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Deacon-structing the precepts of the Church

Deacon Pedro

Monday, February 8, 2021

Image by pixagod from Pixabay
Last week we spoke about holy days of obligation, and I wrote that “One of the five precepts of the Church is to attend Mass every Sunday and on holy days. Another one is to receive Communion at least during the Paschal season.” I received a comment from one of our readers: “What are the precepts of the Church? I have never heard of those.” Well, truth be told, had you asked me ten years ago, I probably would have asked the same question.
Which is surprising because my mother grew up with the Baltimore Catechism, which was the official catechism in the United States from the late 1800's to the 1960s. At the time there was no universal Catechism of the Catholic Church – that came in 1992 with John Paul II. The Baltimore Catechism is organized like the Compendium of the Catechism, in a question and answer format, (like a rule book) so as to make it easy for kids to memorize it. While the catechism I learned was not based on the Baltimore one, I do remember my mother, on occasion, dropping a question and repeating the answer to us. The only one I really remember is, “Why did God create us? To know, love and serve him in this life and to be with him in the next” (or something like that). Those who studied with the Baltimore Catechism will be very familiar with things like the “Four Marks of the Church”, the “Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy”, the “Theological Virtues”, the “Evangelical Counsels”, the “Seven Capital Sins”, the “Four Last Things” and the “Precepts of the Church”. (All good topics for Deacon-structing. Take a look at Deacon-structing Catholic Basics – I should add that the Church has not done away with these; you can find them in the new Catechism, but for some reason, we don’t learn them as much.)
The precepts of the Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that:
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 indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor. (CCC#2041; my emphasis)
So, they are not “divine laws” – they are not the Ten Commandments. They are not points of doctrine. Instead they are disciplinary laws of the Church, to help give us grow in love of God and neighbour. They are the bare minimum that we have to do in order to participate in the life of the Church. I think it’s worth repeating: this is the bare minimum that we, as Catholics, need to be doing. The Baltimore Catechism gives the reason:
Q. 1328. Why has the Church made commandments?
A. The Church has made commandments to teach the faithful how to worship God and to guard them from the neglect of their religious duties.
These “Commandments of the Church” are the same as the Precepts. I am not too familiar with the history of how these were developed; however, it is clear that from the beginning, as the Church began to grow, there were some “rules” that had to be put in place to ensure some order and universality. I’ve read that during the time of Constantine, special insistence was placed on the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days, to receive the Sacraments, and to abstain from marrying during certain seasons. St. Peter Canisius in 1555 listed five precepts; St. Robert Bellarmine in 1589 listed six.
The Baltimore Catechism is based on Bellarmine’s 1614 “Small Catechism”, and so it also lists six:
Q. 1327. Which are the chief commandments of the Church?
A. The chief commandments of the Church are six:
1.1. To hear Mass on Sundays and holydays of obligation.
2.2. To fast and abstain on the days appointed.
3.3. To confess at least once a year.
4.4. To receive the Holy Eucharist during the Easter time.
5.5. To contribute to the support of our pastors.
6.6. Not to marry persons who are not Catholics, or who are related to us within the third degree of kindred, nor privately without witnesses, nor to solemnize marriage at forbidden times.
The Baltimore Catechism also makes it clear that to neglect any of these commandments is a grave matter and, therefore, mortal sin.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists five:
2042 The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.") requires the faithful to participate in the Eucharistic celebration when the Christian community gathers together on the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord.
The second precept (“You shall confess your sins at least once a year.") ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism's work of conversion and forgiveness.
The third precept (“You shall humbly receive your Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter season.") guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord's Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.
2043 The fourth precept (“You shall keep holy the holy days of obligation.") completes the Sunday observance by participation in the principal liturgical feasts which honor the mysteries of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.
The fifth precept (“You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.") ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.
Afterwards, it adds this, not as a “precept” but as something we all have a duty to do:
The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.
The Compendium organizes them slightly differently:
1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and remain free from work or activity that could impede the sanctification of such days.
2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
3. You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
4. You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
5. You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.
While they have developed a bit through the years, the essence of these is the same.
It is so important that we go to Mass on Sundays – and many people do. Some even make the extra effort to attend Mass on holy days. Many of you make a point of going to Confession at least once a year. Most of us receive Communion whenever we attend Mass. I also think that most of us try to observe those days of fasting and abstinence and to do something to help provide for the needs of the Church.
I hope that most Catholics don’t think that this is ALL we have to do.
Remember, this is the bare minimum.
I think that it’s important to note that while these Precepts are presented as “rules”, we should not feel that we have to do them because they are rules; don't follow them just because it is mortal sin not to follow them. This is why the new Catechism is organized and written like a pastoral document and not like a rule book. We follow the Precepts of the Church because we want to, because it is good for us, because we want to be in communion with the Church and with Christ, grow more in love of God and of neighbour, and to benefit from all the possible graces.
We follow the Precepts of the Church in the same way we eat when we are hungry; we follow them for the same reason we follow the “precept” to love your spouse.
Next week, as we enter the season of Lent, I am going to be offering you some ideas on what you can be doing on top off these bare minimums, in order to grow in your faith and enter deeper into the mystery of the Church.

pedroEvery week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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