Simple meal tonight. Some Catholics do fish on Friday, but as for me when I cook for myself I usually do pasta (no meat in the sauce). For non-Catholics (or maybe Catholics too) wondering why the special diet: Jesus died on a Friday, so it is our tradition to do a penance (such as not eating meat) on Friday, in union with Him.
UPDATE: A Facebook reader asked the following question: "Hmmm... disn't that get kicked with Vatican 2?"
Short answer: no! In fact, there is no mention of the Friday fast at all in the documents of Vatican II.
That said, Saint Pope Paul VI issued an apostolic constitution called Paenitemini in 1966. The subject of the document was the customs of fasting and abstinening from meat. The Pope opens the document with a discussion of what the whole point of these disciplines is, and then provides some directives. One of them is as follows: "abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation".
So there you have it: the rule did not change. Except...
One of the odd things about the custom of avoiding meat on Friday is that it meant that you eat a fancy lobster supper but you weren't supposed to eat a hot dog. This kind of lost the whole purpose of the tradition. You see, for most of human history (and for much of the world today) eating meat is a luxury. Most of the poor don't eat meat all that often. So this custom actually meant was that, for 1 day per week, the wealthier had to eat like the poor. It was a reminder of the kind of solidarity we are all meant to share with each other.
So while the common custom was to avoid eating meat, in places where it made less sense because of the lobster/hot dog dichotomy, the Pope also allowed the local bishops to come up with an alternate penitential discipline.
The Code of Canon Law of 1983 summarized all of this in one sentence: "Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday." (canon 1251) It also expressed the possibility for even other forms of penance to substitute for the not-eating-meat discipline: "The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast." (canon 1253)
So why has the practice of Friday penance fallen by the wayside? It is hard to say. Perhaps it isn't well explained these days. As well, in 1985 the conference of bishops in Canada confirmed the looser discipline by saying that "The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast." (decree 8) This had the net effect of leaving the choice completely up to the individual. I'm sure they meant well, but of course it meant that this was no longer a common tool of building social solidarity (like the not-eating-meat was originally meant to be).
As for me, once I realised what the original discipline meant I stopped eating meat on Friday, even if it can be allowed. I do make exceptions, such as if I am invited to someone's home for supper (I don't believe in imposing my choices of other people's generosity), although to be honest I find they often offer to be accomodating. On the flip side, I have also taken up the practice of going vegan during Lent. Being vegan is an even more demanding discipline, and so requires me to be even more intentional -- something I appreciate and (I believe) benefit from.
So what about us? Take some time to think about where you live. What restrictions on lifestyle does poverty bring? Make that your Friday fast. The poor can't afford a car... take the bus. The poor can't afford cable TV or a high-speed internet connection... turn it off. The poor can't eat out all that often... brown bag it, don't buy your lunch that day. And it doesn't have to just be material poverty. New immigrants in your neighbourhood suffering from exclusion and racism? Maybe the penance that breaks down social barriers is to go and eat their unfamiliar food -- even if it uses meat. Use your imagination, and practice some effort, some sacrifice that let's you walk in someone else's shoes. Then you are discovering what Friday can bring.