The Precepts of the Church: An Invitation to Life
We all know the Ten Commandments, or I think we do. I notice we do not have a handy copy of them on our website, but there is an excellent Scripture-based table of the Ten Commandments in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Among other things, the Commandments are an excellent basis for examination of conscience before Confession.
Hopefully we are also familiar with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are an enumeration of specific mercies we are called to show to others as noted in Sacred Scripture. We cannot perform these works all of the time; we may have few opportunities for some and great opportunities for others. But they are a wonderful guide to what it means to live in true solidarity with our neighbors, treating them as Christ would treat them, from feeding the hungry to instructing the ignorant. Between confessions, if we have not been busy with any of these works, we ought to be asking ourselves why.
I’m not as sure that we all know the Beatitudes. I cannot recite them from memory myself, though I hope I have some grasp of the virtues they counsel. You’ll find the list of all eight in the first paragraph of the Catechism which deals with this subject. Here too we have the basis for an excellent examination of conscience, this time concerning not merely our avoidance of sin but our cultivation of the dispositions and virtues of the Christian life.
Finally, I suspect we almost never hear much about the Precepts of the Church. These are seldom mentioned from the pulpit and do not come up in Scripture readings. They are often treated as a sort of addendum or final check in an examination of conscience. But they can be explored more deeply with great profit. The five precepts can actually be used to orient our spiritual lives and fuel the New Evangelization.
The most important thing about the Precepts of the Church is that they are the precepts of the Church. We ought to pause to consider what the Church is, for it is no mere social body with purely human lines of authority and rules geared primarily toward its own preservation and growth. The Church is alternatively described in Scripture as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:26-27; Col 1:18), the bride of Christ without spot or wrinkle (Eph 5:25-27), and the embodiment on earth of Divine authority, against which the gates of hell cannot prevail (Mt 16:18).
The Church is the repository on earth of the power to forgive our sins (Jn 20:22-23). It is formed by our assimilation to Christ in the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16-17). The hierarchy of the Church, despite being made up of sinful men, has the power to bind and loose on earth such that the same judgment is bound or loosed in heaven (Mt 16:19; Mt 18:18). The faith of the head of the hierarchy has been guaranteed by Christ Himself, for the purpose of ensuring a right faith in all the Church’s members (Lk 22:32). Thus the Church remains always the household of God, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Moreover, she is sent by Christ to preach and baptize, and secured by Christ until the end of time (Mk 16:15-16; Mt 28:19-20).
Much more could be said about the Church, into which Our Lord has poured His very life, including all the goods and graces necessary for perfection, union with God and salvation: Tradition, Scripture, the Sacraments, the hierarchy, the priesthood, Divine authority, the fullness of truth—all of which combine to produce the sublimity of her doctrine, the holiness of her saints, and her unparalleled works of charity.
Once we not only grasp the identity of the Church but begin to cherish the Church in her deepest reality, her precepts begin to glow in a whole new light. Though they are formulated as minimum requirements for the practicing Catholic, each one opens up a key aspect of a fully Christian life.
1. Observance of Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation
At the minimum, observance of Sundays and Holy Days means attending Mass and avoiding servile work on these days. The problem of servile work is tricky; many have very little choice about when they work. But following the precept means that we should arrange our affairs, insofar as we can, in a way that at least minimally enables us to properly honor the feasts in question.
The requirement may be minimal, but the reality is very deep. We ought to think about what it would mean to our spiritual growth if we truly arranged our lives to take full advantage of Sundays and holy days, disposing ourselves to honor Christ, Our Lady, the saints and the Church by joyfully participating in her celebrations, taking ample time for spiritual reflection, and marking the feasts with other signs of joy (such as special meals) which help the mysteries of faith to seep into our very bones.
The Liturgical Year section on CatholicCulture.org can be a particular help in this regard, providing numerous suggestions for families to bring the various feasts to life, frequently employing customs and forming habits that have long since faded from our culture. The feasts (and fasts) of the Church are meant to sanctify every aspect of culture, claiming everything for Christ.
Fulfilling this precept should not be a matter of grudgingly attending the Mass which interferes least with our other plans, and then taking advantage of the rest of the day to pursue a series of totally unrelated pleasures. Relaxation is, of course, an important way of observing a feast, but so are prayers, the development of family traditions, sharing the day and the meal with friends, and (as Pope John Paul II noted in On Keeping the Lord’s Day) visiting and helping those in need.
2. Annual Confession
Receiving the Sacrament of Penance is a signal act of cooperation with God’s salvific will. It is also, where serious sin is present, a prerequisite for the reception of the Eucharist, which we shall encounter in the third precept. It would seem presumptuous to assume that any of us could get through an entire year with nothing significant to confess. If we think we can, then our consciences are not very sensitive! So the requirement can hardly be considered either onerous or superfluous.
But let us put two and two together. Here we are, obedient to the first precept, attending Church at least weekly, plus a little more often when a holy day occurs. Now, could we possibly think that we ought to do this regularly without receiving Communion, which is the chief means by which Our Lord assimilates us to Himself, and by which the Church is built up into the One Body of Christ? I ask because we are not to receive Communion unworthily (see St. Paul in 1 Cor 11:27). And if we are to take advantage of Christ’s gift of Himself in the Eucharist with reasonable frequency, then we must be serious about overcoming our faults, gradually living the Christian life more deeply, and in general escaping the slavery of sin in favor of the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.
