Gk. “Teaching”), which most scholars date at the end of the 1st century A.D., Christians were instructed by their pastors to practice fast and abstinence at specific times:
Prebaptismal fasting: “Before the baptism, let the one baptizing, and the one being baptized, and any others who are able, fast. Command the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand” (Didache 7:4). In a commentary on the Didache, Aaron Milavec comments that although this is the earliest known reference to fasting in preparation for baptism, it is likely “giving voice to a tradition already practiced (although it is impossible to gauge how widespread this practice might have been).”
Postbaptismal fasting: “Do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and on the fifth day of the week [Monday & Thursday], but you should fast during the fourth day and during the Sabbath preparation day [Wednesday & Friday]” (Didache 8:1).
Further evidence of mandated communal fasts: (1) St. Irenaeus wrote to Pope Victor I in 190 A.D. on Lenten fasting before Easter. (2) Around 213-222 A.D., Tertullian wrote: “But it is enough for me that it is a customary practice for the bishops withal to issue mandates for fasts to the universal commonalty of the Church…” (On Fasting, 13). Granted that Tertullian had Montanist excesses with regards to fasting, but the above quote is evidence of widespread Christian practice, with regional variations.
My conclusions: The prevailing motive for fasting, and penance in general, is a response to the promptings of the Spirit. But I also believe that the Spirit speaks through those placed in authority in establishing foundational practices of communal fasting that are binding on Christians under their pastoral authority. Catholics understand that these disciplinary regulations can and have been adapted to be more suited to the times and that individual circumstances make for legitimate exceptions from universal norms. Ultimately it is about faithfulness to Christ, not legalism.
Fr. Terry Donahue, CC
P.S. Fish is permitted on Fridays primarily because "meat" (Latin: carne) was understood to be the flesh of a warm-blooded animal.
Hi Fr. Donahue. Several problems with your argument:
1. Regarding the Apostles:
i) Yes, the apostles had authority to set dietary guidelines. Keep in mind that the man who actually presided at the council of Jerusalem was not an apostle, but a sibling of Jesus (James). Moreover, James, unlike, say Timothy or Titus, was not a successor to the apostles.
So, if you’re going to cite Acts 15 as your prooftext, you’d have to extend the argument to individuals who are not apostles or successors to apostles.
ii) Even the authority of an apostle is a qualified authority, contingent on divine inspiration. An apostle can’t willy-nilly impose duties on Christians by an arbitrary fiat.
iii) The dietary restrictions in Acts 15 were pragmatic. The purpose was to avoid giving unnecessary offense to Jews or Jewish-Christians. It was not a spiritual exercise.
iv) I notice that you can’t cite any apostolic mandate on communal fasting.
2. Regarding the Didache:
i) The date is in dispute:
“Questions concerning the author, date, and place of origin of the Didache are notoriously difficult. Although several scholars have assigned the Didache to the first century, and others have dated it to the third or even forth, most prefer a date in the first half of the second century,” B. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 49-50.
ii) The question of dating is ambiguous or equivocal in another respect. If the Didache is a composite work, then you need to distinguish between the date of the first edition and later recensions:
“Whether it is a unified composition is uncertain. The closeness to Matt has made Syria at the beginning of the 2d century the most plausible situation for its earliest sections,” R. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 837.
iii) Appealing to the Didache is a two-edged sword. For unless the Didache teaches a Roman Catholic ecclesiology (e.g. the papacy, a la Vatican I), then the Didache undercuts your appeal to the authority of the Magisterium.
iv) In addition, even if we grant your Catholic ecclesiology for the sake of argument, unless the Didache is itself the product of the Magisterium, it lacks Magisterial authority. Was it written by a pope? I don’t think so.
v) You cite the Didache on prebaptismal and postbaptismal fasting, but it’s quite clear from the NT that fasting was not a precondition of baptism.
vi) Your denomination performs infant baptism. Must infants practice prebaptismal or postbaptismal fasting as a precondition of baptism?
3. Regarding the church fathers
What is your appeal to Irenaeus and Tertullian intended to prove? That fasting was an early and/or widespread practice? But many beliefs and practices were early and/or widespread, viz. Gnosticism, Arianism.
4. If ”the prevailing motive for fasting, and penance in general, is a response to the promptings of the Spirit,” then how come the Spirit doesn’t also prompt Protestant believers to fast or perform penance?
5. ”But I also believe that the Spirit speaks through those placed in authority in establishing foundational practices of communal fasting that are binding on Christians under their pastoral authority. Catholics understand that these disciplinary regulations can and have been adapted to be more suited to the times and that individual circumstances make for legitimate exceptions from universal norms.”
Of course, that takes Catholic ecclesiology for granted. As a Protestant, I don’t think the Holy Spirit signed an exclusive contract with the Pope or the Roman episcopate. I have no reason to think that Catholic bishops are blessed with greater spiritual discernment than Anglicans or Baptists or Methodists or Moravians or Mennonites or Lutherans or Baptists or Presbyterians or Plymouth Brethren, &c.
In fact, I find abundant evidence that many Catholic bishops are singularly deficient in spiritual discernment.
6. ”Ultimately it is about faithfulness to Christ, not legalism.”
If fasting is ultimately about fidelity to Christ, then why didn’t he or his apostles mandate communal fasting?
7. ” Fish is permitted on Fridays primarily because ‘meat’ (Latin: carne) was understood to be the flesh of a warm-blooded animal.”
Doesn’t that illustrate how unreliable tradition is? A tradition predicated on a prescientific classification of fish?