Photo Credit: archny.org
Each conference of bishops has the ability to change the particular penances for their flock. The US bishops decided to allow US Catholics to substitute another penance of equal value on non-Lenten Fridays. Over time, this has degenerated into a complete lack of observance of any penance on the part of most American Catholics--predominantly out of ignorance, not rebellion.
Yes, Catholics are required to do some penance every Friday to honor Christ's sacrifice on Good Friday. The normal penance is abstaining from warm-blooded meat. Currently, outside of Lent, American Catholics may substitute that with a different but relatively similar level of penance (mortification, prayer, and/or almsgiving). That being said, here are 4 thoughts on meatless Fridays that came up in a discussion on Facebook today:
1. How is eating cold-blooded meat a penance?
Personally, I'd rather eat a steak than ANY cold-blooded meat (though a good case may be made for crab or lobster), so giving up warm-blooded meat is a penance (sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, depending on the alternatives).
2. Do people actually do this?
I observe it almost every Friday of the year, and there are many other Catholics who understand the disciplines of our Church and follow them. By far, however, the majority of Catholics are ignorant of our own disciplines (and our doctrines for that matter). When I do occasionally eat warm-blooded meat on non-Lenten Fridays, I substitute with some other penance. It becomes tough because even though I have worked at Catholic schools and parishes for the last 8 years, most of them have their special luncheons on Fridays, at which they often forget to offer a fish option (which is just endemic to contemporary American Catholicism's ignorance of its own disciplines). Sometimes I avoid the entree, or sometimes I simply offer up a different penance that day.
3. Abstaining from warm-blooded meat isn’t that tough. How is it a penance?
We're not called to some horrible gut-wrenching act of impossibility--just an extra penance (mortification, prayer, and/or almsgiving) to honor and unite with Christ's suffering and death for us. Holy Mother Church only asks for a small penance, not something huge (though we may indeed make a bigger penance).
4. What if sushi or lobster is a treat for me?
If sushi or lobster isn't very penitential for you, then eat something else. Whether or not it is very difficult for you, intentionally abstaining from warm-blooded meat is the universal observance to remember Christ's sacrifice. The fact that you remember Our Lord, and offer your penance to Him, and honor the authority of His Bride is more important than sushi, tuna, or cheese pizza. Of course, the greater the difficulty the greater the act of love as your sacrifice is willingly united to His sacrifice on the cross.