Lent is here again! Most of us are a full week into our self-selected Lenten resolution(s) and are finding out just how easy or difficult they are for us to manage. And, like every year, people have chimed in with their recommendations as to suitable Lenten sacrifices. Among these was the call for people to give up plastic bags for Lent. For many of us, such a resolution would require some sacrifice and thus could be a great opportunity to grow closer to God, uniting our suffering to Christ’s and helping us to prepare for the great celebration of Easter.

However, those who propose such a Lenten resolution do not seem to have the spiritual growth of the person or supernatural impact on the church as a whole on their minds. Rather, they are concerned about the environment, and see this sacrifice as a great opportunity for Lent to have a positive impact on the environment, in contrast with more typical resolutions, such as giving up chocolate for Lent.

A bit of history

Until November of 1966, Catholics were required to fast each day of Lent and maintain partial abstinence from meat. That is, meat was allowed only at the main or “principal” meal, thus once a day. And that rule of “partial abstinence” active until 1966 was actually the application of  the “working man’s indult.” Prior to Leo XIII’s permission of 1895, American Catholics abstained from meat for the entire season of Lent. This rule of complete meat abstinence, based on the Code of Canon Law, is still active in many dioceses around the world, and some traditional Catholics continue to follow the practice of fasting throughout Lent.

Although there were exemptions granted – to pregnant or nursing mothers, for example – the obligatory nature of this rule meant that most Catholics did observe these practices. Those of us who struggle through Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasting may find this astonishing. And yet, the power of the requirement brings most of us to fast on those two days, so perhaps it’s not that surprising that the rule of that time resulted in most Catholics observing the Lenten fast.

Reason for the season

Adhering to strict rules is not the purpose of the season of Lent, which is preparatory and penitential in nature. While the pros of having strict fasting obligations were a high participation rate and social support of a whole community, the con was that it could easily become mindless routine rather than an opportunity for heartfelt penance. The American bishops, recognizing this fault of obligatory fasting and partial abstinence, decided it would be better if the faithful could select their own Lenten resolutions, based on what would be most spiritually beneficial to them. Beginning with the Lent of 1967, the faithful were encouraged to observe fasting and partial abstinence, but they were no longer required. They could now choose something more meaningful for them.

Making the choice

The traditional Lenten triad of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer still are crucial to understanding Lent. While fasting usually involves a food item, which could include chocolate!, it could also mean fasting from plastic bags or disposable diapers. Many Lenten resolutions seem to focus on fasting – “giving up” – rather than the other two, and it’s not unusual for people to put a lot of time, thought, and creativity into their choice. These Lenten resolutions are still something we do together, in a sense, but the diversity of practice (and the constant debate about sharing one’s resolution with others) has weakened the social support.

As a penitential season, Lent is a great time to renew the struggle against sin, perhaps with a particular exam addressing one sin that the person would like to work against in the quest to build a particular virtue. For example, a negative grumpy person might work on being positive and cheerful by deciding conscientiously to smile at ten people throughout the day. But, unlike some suggestions, such as this one from Fr. Jim Martin, Lenten resolutions are not primarily about “giving up” a particular sin, just as we wouldn’t want to return to that sin on Easter Sunday! We are meant to give up things temporarily that are good but that can cause an attachment that detracts from our desire for heaven.

Having an effect

Whether it’s a good thing or not, people like to see results, to see change. The idea of a plastic bag fast is compelling because we can imagine the profound effect that would occur if every Catholic observed this fast for Lent. People – especially non-believers – are much more skeptical of the effects of prayer and almsgiving. What would be the effect of every Catholic attending daily Mass during Lent or praying the Rosary or Stations of the Cross? It would be difficult to find direct connections to the environment. That doesn’t mean that there would be no effect, but people prefer visible results even though Lent is not primarily about measurable outcomes. What would be the effect of every Catholic giving directly to the poor during the season of Lent? Perhaps, here people could be more sympathetic to some apparent results, although they might suggest that almsgiving is just a way of ignoring the social structures that need to change in order for the poor to benefit.

The irony

The irony of past and present Catholic Lenten practice is that fasting and abstinence (whether partial or complete) must have had a profound effect on the environment. More than one moral theologian has called us to reexamine our meat consumption out of concern for the unethical treatment of animals and pollution caused. Imagine the effects of every American Catholic giving up meat for all of Lent or adhering to a once-a-day rule. The deceased spending on food  without meat would, moreover, allow for an increase of almsgiving.

Of course, the tide has turned since the Lent of 1967, and such imaginings now seem fantastical, despite having once been a reality. Perhaps the freely chosen hodge-podge of Lenten resolutions do have a much more profound spiritual impact on those who discern them, and that, after all, is the main reason for these sacrifices – not the impact on the natural environment.


For those who sometimes struggle with deciding upon a Lenten resolution, it can be good to know about the past of Catholic penitential practice, as well as continuing global traditions. A decision to fast, give up meat, or practice partial abstinence is a way of uniting oneself with faithful around the world and the many faithful of past generations who observed Lent in this way, using the money they saved to increase their almsgiving, and using the hunger pangs they felt to lead them to increased prayer with the knowledge that their true hunger was for God, not earthly food.

And, yes, as an afterthought, such a Lenten resolution might also positively impact the environment, even more than giving up plastic bags.