The renewal inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council sprang in large part from the liberating discovery of the depth and variety of Catholic tradition. Yet paradoxically the post-conciliar reforms were sometimes implemented in a spirit of philistine dismissal of "tradition" as nothing more than the dead hand of the past. In shedding a past perceived as sterile and oppressive, much that was profound and life-giving was also lost. One of the saddest casualties of that process was the effective abolition of the Church's ancient observances of fasting and abstinence.
The ritual observance of dietary rules--fasting and abstinence from meat in Lent, and abstinence from meat and meat products every Friday, as well as the eucharistic fast from midnight before the reception of Communion--were as much defining marks of Catholicism before the council as abstention from pork is a defining characteristic of Judaism. The Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting "good" and "bad" Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority.
But instead of seeing this as one of its greatest strengths, it was often used as an argument against Friday abstinence. Bad or badly instructed Catholics--who it was thought drank their wages or beat their wives, yet who were nevertheless punctilious in eating fish on Fridays--were adhering to the mere externals, it was claimed, while ignoring the essence of "real" Christianity. What was needed was a more spiritual sort of religion that offered no such crutches to lame practice.
So fasting is now confined to a derisory two days of the year, and compulsory Friday abstinence has been replaced by a genteel and totally individualistic injunction to do some penitential act on a Friday--an injunction, incidentally, that most Catholics know nothing about. What had been a corporate mark of identity has been marginalized into an individualistic option.
Why did it happen? Certainly not because fasting was in some sense peripheral to Catholicism, an inessential and minor aspect of the tradition that needed tidying away. Fasting was an important element in Israelite religion, and Christ's own defense of his disciples' failure to fast during his lifetime specifically envisaged that they would fast after his death. From at least the end of the first century Christians have observed Fridays, and...