Should Catholics Fast on Sundays in Lent?

A Perennial Controversy – Resolved

Ash Wednesday tradition
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One controversy that rears its ugly head every Lent concerns the status of Sundays as days of fasting. If you give up something for Lent, should you avoid that food or activity on Sundays? Or can you eat that food, or take part in that activity, without breaking your Lenten fast? As a reader writes:

Regarding what we give up for Lent, I am hearing two stories. First story: Of the 40 days of Lent, we do not observe Sundays; therefore, on this day and this day only, we do not have to observe Lent by what we have given up—i.e., if we gave up smoking, this is a day on which we can smoke.
Second story: Through the whole duration of Lent, including Sundays, up to Easter we should observe Lent thoroughly, including all that we have given up during Lent. It comes to more than 40 days if we include the Sundays, which is where I think the confusion comes into play.

The reader put his finger on the point of confusion. Everybody knows that there are supposed to be 40 days in Lent, and yet if we count the days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday (inclusive), we come up with 46 days. So how do we explain the discrepancy?

The Lenten Fast Versus the Liturgical Season of Lent

The answer is that all of those 46 days are within the liturgical seasons of Lent and the Easter Triduum, but not all of them are part of the Lenten fast. And it's the Lenten fast that the Church has always referred to when She says that there are 40 days in Lent.

From the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians observed Lent by imitating Christ's 40 days in the desert. He fasted for 40 days, so did they. Today, the Church only requires Western Catholics to fast on two days of Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday.

What Does This Have to Do With Sundays?

From the very earliest days, the Church has declared that Sunday, the day of Christ's Resurrection, is always a feast day, and therefore fasting on Sundays has always been forbidden. Since there are six Sundays in Lent, we have to subtract them from the days of fasting. Forty-six minus six is forty.

That's why, in the West, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday – to allow a full 40 days of fasting before Easter Sunday.

But I Gave It Up

Unlike earlier generations of Christians, though, most of us don't actually fast every day during Lent, in the sense of reducing the amount of food we eat and not eating between meals. Still, when we give something up for Lent, that's a form of fasting. Therefore, that sacrifice is not binding on the Sundays within Lent, because, like every other Sunday, the Sundays in Lent are always feast days. The same is true, by the way, for other solemnities – the highest types of feasts – that fall during Lent, such as the Annunciation of the Lord and the Feast of Saint Joseph.

So I Should Pig Out on Sundays, Right?

Not so fast (no pun intended). Just because your Lenten sacrifice isn't binding on Sundays doesn't mean that you have to go out of your way on Sundays to indulge in whatever you gave up for Lent. But in the same respect, you should not actively avoid it (assuming that it is something good that you've deprived yourself of, rather than something that you shouldn't do or consume anyway, such as the act of smoking that the reader mentioned). To do so would be fasting, and that's forbidden on Sundays – even during Lent.

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ThoughtCo. "Should Catholics Fast on Sundays in Lent?" Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, ThoughtCo. (2023, April 5). Should Catholics Fast on Sundays in Lent? Retrieved from ThoughtCo. "Should Catholics Fast on Sundays in Lent?" Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).