Sunday, November 14, 2010

"fasting is an important part of penance"

Romano Amerio's Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century is certainly a tour de force, some might even call it a reactionary book. While I agree that it is the former, I disagree that it is reactionary. In fact, I find Amerio's style to be very dispassionate. There are certainly parts of his comprehensive analysis of the Church after the Second Vatican Council with which I take exception, but very few. In his extensive treatment of the post-conciliar changes in the Church he is intent to look at the subtle and fundamental ways that Church teaching shifted after the Second Vatican Council and shows that for the most part it is detrimental. In far too many instances we threw the baby out with the bathwater. In no aspect is this more true than when it comes to fasting and abstinence, which can only be seen as making a concession to the world, to what Amerio defines as somatolatry.

Amerio treats fasting in both its penitential and mortifying dimensions, a topic I find very important the day before the beginning of what is known in the Christian East as the Nativity Fast. In Iota Unum, published in the mid-1980s, Amerio correctly begins chapter ten, entitled Somatolatry and Penance by stating the obvious, namely that "sexuality has ... been taken as the very forming principle of the human person." It seems to me that he is quite correct in this assertion, which is nothing but a recognition that for the most part we are all Freudians now. As a result of the primacy given to human sexuality, which is a complete overthrow of all previous Christian anthropology, "the cult of the body" has come to dominate culture, a phenomenon he calls somatolatry, meaning the worship of the body (soma being the Greek word for the physical body). He is right to assert that in its modern manifestation we even exceed the ancient pagans in worshipping the human form. More to the point at hand, Amerio observes that "[t]he penitential element and the ascetic demands of the Catholic religion have retreated as a necessary consequence of the advance of somatolatry."


He goes on to trace the beginnings of the shift and identifies a special indult given during World War II "that suspended Friday abstinence from meat, and from all fasting except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday." This indult was only in effect until the end of the war. The connection, however, is obvious because today, as Roman Catholics, normatively the only two obligatory fast days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Friday abstinence from the meat of warm-blooded animals is only obligatory on Fridays of Lent. So, what began as a reasonable attempt to lift heavy burdens from already suffering people, became the norm. Even prior to the special indult of 1941, or the changes put into effect on papal authority after Vatican II, "fasting meant having only one full meal a day, besides a piece of bread in the morning and [when necessary]a light snack at night." This is still the norm for Eastern Christians today, be they Catholic or Orthodox. In addition to abstaining from meat, other types of food were "excluded from daily consumption" during days and seasons of fasting and abstinence. To point to the example of Eastern Christians, such foods are meat, dairy, including eggs, alcohol, olive oil, even including shellfish and fish. In other words, during seasons of fasting, one often eats a vegan diet.

Indeed, "fasting is an important part of penance and," Amerio continues, "it should be remembered that when Christ talks about 'doing justice' he sums up the works of justice under the three heads of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, which are, as St. Augustine explains, representative of benevolence, the desire for God and the control of concupiscence." Concupiscence, of course, means the desire for gratification of the senses for its own sake and not for any greater good. To continuously seek to gratify our sensual desires, which we are encouraged culturally to do, to make pleasure for its own sake the point and purpose of our activities, to live once again according to Freudian principles (i.e., the pain/pleasure principle), is what it means to be a hedonist, which is opposed to following Christ who calls us to live in a new way. Today, the antiphon for the Magnificat for the thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time sums this up well: "By your trusting acceptance of trials, you will gain your life, says the Lord." So, we fast not only to do penance, but also to mortify our sinful desires.

This way of living, which is always new because it always goes against the grain of life in the world, was brought forcefully home to me last night when I watched the lovely film The Passion of Bernadette. My joy today is that in the Latin Church Sundays are always feast days, as it should be, a day that we rest while we rejoice by worshipping God and bask in the glow of Christ's resurrection from the dead.

All holy men and women, pray for us

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