Now it is precisely the Sacrament of Penance which is the single greatest help in this process, the very means of specific grace which Christ Himself ordained to be used to overcome our sins and remain firmly in His friendship. As St. Paul put it, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 1:5). The occasional sin is not a full submission to the yoke of slavery, but a refusal to take advantage of Confession is clearly an acceptance of this sinful yoke.
Here again we have a requirement which must, if we are serious about Christ, become the pattern and the work of a lifetime, and which will over time transform our lives in Him, making us with Him a light to the world.
3. Reception of the Eucharist during Eastertide
Part of our work on this third precept has already been done under the heading of the second. Clearly the command to receive the Eucharist but once a year is exceedingly minimal. If our opportunity to receive Our Lord’s body, blood, soul and divinity were really so restricted, we ought to bemoan Our Lord’s absence and seek Him in every other way possible. But for most of us, the opportunity is far more frequent, typically weekly or even daily. To generally spurn this opportunity tells us something very serious about ourselves.
But we note here as well that the time of this annual solitary reception is specified to be during the Easter Season. This is so we can fully participate in the Paschal Mystery, the Church’s celebration of the passion, death and Resurrection, which is the focus and font of the entire cycle of our salvation as represented by the liturgical year. Surely by calling our attention to the Easter Season, the Church means to root our lives on this mystery, by which we are (quite literally) meant to be transformed forever.
At once, then, this third precept becomes a call to live the Paschal Mystery. This is not so much a challenge as a momentous invitation, but once again it is the work of a lifetime. Who would be so crass as to believe that this is no more than a ritual observance that we take care of once a year. The whole mission of our Lord and Savior was to shake people out of a reliance on externals and make religion into a relationship, a love affair, a work of the human heart in continuous conversation with God.
Again, the essence of the Christian life is not the external obedience to a rule. The rule is simply there to point to the deeper reality, and begin to habituate us to it. Ritual participation in the Paschal Mystery—which is renewed each Sunday and highlighted in a special way on each Holy Day—is something that we ought not to do as a requirement but as the glorious fulfillment of an ongoing interior work; and we should keep fulfilling ourselves in this way “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
4. Observance of Days of Fast and Abstinence
Under current disciplines in the Latin Rite, rules of fast and abstinence are kept to a remarkable minimum in comparison with earlier times, so there is very little to observe at present. There is, in fact, just enough to establish an important principle: The Church has authority to impose such spiritual disciplines on the faithful as she alone thinks most conducive to their spiritual well-being. We may of course engage in much more strenuous penitential exercises as we see fit, but obedience to the Church is a far higher response than the fulfillment of our own desires. Such obedience recognizes that “he who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16).
Note carefully that the whole Scripture passage is far more gripping:
But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.” I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town. “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me. (Lk 10:10-17)
In this precept, the Church insists in a special way on her own authority as the authority of Christ. No Catholic should be able to enumerate this fourth precept without reflecting on his relationship with this Church which, in every conceivable way, represents Christ. Not only the major teachings but even the most minor disciplines of the Church should be meat and drink to our spiritual lives, received with gratitude, performed with reverence and joy. To take this approach is to derive enormous spiritual benefit, no matter how small the sacrifice. Yet to think and act otherwise really is to reject God.
5. Provision for the Needs of the Church
The explanation of this fifth precept in the Catechism is somewhat confusing, as it indicates the obligation to both “assist with the material needs of the Church” and “provide for the material needs of the Church”, according to our abilities. The distinction might not be clear. It would seem to be a distinction between pitching in and helping personally, on the one hand, and donating the funds necessary to the continuation of the Church’s mission, on the other. Both are important.
We have said enough under the previous headings to recognize that what is given to the Church is, in essence, given to God. The sustenance of the Church is something that God demands we provide as if to Himself. To see the importance of this, we must remember that the Church is the chosen vessel by which Christ’s salvific mission is extended through time and space, the vessel of His own body, and the representation of His sacrifice down through the ages in every corner of the globe.
Obviously, the least reflection on our life in Christ would lead us to do what we can to ensure that the Church has what she needs to continue this mission. And this is where the New Evangelization enters the picture. The first four precepts are really about our own spiritual growth, our growth into the Church as the chief means of becoming one with Jesus Christ. But this fifth precept is about the expansion and extension of the Church’s mission.
At the level of a precept, our responsibility is to create the material conditions which make this possible. But at the level of our baptism—and more generally at the sacramental level which truly incorporates us into Christ—we are all prophets, priests and kings in our own right, with a duty to teach and sacrifice and govern wherever we can so as to build up the Kingdom of God. Reflection on this final precept takes everything we have gained through our interior obedience to the first four and orients it ad extra, to the preaching of the Gospel, the conversion of sinners, the formation of a culture that is, like ourselves, rooted in Christ.
All the precepts of the Church bind under pain of serious sin, but they are far more important than that. Each one ought to serve as a reminder, an inspiration and even a trigger for our own deeper entry into the life of Christ, and our own deeper determination to collaborate with Christ in transforming the whole world. “For behold,” says Our Lord in St. John’s vision, “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). But St. John the Baptist says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:12; Lk 3:17).
The Kingdom of God is among us (Lk 17:21). The work has begun. The precepts of the Church initiate us into this great task.
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