What is abstinence? In a general sense, it is the moral virtue* which moderates one’s indulgence in food or drink. Abstinence is related to the cardinal virtue** of temperance.
In a more particular sense, abstinence is the avoidance of meat and meat products on the days on which their consumption is proscribed by the Church. Catholics are commanded to abstain in order to practice self-control, make restitution for sins, and raise their minds more freely to God.
Here in the United States, Ash Wednesday and all Lenten Fridays are the only days on which abstinence is required. However, the Church recommends abstinence on all Fridays of the year, even outside of Lent. Catholics who choose not to abstain from meat on non-Lenten Fridays are required to substitute some other form of penance.
St. Paul says, “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected.” (1 Cor. 9:27) Abstinence is a powerful spiritual discipline. Why not try extending the practice beyond what the Church requires? Ways to do this include abstaining from meat on all Fridays of the year, or, during Lent, eating meat at only one meal per day or eliminating meat altogether.
Moral virtues are virtues which help us to treat persons and things according to God’s will. The moral virtues differ from the three theological virtues – faith, hope, and charity – in that the moral virtues affect our relationship with others, while the theological virtues affect our relationship with God.
**The cardinal virtues are justice, prudence, fortitude, and temperance. They are called the cardinal virtues because all other moral virtues depend on them.