--Pope Benedict XIV, Constitution Non Ambigimus, 1745
More than a hundred years have elapsed since this solemn warning of the Vicar of Christ was given to the world; and during that time, the relaxation he inveighed against has gone on gradually increasing. How few Christians do we meet who are strict observers of Lent, even in the present mild form!
And must there not result from this ever-growing spirit of immortification, a general effeminacy of character, which will lead, at last, to frightful social disorders? The sad predictions of Pope Benedict XIV are but too truly verified. Those nations, among whose people the spirit and practice of penance are extinct, are heaping against themselves the wrath of God, and provoking His justice to destroy them by one or other of these scourges-- civil discord, or conquest.
--Dom Prosper Gueranger, The Liturgical Year, c.1850
The modern fast, of course, is nothing compared to the fast Dom Gueranger calls 'mild' in the mid-19th Century. That is the decision of the Church, who, out of concern for the weakness of her children, has over the ages allowed for relaxation of the Lenten fast (which is of Apostolic institution), and given freely of dispensations in various times and places. It is the decision of the Church what must be obligatory, for she speaks for Christ. She has allowed such latitude that our present obligatory penitential requirements for Lent (fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence on all Fridays during Lent) ought to be easily and eagerly accomplished. Yet even this seems too much.
The word of God is unmistakable: unless we do penance, we shall perish (Luke 13:3). But if our ease-loving and sensual generation were to return, like the Ninivites, to the long-neglected way of penance and expiation, who knows but that the arm of God, which is already raised to strike us, may give us blessing and not chastisement?
A good point, and one reinforced by today's Lesson from Joel 2: 12-19: