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Of Pharisees, ferverinos, and fasts

December 3, 2015

In today’s [15 dec 2014] homily Pope Francis warns, yet again, about the threat that he feels modern Pharisees pose in the Church. Now, some people think that the pope’s incessant critiques of law and lawyers are spot-on; others feel that, while an occasional papal caution against ‘pharisaical attitudes’ is useful, a steady stream of same is counterproductive; still others fear that such frequent comments foreshadow the pope’s intention to work major changes in certain key ecclesiastical practices. Personally, I gained no new insights into modern phariseeism from this ferverino, although I was struck, if I may say so, at the pope’s prayer that God “throw a banana peel in front of [today’s Pharisees], so that they will take a good fall, and feel shame that they are sinners.” Hmmm. I grant, of course, that experiencing the intrinsic consequences of one’s sin might move one to repentance; whether that ever justifies asking God to visit extrinsic harms on another, well, I’ll need to think about that one. Just now, though, my concern is different.

In the course of his remarks Francis referenced the major changes in discipline surrounding the Communion fast that were worked some 60 years ago and, because the Communion fast is of professional interest to me, I use the occasion of the pope’s remarks to offer a few of my own.

I can certainly see why any pope worried about phariseeism in the Church would recall with disdain the days (well, more like 18 centuries) wherein the Communion fast, though never presented as doctrinal in nature, was extremely strict and was subjected to some now almost-embarrassing hair-splitting by canonists and moral theologians. Frankly, I would not contest the label ‘pharisaical’ being applied to those debates, although (besides wondering whether one can find another example of such excessive fretting—I for one cannot), I would observe that, when Pius XII mitigated the Communion fast, he did not do so in terms that cast aspersions on the spiritual motives or psychological profiles of those who observed and explained the Church’s laws as they existed at the time, nor did he question whether those laws might have operated in service to some important ecclesial values, albeit values by then obscured by legal minutiae. He just did what he did soundly and in a measured way.

But while Pope Pius XII mitigated the Communion fast, Paul VI eviscerated it, reducing Pius’ reasonable three-hour fast down to the negligible and purely formalistic one-hour “fast” now required (if that is not too pretentious a word to use) of the faithful. Almost anyone who is not eating as they walk in the door for Mass can “satisfy” a one-hour “fast” before Communion. Who cannot see that to require by law any action that a normal human being, going about a normal activity, can scarcely not do, is to engage in a legalism precisely of the sort that Francis rejects? Ironically, though, the same ecclesial antinomianism that makes the enforcement of Church law such a hit-and-miss affair these days masks the patent hollowness of requiring a one-hour “fast” for anything, let alone for something as momentous as receiving holy Communion. A society disinclined to respect law in the first place is much less likely to notice when some of its laws are inappropriate. That’s a lose-lose situation, in my opinion.

Being opposed, as I am, to having any law simply for the sake of having a law, I am opposed to Canon 919 § 1, requiring (again, if that is not too pretentious a word to use) a one-hour “fast” before reception of Communion. But sensing, too, what I think Pius sensed when he reformed this discipline, there are, I suggest, some very important ecclesial values to be served by observing a notable fast before Communion. Thus I call again for the Communion fast to be restored to that established by Pius XII, namely, three hours. Personally, I would orient the Communion fast to the start of Mass rather than to the physical reception of the Sacrament, but these are among various related points that can be discussed in due course.

I have set out my arguments for changing Canon 919 in two places: Edward Peters, “The Communion fast: a reconsideration”, Antiphon 11 (2007) 234-244, summarized here; and Edward Peters, “Furthering my proposal to extend the fast for holy Communion”, Homiletic & Pastoral Review on-line (July 2013), on-line here. I invite my readers to consider them.

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