Recently, for a paper I was presenting, I was reading moral theology from the 50s-60s-70s. One of the books I read was the Jesuit priests John Ford and Gerald Kelly's book Contemporary Moral Theology. One of their concerns was the critique of what had been labeled "obligationism."
They argued that those who were impatient with obligationism sometimes cast out objective morality and thought that “sanctity begins where obligation leaves off.” Ford and Kelly protested, “One would think that obedience to the obligations of the law of God is somehow incompatible with generosity, liberty, joy, and the flowering of one’s spiritual personality.” The authors were furthermore concerned with the maligning of obedience, objecting to those who saw it as an “irrational abdication of the self, as if authority were somehow the enemy of one’s personal liberty and perfection.”
Ford and Kelly's opinion here had a striking similarity with an instruction from the Baltimore Catechism on penance, which said that the fasting with the greatest merit was not voluntary but rather that "imposed by the Church on certain days of the year, and particularly during Lent" (Q. 806).
The German Bernard Haring, meanwhile, was concerned that Catholic morality was both legalistic and minimalistic. In regard the the first, he worried that Catholics expended too much of their energy trying to follow the laws of the Church to the detriment of really seeking the spirit behind the law. This was also related to his concerns for minimalism; he worried that Catholics did the bare minimum when it came to morality - just so they wouldn't have much to confess. He wanted more voluntarism, for Catholics freely to choose to do penance (not just because it was required) or freely to choose to attend Sunday Mass (not just out of fear of committing a sin by breaking Church law).
Surely to Ford and Kelly's dismay, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops took a more Haring-like position in their “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence” in 1966. The bishops contributed to the (already occuring) decline in Catholic identity by removing several common required penitential practices and replacing them with more individualized, “voluntary” penances. The language of this emphasized in particular the “free choice” of the faithful in choosing their forms of self-denial on Fridays and during the season of Lent. The document suggested the greater merit of abstinence from meat on Fridays since it was no longer a law binding under pain of sin, and it offered that Catholics might freely choose to give up caffeine or alcohol on Fridays, or to spend their Fridays volunteering in hospitals. What happened, however, was that the Friday sacrifice waned until it was no longer noticeable as a Catholic identity marker, and Lenten sacrifices became a hodgepodge of freely chosen mortifications such as giving up Diet Coke or chocolate.
As the daughter of a lawyer, I feel like I've always had a lot of respect for following U.S. law. There are times when I'm stopped at a no-turn-on-red red light when there is absolutely no traffic and no cops observing me, but I still wait for the light to turn green simply because I know it's the law.
Anyway, I think Ford and Kelly were right to be concerned about the maligning of "obligationism" and obedience. If we take the example of penance, it seems that the emphasis on choosing has detracted from the "team spirit" of it and the most obvious consequences are evident in the general lack of year-round Friday sacrifices by Catholics.