“The Very Necessary Minimum”: The Forgotten “Precepts of the Church”

Gerben van Heijningen, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

What are the basic requirements of being a practicing Catholic?

An important part of the answer includes what are known as the Precepts of the Church. Unfortunately, few Catholics seem to be aware of them, let alone to be conscientiously trying to follow them. This is unfortunate because they would probably improve the lives of many Catholics.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives five precepts (CCC 2041-2043), which are listed below with explanations. Some older catechisms used to peg the number at six, with the extra precept being that Catholics must follow the Church’s laws regarding marriage. That’s of course still a requirement for Catholics today, but this article will only go through the five listed in the Catechism. These precepts do not exhaust the Christian life.

So then why does the Church have these precepts at all? According to the Catechism, they are “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.”

Here are the 5 Precepts of the Church:

1) “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.”

This “requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.” (CCC 2042)

Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation are not suggestions or optional. Unless you have a really good reason, all Catholics need to be there. Also notice the “rest from servile labor” – they are supposed to be days of rest.

2) “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.”

This “ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.” (CCC 2042)

Catholics are not supposed to receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin, and the Sacrament of Confession is the means by which a person can be cleansed of mortal sin. Since you are required to receive the Eucharist at least once a year (see precept 3), and since the Church is realistic about human sin, you have to go to Confession at least once a year.

But that’s just the bare minimum. So that you can receive the Eucharist more often than once a year, and for the salvation of your soul, most Catholics probably need to be going to Confession with some sort of regularity throughout the year.

3) “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.”

This “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.” (CCC 2042)

The Christian faith is all about Jesus, his work on the cross, and being united with him in grace. The Eucharist is one of the main ways God has given to us to apply the grace of the Gospel to our lives. As with Confession, receiving the Eucharist once a year is a bare minimum. A normal practicing Catholic should be receiving the Eucharist far more than that. The point is, though, if a person is not receiving the Eucharist even once a year, there is a problem.

4) “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.”

This “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 a normal part of the Christian life, because Jesus says so in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 6) and because it helps us to grow in virtue. The Church has prescribed minimal fasting during certain parts of the liturgical year. None of it is very difficult, but that’s because it’s a bare minimum requirement. All Christians can voluntarily do more difficult and more frequent fasts (for which a spiritual director can provide helpful oversight).

5) “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.”

This “means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.” (CCC 2043)

The Holy Catholic Church has the most important mission of any organization in the history of the world: preaching the soul-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Carrying on this mission, of course, takes earthly resources. Those of us who, by God’s gratuitous grace, have received the gift of faith and a new life in Jesus Christ, should naturally want to generously provide what we can to support this desperately important work. But because of our human weakness, the Church has made giving support an obligation of Church law.

Note that the Church doesn’t prescribe a certain amount or percentage, but only says that people give “each according to his own ability.” Each Catholic should prayerfully consider what they can do to support the Church. But they should know that not helping in any way (when one has the ability to do so) isn’t an option.

[See also: 5 Myths About Purgatory That Too Many People Still Believe (Maybe Even You!)]

[See also: 13 Saint Quotes that Reveal the Mystical Nature of the Mass]

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