June 5, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Summer series to focus on ‘Precepts of the Church’

My barber, Tom, is not reluctant to talk to me about matters of the Catholic faith while I am captive in his barber chair.

Recently, he asked me about the “Precepts of the Catholic Church,” and whether they still apply.

He said he hasn’t heard anything about them for a long time. He kind of nudged me to do some teaching about them. I agreed that I would address the topic, among others, during my summer series of columns.

Yes, the “Precepts of the Catholic Church” still apply. They are addressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2041- #2043).

The section on the “Precepts of the Church” follows the foundations for Christian morality in the catechism. They are also presented in the United States Catechism for Adults in “Part III. Christian Morality: The Faith Lived” (p. 334).

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated in 2005, has this entry: “The five precepts of the Church are meant to guarantee for the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer, the sacramental life, moral commitment and growth in the love of God and neighbor” (#431).

The precepts are the following:

  1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
  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 prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.
  5. You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.

I will write about each of them in order, but first it might be helpful to put them in the context of our life of faith.

Clearly, they are laws that enumerate basic requirements for members of the Church in addition to the moral law.

While these norms are presented by both the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated in 1992, and the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, which was approved by the body of bishops in 2004, they are not new to these official documents.

For example, the precepts can be found in another expression in the Church’s revised Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983.

The “Precepts of the Church” have sometimes been called the Commandments of the Church (as distinguished from the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue).

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, first published in 1958, had this entry under “Commandments of the Church” (also Precepts of the Church). “Certain moral and ecclesiastical precepts, imposed by the RC Church on all her members. They were tabulated in the Middle Ages, and later more strictly classified. Thus St. Peter Canisius in his Summa Doctrinae Christianae (1555) mentions five and St. Robert Bellarmine in his Doctrina Christiana (1589) lists six, though the catechism Ad Parochos, published by order of the Council of Trent in 1566, does not speak of them.”

In one form or another, the “Precepts of the Church” have been promulgated as requirements of its members. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated in 1992, is normative for our day. After researching the history of the precepts, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the five, which I have noted above.

Note that the section on the “Precepts of the Church” follows the catechism’s ­presentation on the foundations for Christian morality.

The precepts are rules set in the context of a moral life. But notice they are connected to and nourished by the liturgical life of the Church.

As the adult catechism mentions, “the obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to encourage on the part of the faithful the indispensable foundations for their lives as Catholics” (p. 334).

At this point, it might be helpful to address a mood of our democratic culture that wants to shy away from rules and obligations.

We might be tending to think that restrictions of the law undermine our basic human freedom. I hope that a closer look at the five precepts of the Church would reveal that these are not negative laws forbidding something or other.

They are positive laws that are intended to enhance and protect the foundations of our Catholic faith.

Faith without the nourishment of the Eucharist does not flourish; in fact, it can likely weaken.

The moral life itself needs the support of the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. Presence to the liturgy is needed to receive this support. Our life of faith does not exist in a vacuum or apart from the practices that sustain it.

Barber Tom has the right instinct to know that the precepts and their practice are important.

I hope the review of the individual precepts, and their purpose and intent, over the next weeks will be helpful. †

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