Over on the Emerald Isle, the Bishops Conference is busy trying to decide whether to reinstate meatless Fridays, since so few people observe any form of penance anymore.
A bit of history first: The abstinence requirement still exists as Canon 1251, but in 1966, U.S bishops issued “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,” releasing American Catholics from the strict obligation to abstain under pain of sin, and other Episcopal Conferences quickly followed suit.
According to Canon 1253, which existed in 1966 as an amendment to the 1917 CIC, “The episcopal conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.”
The result of these pastoral Statements was that many Catholics were unable to decide which form of penance to observe, and thus did nothing; a natural human response when baffled by too many choices.
In the wake of Vatican II and along with so many other adjustments in liturgical and disciplinary law, this weakened Catholic faith and identity over time. A return to tradition here, in conjunction with the new ICEL translations, could repair much of the damage to faith wrought by abuse and confusion over the last 40 years.