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The Precepts of the Church

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

Have you ever thought about why the Catholic Church exists or its purpose here on Earth? The short and simple answer is that it exists to lead all souls to heaven. Jesus came to give us a basic blueprint for living and the Church’s job is to provide us the support, guidance, and direction we need for salvation by teaching us the Truth of God’s laws and providing us the sustaining grace we need to follow them through the Sacraments. The Catechism is very strong in its wording saying that, “The faithful therefore have the right to be instructed in the divine saving precepts that purify judgment and, with grace, heal wounded human reason” (CCC #2037).

Note the word “right” is italicized in order to emphasize that the Truth is a not something for a privileged few, but an inherent human right. With this right comes responsibility, as the Catechism goes on to say, “They have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church” (CCC #2037). In other words, if we have the right to God’s Truth, then it is our duty to adhere to that Truth.

Of course, as individuals, we are each on our own spiritual paths, with our own circumstances, experiences, perspectives, and levels of knowledge. In most cases, we grow in wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of the Truth as we progress through life. If you look back on your spiritual life and relationship with Jesus over the years, hopefully you observe a deepening of these things rather than a regression. The Catholic Church seeks to lead us in many areas of our lives through its extensive teachings, doctrines, dogmas, and instructions. Since we’re all in different places on our journey, with different levels of understanding and connections to these teachings, the Church provides us with five precepts – or five basic rules – that every Catholic must follow in order to be in communion with the Church.

The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor. (CCC #2041)

In other words, following these precepts is the bare minimum you must do to remain in communion with the Catholic Church. Not doing so puts you into the state of mortal sin because it would be a blatant rejection of the Truth the Church has to offer you for the salvation of your soul. So, let’s take a look at the five precepts of the Catholic Church.

The first precept (‘You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor’) requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts… (CCC #2042)

As Catholics, we fundamentally believe that Jesus is God – the second person of the Holy Trinity – and that He rose from the dead. For that reason, we are required to worship Him every single Sunday as He is due. The Church allows for dispensations when people cannot attend Mass, such as being ill, having mobility issues, or other strong challenges that make it difficult or impossible to attend. However, if you are able to attend Mass and simply choose not to every Sunday, it is a grave sin. This means that, yes, you even have to attend Mass when you’re on vacation, because God is still worthy of your worship and attention even when you’re having a break from the rest of your life. Similarly, the Church has a handful of days throughout the year called Holy Days of Obligation, in which we are all required to attend Mass in order to give our assent to the Truth of the doctrine being honored on that particular day. Some examples of those days are Christmas, the Assumption of Mary, and the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The Church asks that you make whatever small sacrifices necessary to give your attention to these days by attending Mass on a day in addition to Sunday.

The next two precepts go hand in hand. The second precept says that you must attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation once per year and the third precept says you must receive the Eucharist at least once per year during the Easter season (cf. CCC #2042). We confess our sins to express our remorse for turning our back to God and to restore our relationship with Him. During that sacrament, we also receive the grace needed to do better so, it is most ideal to go at least once per month. For our sake, the Church obliges this bare minimum requirement of once per year. With the third precept, for similar reasons, we are required to receive the Eucharist once per year in order to be sustained by the grace offered in the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus contained in the Blessed Sacrament. He is our spiritual nourishment, and our spiritual lives cannot live without Him. Now, this is where these two precepts and sacraments are related. If you are in a state of mortal sin, receiving the Eucharist would be piling grave sin on top of grave sin and ultimately desecrating the Eucharist. This is precisely why we are not required to partake at each and every Mass we attend. It is our responsibility to be aware of the state of our souls and our relationship with God and to respect the Eucharistic Lord enough to not desecrate Him. Therefore, in an ideal world, we are attending the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a month, staying far away from mortal sin, and receiving the Eucharist every time we attend Mass. However, given our human tendencies, the Church only requires that we do both of these things once per year.

The fourth precept (‘You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church’) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart. (CCC #2043)

Fasting is an excellent tool for advancing our spiritual life. The better we can master fasting, the better we can master unruly passions in other areas of our life. There is great grace to be received in fasting and it is highly recommended to fast as much as you can. This can take the form of completely abstaining from all food for a period of time or fasting from one particular thing. However, once again, the Church only requires us to fast at certain times. We must fast one hour prior to receiving the Eucharist in order to better appreciate what, or rather, WHO, we are receiving by literally hungering for our Lord and by preparing a proper tabernacle for Him in our bodies. We are also required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday because of their significance as days of penance. We are required to practice abstinence on all Fridays during Lent, which is a simplified fast from certain things such as meat. If you are interested in learning more about fasting, I recommend a book called, The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice, by Charles Murphy. In whatever ways you include fasting in your life, you must still follow the basic fasting and abstinence rules prescribed by the Church.

Finally, the fifth precept of the Church says, “You shall provide for the needs of the Church” (CCC #2043). This essentially refers to the stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure according to each of our individual ability. Think of your participation in the Catholic Faith as a relationship. The Church provides so many wonderful things for us on our journey in this life including, truth, support, sacraments, grace, and more. However, this should not be a one-sided relationship. We need to offer what we have back to the Church in thanksgiving, as well as for the benefit of all of the other members of the Church who are working toward their own salvation. If we just take and never give back, then we are not truly in relationship with God.

The goal of the spiritual life should not be to just do the bare minimum, as that will only take us the minimal distance, but it is a good starting point from which to progress. Meditate on the five precepts of the Church. Are you obedient to them? If not, how can you do better? How can you encourage and support others in seeing their obligations in the most fundamental ways to help facilitate a better relationship with God?

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Aug 27, 2022

Interesting that the Catechism lists these as five. I recall there being the Six Precepts of the Church. In addition to these listed, the last was "to obey the marriage laws of the Church." I'm not certain why the Catechism would drop this last directive as a formal precept, when of course it remains a constant teaching formalized under Canon Law. Good discussion nonetheless.

John Gist
John Gist
Aug 30, 2022
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Interesting indeed. And a bit foreboding!

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