As it turns out, according to the U.S. bishops, Catholics in this country are no longer strictly required to perfom any type of penance at all on ordinary Fridays, although we are strongly exhorted to to so in that Friday remains "a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind, which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ crucified." (On Penance and Abstinence, U.S. Catholic Bishops, dated November 18, 1966). Here is a brief article about the subject from Catholic Answers, as well as a link to On Penance and Abstinence:
Is Friday Penance Required?
On Penance and Abstinence
So should we abstain from meat on Fridays outside of Lent? Interestingly, the U.S. bishops came out with a more recent exhortation on this issue (in the context of what we as Catholics can do to promote peace in the world) that seems to signal a move back to meatless Fridays as something approaching a norm. Perhaps they were finding that if there are no clearly defined norms in this area, people often end up doing nothing at all:
Since 1966, the American bishops have repeated the call to observe Friday as a day of penance. In a 1983 pastoral letter, they wrote: "As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. [my emphasis] This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance, and almsgiving for peace." (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, no. 298. Source: Daily Penance, Days of Penance, Catholics United for the Faith, http://www.cuf.org/FaithFacts/details_view.asp?ffID=277)
What's my opinion? I think that as Catholics, we have fallen over ourselves trying to fit in with the predominant culture. Sometimes this is approriate, if it doesn't lead to compromise or being complicit in sin. But isn't the essence of Christianity to be in the world but not of it? Aside from the no-brainer of the example of everyday personal holiness, shouldn't we stand out as different as a body of believers? Isn't it lazy, black and white thinking that says just because something is a law it necessarily becomes legalistic?
I think that when we lost the requirement for Friday abstinence we lost something that was something distinctive to us as Catholics. Even as a child growing up in public school (but being raised in a non-practicing family) in the 1960's, I remember the school cafeteria always offered fish sticks on Fridays as an option for Catholics. Everyone had an idea of who was probably Catholic --which was even more incentive for Catholics to provide a good Christian witness.
Historian Eamon Duffy has an interesting observation on this in his book, Faith of Our Fathers:
Catholics shared that rhythm with most of the world's great religious traditions, a fact which ought to have suggested that there was something essential about fasting not only for our specific identities as Catholic Christians, but as religious beings and human beings. But since 1967 what was once a truly corporate observance, reminding us of the passion of Christ, of our own spiritual poverty and, even more concretely, of the material poverty of most of the human race, reminding us what it was like to be hungry, has become another individual consumer choice, like going on a diet. Though we pay liturgical lip-service to the old dialectic, and still nominally observe Lent, in practice all our time now has become "ordinary time," and there is nothing in this respect to distinguish Catholics from anyone else.
Yet religious communities depend on the differentiation provided by such shared observances to sustain their identities. The long and noble pilgrimage of Israel through a multitude of cultures and times, without a temple, without a priesthood, has been possible, at least in part, because of the unifying and sustaining effect of their dietary laws. The Jews knew who they were because of what they did and did not eat. Christian fasting and abstinence did not, of course, spring from a ritual distinction between clean and unclean meats, but it was just as deeply embedded in theological conviction as the older dispensation. Its abandonment was not therefore a simple change in devotional habit, but the signal of a radical discontinuity in the tradition and a decisive shift in theological perception.
The theological and practical shift represented by this abandonment of an ancient part of the tradition was not merely a matter of theological emphasis, and more, too, than a question of whether ascetical exercises like fasting are good for the character. What was also at stake was the Church's prophetic integrity: its claim to solidarity with the poor. Considered from this perspective, compulsory fasting and abstinence, practiced regularly, routinely, and in common, was a recognition by the Church that identification with the poor and hungry, with those who know themselves to be needy before God because they were needy among men, is not an option for Catholics, but a necessary and definitive sign of their redemption, as essential in its way as attendance at Mass. The Church has always linked personal asceticism and the search for holiness with this demand for mercy and justice to the poor; the Lenten trilogy of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is both fundamental and structural. By making fasting and abstinence optional, the Church forfeited one of its most eloquent prophetic signs. There is a world of difference between a private devotional gesture, the action of the specially pious, and the prophetic witness of the whole community--the matter-of-fact witness, repeated week by week, that to be Christian is to stand among the needy.
What was striking about the instructions issued by the English bishops in abolishing compulsory Friday abstinence in 1967 was the total absence of any attempt to explain the power and meaning of the traditional observances. The American bishops did much better: while also making the matter optional, they offered a powerful and sympathetic discussion of the religious reasons for the old observance and urged American Catholics to continue the practice as a gesture of solidarity with, and gratitude for, the passion of Christ, as an act of fidelity to the Christian past, and to help "preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world." In total contrast, the English bishops recited the problems and inconveniences surrounding abstinence. Many people, they pointed out, have their main meal at work, in a canteen; social events are often arranged for Fridays; abstinence therefore put Catholics in an awkward position. As the bishops wrote: "While an alternative dish is often available, it is questioned whether it is advisable in our mixed society for a Catholic to appear singular in this matter. Non-Catholics know and accept that we do not eat meat on Fridays, but often they do not understand why we do not, and in consequence regard us as odd."
This misses the point. The whole rationale of symbolic gestures requires that they disrupt and disturb the secular order. Their power to witness--not only to others but to ourselves--comes precisely from their awkwardness. The abolition of such observances strikes at the heart of tradition, the distinctive language of belief. Catholic value cannot be sustained without its proper symbolic expression. Spiritual needs are expressed in physical needs. People can know the fundamental neediness which is the foundation of faith only if they feel our involvement with those who fast because they have nothing to eat.