The Life of Virtue – Abstinence

The Life of Virtue – Abstinence

It used to be very much part of Catholic culture and consciousness to abstain from meat on Fridays. Indeed, this laudable practice led to such a decline in hamburger sales on those days that the McDonald’s fast-food chain created their ‘Filet-O-Fish’ to cater to their Catholic customers. Such was once the influence of Catholic practices!

Of course, the current Code of Canon Law still maintains that every Friday in the year (which is not a Solemnity) is a day of penance, and canon 1251 specifically prescribes abstinence from meat as the form of penance. However, in some countries, this penance can be substituted by another or by the performance of a good work. Either way, the Church prescribes the practice of some virtue on a Friday.

The specific virtue that has traditionally been practised on Friday is abstinence, which St Thomas says is a “special virtue” that falls under temperance. He says this special virtue is needed because food, which is a natural good and necessary for health, is so pleasurable that one can easily over-indulge in a way that violates temperance and the good exercise of our reason. Abstinence from food and specifically from meat can thus be seen as a way of controlling our desire for the pleasures of the flesh, so to speak. And this virtue, of course, helps us to control our sensual appetites, so that we also abstain from those other pleasures of the flesh that are controlled by the virtue of chastity.

Thus, St Thomas says that abstinence combats the vice of gluttony and is “a help to chastity, since one virtue helps another.” He also notes that the more one gives in to the pleasures of the flesh – whether through gluttony or lust – the more these temptations of the flesh increase in force. St Thomas’ observation has a long pedigree, coming from the experience of the Desert Fathers and other Christians ascetics, and in the 20th-century, this link between the sensual appetites has also been observed by Christians like C.S.Lewis.

The food and beverage industry is huge these days, and people who can afford it will stop at nothing to acquire all manner of gastronomic delights. And this is nothing new. As St Thomas rightly noted: “the pleasures of the table are of a nature to withdraw man from the good of reason, both because they are so great, and because food is necessary to man who needs it for the maintenance of life, which he desires above all other things.” So, we require the virtue of abstinence, so that we will eat and drink temperately. This means we eat to live rather than live to eat. All pleasures have to be moderated by temperance lest they distract us from the Giver of all that is good and pleasurable, He in whom our ultimate pleasure lies and who feeds us with his divine life in the form of bread and wine.

Running concurrently with all this gastronomic indulgence is a certain abstention from food that does not always stem from the virtue of abstinence: dieting. There is a plethora of trendy diets, and although it is good and virtuous to have a concern for one’s health and well-being, this can become obsessive or ill-directed. Hence, St Thomas says: “right reason makes one abstain as one ought, i.e. with gladness of heart, and for the due end, i.e. for God’s glory and not one’s own.” Therefore, the Church in her wisdom directs us every Friday to work to acquire the virtue of abstinence. We abstain from meat or some other food, motivated by love of Christ who died for our salvation. We refrain from enjoying these transient pleasures of the flesh for the sake of Him who died in the flesh that we might enjoy eternal pleasure with God.

Lawrence Lew OP

Fr Lawrence Lew is Prior and Parish Priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic, London; he is the Editor of the Province's magazine 'The Dominicans' and Co-ordinator of the Province's Internet Apostolate. He is also the Dominican Order's Promoter General for the Holy Rosary.