Saturday Fasting in the East
By the end of the 600s AD, a controversy arose at the Council of Trullo regarding whether it was appropriate to fast on Saturdays – a practice that was observed in Rome but not elsewhere. Canon 55 of the Council states:
“Since we understand that in the city of the Romans, in the holy fast of Lent they fast on the Saturdays, contrary to the ecclesiastical observance which is traditional, it seemed good to the holy synod that also in the Church of the Romans the canon shall immovably stand fast which says: ‘If any cleric shall be found to fast on a Sunday or Saturday (except on one occasion only) he is to be deposed; and if he is a layman he shall be cut off.’”
Importantly, the Council of Trullo was never accepted in the West as a valid Ecumenical Council as Rome was not represented at the Council and two canons of the council (e.g., Canons 13 and 55) condemned certain Roman practices. But by 711 AD, Pope Constantine, in a compromise, accepted the canons in the East as valid but allowed differing practices in the Western Church to continue. A subsequent letter by Pope Hardrian I in 785 quoted Tarasios of Constantinople as approving the canons, and the letter was thereby taken as Pope Hadrian’s own approval. The letter was read at the Second Council of Nicaea and in the aftermath, by the 12th century, some of the canons of the Council were incorporated in Gratian’s Decretum Gratiani, known more commonly as the Decretum, which was the main source of law of the Roman Catholic Church until the Decretals, promulgated by Pope Gregory IX in 1234, obtained legal force.
Regarding Saturday fasting in particular, St. Augustine had previously written:
“God did not lay down a rule concerning fasting or eating on the seventh-day of the week, either at the time of His hallowing that day because in it He rested from His works, or afterwards when He gave precepts to the Hebrew nation concerning the observance of that day.”
Hence there were differences from East to West when Saturday fasting was observed, but St. Augustine affirms that these differences were not matters of doctrine. There was no prohibition against Saturday fasting in divine law and no universal obligation in the Church to fast year-round on Saturdays either.
St. Augustine further writes on this disagreement while noting the binding force of custom:
“As to the question on which you wish my opinion, whether it is lawful to fast on the seventh day of the week, I answer, that if it were wholly unlawful, neither Moses nor Elijah, nor our Lord himself, would have fasted for forty successive days. But by the same argument it is proved that even on the Lord’s day fasting is not unlawful. And yet, if any one were to think that the Lord’s day should be appointed a day of fasting, in the same way as the seventh day is observed by some, such a man would be regarded, and not unjustly, as bringing a great cause of offence into the Church. For in those things concerning which the divine Scriptures have laid down no definitive rule, the custom of the people of God, or the practices instituted by their fathers, are to be held as the law of the Church. If we choose to fall into a debate about these things, and to denounce one party merely because their custom differs from that of others, the consequence must be an endless contention, in which the utmost care is necessary lest the storm of conflict overcast with clouds the calmness of brotherly love, while the strength is spent in mere controversy which cannot adduce on either side any decisive testimonies of truth”
In the East, the issue long preceded the Council of Trullo and was based on the sabbath having been a day for rest and prayer similar, though distinct, from Sunday. This tradition is seen in the Apostolic Constitutions:
“But assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house: in the morning saying the sixty second Psalm, and in the evening the hundred and fortieth, but principally on the Sabbath-day. And of the day of our Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent him to us, and condescended to let him suffer, and raised Him from the dead. Otherwise, what apology will he make to God who does not assemble on that day to hear the saving word concerning resurrection?”
Yet the same Council of Trullo in Canon 56 shows the universality of the form of abstinence in both East and West at that time:
“We have likewise learned that in the regions of Armenia and in other places certain people eat eggs and cheese on the Sabbaths and Lord’s days of the holy Lent. It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain. But if any shall not observe this law, if they be clerics, let them be deposed; but if laymen, let them be cut off.”
The controversy would continue when in 867, the patriarch of Constantinople, Photius, wrote an encyclical to the other patriarchs of the Eastern churches, accusing the Roman Catholic Church of several errors alleging, among them Saturday fasting and “giving permission to the people to eat flesh food and animal products (cheese, milk, eggs) during the first week of Easter.”
Photius audaciously issued an attempted ex-communication of the Pope, for which he was condemned and disposed of as Francis Dvornik notes:
“By daring to pass judgment on a Pope, Photius committed a deed till then unheard of in history, one that endangered the unity of Christendom, for which there could be neither excuse nor justification. Rightly or wrongly, his action set a precedent invoked or imitated by all those who later were to break the unity of the Church.”
The Binding Force of Custom
The tension regarding fasting and abstinence would continue to intensify and would, unfortunately, be one of several factors that would lead to the Great Schism of 1054 between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church. However, the tensions of this time highlight the misunderstanding of the binding force of custom.
St. Augustine further addressed this point directly when he wrote: “The customs of God’s people and the institutions of our ancestors are to be considered as laws. And those who throw contempt on the customs of the Church ought to be punished as those who disobey the law of God.” St. Thomas likewise asserts: “Custom has the force of law, abrogates law, and interprets law.”
The force of custom concerning fasting is also seen in the churches in Gaul in modern-day France, who adopted the Roman practice of fasting on Saturday. Dom Guéranger mentions this while also noting how changes were likewise occurring in terms of where and how the fast of Septuagesima, the period before Lent, began:
“The first Council of Orleans, held in the early part of the 6th century, enjoins the Faithful [of Gaul] to observe, before Easter, Quadragesima, (as the Latins call Lent,) and not Quinquagesima, in order, says the Council, that unity of custom may be maintained. Towards the close of the same century, the fourth Council held in the same City, repeals the same prohibition, and explains the intentions of making such an enactment, by ordering that the Saturdays during Lent should be observed as days of fasting. Previously to this, that is, in the years 511 and 541, the first and second Councils of Orange had combated the same abuse, by also forbidding the imposing on the Faithful the obligation of commencing the Fast at Quinquagesima. The introduction of the Roman Liturgy into France; which was brought about by the zeal of Pepin and Charlemagne, finally established, in that country, the custom of keeping the Saturday as a day of penance; and, as we have just seen, the beginning Lent on Quinquagesima was not observed excepting by the Clergy. In the 13th century, the only Church in the Patriarchate of the West, which began Lent earlier than the Church of Rome, was that of Poland its Lent opened on the Monday of Septuagesima, which was owing to the rites of the Greek Church being much used in Poland. The custom was abolished, even in that country, by Pope Innocent the fourth, in the year 1248.”