Why do Catholics repent?

Legal history: fasting wasn't always wellness

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Today, fasting is seen as a mild spiritual duty or as part of a personal wellness program. But in Europe there used to be a Ramadanesque legal obligation to fast - in some cases even until 1974.

Sometimes Christianity is also about the sausage. The relevant legal regulations can be found in Canons 1250 to 1253 Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC), the code of law of the Roman Catholic Church. They command the around 23 million Catholics in Germany to repent during Lent before Easter. Can. 1252 CIC, for example, obliges all Catholics over the age of 14 to abstain, i.e. not to consume any meat on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday. Adult Catholics up to the age of 60 are obliged to fast, i.e., among other things, to show restraint in eating.

For Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the bishops give their German fellow believers and sisters strict fasts: they should only eat one meal. Until they were toned down in the 1960s and 1990s, such strict guidelines also applied to the remaining 40 days of Lent before Easter. The "fasting order for the dioceses of the German Empire" from 1930 provided for the restriction to one full meal per day.

Anyone who counts themselves as one of those normatively nervous people who feel sick at the mere idea that they may have violated a legal obligation can at least breathe a sigh of relief today: For the Sundays of Lent there was and is no obligation to abstain from food. Without the help of the state, no religious association can now successfully enforce its rules in the long term.

We fast but do not go hungry

The fact that the canonical regulations on penance and Lent appear strange in Western societies today has a lifeworld-sociological and a legal historical dimension.

To put it simply, life-world experience includes the fact that "real hunger" is largely unknown in its existential form to a gratifyingly growing number of people today - that is, it is seldom experienced in such a way that a person did not find food yesterday and today and is already aware of it feels so weakened that he even loses hope that tomorrow will be different.

Without this existential experience, soon to be unable to muster any more strength to ever be able to fill one's stomach again, there is a lack of understanding that the misery mediated by foregoing food could lead to one's own position between life and death, heaven and earth, law and To ponder injustice.

Legal obligations like in Ramadan

Against this background, religious fasting rules were monitored by the state until the 19th century, at the same time they made use of the existential hunger experience in legal regulations.

A first overview of how the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was perished in 1918, in its German parts of the country resorted to the moral doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is offered by the "Law Lexicon in the Spiritual, Religious and Tolerance Matters, as well as in Property, Foundation and Studies - and causes of censorship for the Kingdom of Bohemia from 1601 to the end of 1800 "(Prague, 1828). Although it only documents the regional law of an epoch, it can be regarded as a remarkable source in view of the baroque enthusiasm for regulation.

Before the freedom of religion and belief in the German states came beyond the status of absolutist lip service around the 1850s, the close shoulder of throne and altar was evident in numerous examples such as the following - a military rights regulation, enacted in 1759:

"Recruitment. In the event of the strictest punishment, even under the penalty of the galleys, which would otherwise have to be waited for, the government officials should not take anyone from the church corridor on Sundays and Feyers, even less from the churches; For days in the afternoons to insure themselves in the inns who find themselves fit for people; also to pick up those Pursche who willfully, or out of laziness, remain at home during the service, without having to take care of the housekeeping. "

As in many other questions of religious life, state authorities were concerned about Lent. In order to uphold the "fasting requirement", the Bohemian-German prince stated in 1628 that many people "enjoy different meat dishes on all these fasting days, and the same publicly in the cities, market towns and other places without any difference or consideration of the time in front of the houses in the streets, in inns, cookshops, and in other places both boiled and roasted, or otherwise prepared, to the great annoyance of good Catholic hearts to exhibit and sell [.] "

The prince therefore ordered all "district chiefs, economic officials, mayors, judges and juries, and all other people living in this kingdom of Bohemia, whoever they might be" to fast properly.

In the event of a violation, the perpetrator "not only has to take away the meat and give it to a hospital for the poor", but also a heavy fine "to be carelessly collected without any sparing" and he is also to be punished on the body as necessary to warn others ". The revenue from the fines should be divided between the church and the local congregation, and those who "betray and state such things" should also be rewarded.

Withdrawal of food between punishment and the obligation to repent

From the 19th century onwards, the state gradually left it to the communities and neighborhoods, which were strongly denominationally segregated until after the Second World War, to enforce compliance e.g. with the rules of fasting by means of social pressure to conform. When Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde (1930–2019) formulated his famous dictum around 1964, this was still largely the case. Only the silent holidays, the notorious "ban on dancing", including on Good Friday, have been preserved here as noticeable state regulations.

Until the secularization of the living environment also began, the - allegedly long-modern - state also resorted to the idea of ​​the three Abrahamic religions that hunger should contribute to a spiritual uplift of the starving people.

Mixed with economic considerations and regulations on how the inmates of his prisons should be tortured, this motive can be found, for example, in the law of the Kingdom of Saxony. Section 22 (1) of the "House rules for the Waldheim prison" provided: "The prison may only grant the prisoners what is necessary to maintain their life, health and ability to work." With the exception of a second breakfast for hard-working inmates, food was only allowed to take place during the three main meals. A "devotional exercise" was to be held during meals (§ 23). At least 13 hours of forced labor had to be performed on every working day (Section 29). Section 49 decreed: "Any sensual enjoyment that is not expressly permitted is forbidden."

According to §§ 52, 53 of the house rules, a gruesome collection of torture methods (dark detention, restraint in a hunched position, with chains and weights, etc.), the "food reduction of various degrees" was also permissible as a disciplinary punishment - up to thirty times for a violation. Although the accused had to be heard, the substitute punishment of individual, innocent "prisoners" for "persistent concealment of the guilty party" remained permissible.

These regulations were enacted in the enlightened year 1850 and refined in the following years - for example with regard to the quality of the tools with which corporal punishment was to be carried out in Saxon penitentiaries. No wonder that at the beginning of the 20th century German criminal law scholars advocated maintaining the death penalty in order to spare criminals these tortures.

Fasting days in the Austrian penal system

If the German criminal justice system did not want to commit itself entirely to whether hunger should be viewed more as a sanction or more as a means of uplifting the soul, the Austrian state settled this question at the level of substantive criminal law.

According to Section 19 of the Criminal Law (StG) of September 1, 1852, the prison sentence - the Kakan penitentiary - could be "tightened" by "solitary confinement" or "solitary confinement in a dark cell", and finally by fasting. To this end, § 20 StG stated: "The first and second degree of dungeon punishment can be tightened by fasting in such a way that the convict is only kept with bread and water on a few days. However, this should not be more than three times a week, and only on interrupted days happen. "

Austria was not supposed to repeal this archaic criminal law until December 31, 1974.

The Austrian courts established the connection between fasting and penance in a thoroughly spiritual sense with the traditional formula that the convicted person has to fast on one fast day per month with "hard camp" and on the anniversary of his act in dark custody with water and bread - For example, since 1966 the possibly mentally ill child murderer Josef Weinwurm during the first eight years of his imprisonment.

Perhaps there is no reason to refrain from fasting periods and diets, but it should be reason enough not to view fasting solely from the "gut with charm" perspective or as a Ramadan provocation that is alien to the West.

The author Martin Rath works as a freelance editor and journalist.