Catholic Duty - Part I: The Precepts Of The Church
When I go to mass, I go in as a sinner. I still remove my hat, I still mark myself with holy water, and I still genuflect to Our Lord before I sit down… But I do so as a selfish, carnal, sinner. At times, I fail to act with charity, piety, or with reverence. There’s no question that I’m not the epitome of the Catholic life. After all, no living person is.
Having said that, some other things are equally true. I love my faith, I’m always seeking a deeper, more intimate knowledge of God through the gift of the Sacraments, and I really do try to practice my faith accurately, with piety and charity, and with a true love of others.
I’m a firm believer in practicing the faith in the best way possible; by following the teachings and precepts of the Church "to a T." Although I often fall short, I’m still always seeking that truth within the Church, and there’s a lot to learn.
I think one of the greatest Catholic misconceptions out there is that we don’t need to go beyond the simple precepts of the Church. The precepts, for those who may not know, are a set of basic, essential functions that all Catholics are obliged to perform to remain in good standing with the Church. They are:
1. “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.”
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.” (CCC 2042-2043)
Now, these precepts are not to be misunderstood to mean we shouldn’t go above and beyond to achieve salvation. There is a lot more to our faith than the “very necessary minimum” (CCC 2041) that helps to keep us out of trouble. For example, these precepts assume we will attend confession any time we are in a state of mortal sin. It’s not mentioned here because mortal sins aren’t necessarily guaranteed to happen. Venial sins, on the other hand, are a lot “easier” to commit, and therefore need to be removed at least once a year.
So, what am I getting at? I’m saying that we Catholics ought to go above and beyond the minimum requirements if we truly seek to live a holy life. My greater point, though, is this: We have an obligation as faithful Catholics to live out our faith as accurately, as piously, and as staunchly as we possibly can.
If we look at how those precepts aim to enrich our spiritual lives and how they help to bring us closer to achieving heaven, we can better understand why the Church is adamant about giving us the guidelines in the first place. Let’s look at these precepts individually and explore what gives them authority, value, and purpose.
The first precept that the Catechism mentions is, “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.” This one is relatively straight forward. We, as Catholics, are required to attend mass every single Sunday and all holy days of obligation. On top of that, we are to rest from servile labor, that is, labor that could “hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body” (CCC 2185).
The Code of Canon Law affirms this: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to assist at Mass. They are also to abstain from such work or business that would inhibit the worship to be given to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, or the due relaxation of mind and body” (Canon 1247). As Catholics, we value the sacrifice of the mass, and we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ Jesus. Additionally, some days are reserved for “the principal liturgical feasts honoring the Mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints,” (CCC 2042) which we know as “Holy Days of Obligations.” No Catholic is permitted to forego their obligation to attend Mass on these days unless it is impossible for either of these reasons: “because no sacred minister is available or for some other grave reason…” (Canon 1249, my emphasis added).
The second precept is, “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.” This is a very important precept to understand. As I had mentioned before, the bare minimum requirement for a Catholic is to make a contrite confession at least once per year. This does not, however, mean that we only need to go once a year. In fact, the Code of Canon law clarifies this point: “All the faithful who have reached the age of discretion are bound faithfully to confess their grave sins at least once a year.” (Canon 989, my emphasis added).
This is an important distinction for two reasons. First, grave sin is that sin which “deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life…” (CCC 1472). This means that grave, or mortal sin, separates us completely from God, and makes it impossible to achieve heaven unless we make a contrite confession regarding that sin. Grave, or mortal, sins are committed only when three criteria are met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (CCC 1857). In other words, it needs to be a grave matter, the person need to have known it was wrong, and the person has to have done it in his own free will.
The second distinction has to do with another, more common, type of sin called venial sin. Venial sin is committed when, “in a less serious matter, [a person] does not observe the standard prescribed my moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent” (CCC 1862).
Basically, venial sin is a “lesser” form of sin which damages our relationship with God but does not sever it. The most important thing to be cautious of with venial sin is that, as it accumulates, it can predispose us to mortal sin, and weakens our strength to combat sin.
So, with regard to the second precept, there is something very important to remember. When you have a mortal sin on your soul, you are only required by Canon Law to confess it within the year since your last confession. However, if somebody dies having committed a mortal sin (Grave matter, full consent of the will and with full knowledge that it's wrong) that has not been confessed, they cannot go to heaven. Now, this doesn’t mean that, in your last breath, you can’t apologize to God and possibly save yourself; that’s certainly possible. But why risk it? It’s foolish to hope you’ll have time in your final days to confess your mortal sins.
All in all, with regard to the second precept, it’s best to attend more than the minimum to maintain a healthy spiritual life, and to maintain that connection to our God.
The third precept reads, “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.” This is, once again, just a bare minimum. The whole idea behind receiving the Eucharist “at least” during the Easter season has to do with the paschal feast. Christ Jesus initiated the Holy Communion at the last supper, which is part of what Easter is about. The roots of our faith are embedded in the Easter season. As my wife always says, “we’re Easter people.”
I’ve heard the misconception several times that Catholics are only obliged to receive the Holy Eucharist once per year. This is not so. We are to, at a minimum, receive during the entire season of Easter. Not only does this encourage a habit of attending Mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation, it encourages us to remain penitent in our everyday lives as well.
Catholics are not permitted to receive Blessed Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ when they are in a state of mortal sin. The Code of Canon Law if very clear on this one: “Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess” (Canon 916). It’s important to know that “Celebrate Mass” is not the same as “assisting at Mass.” Celebrating is reserved to the ordained, we as the faithful “assist.”
Because of the intrinsic and incredible value of receiving Holy Communion, it is important to observe the precept and receive at least during Easter, but it is strongly encouraged that we receive every Sunday and holy days of obligation as long as we are in a state of grace (no mortal sins on our soul).
Precept four is, “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.” This one is pretty simple but important. First, we are to observe the days of fasting and abstinence on two days in North America: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That’s it. Those are the only two days out of the whole year in which we need to fast and abstain.
Something else that is not commonly known, however, is that Catholics are also to abstain from meat every Friday. The Code of Canon Law states:
“Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.” (Canon 1251, my emphasis added)
Finally, the fifth precept which is “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.” Well, what exactly does that mean? Well, it can mean a number of things. First, it’s always good to tithe from your own income. People often say, “God doesn’t need my money,” which is true, but his people and his Church do. As much as we may like for it to happen, miracles usually don’t pay the bills, and most Churches have a lot of bills. So, first and foremost, donating some of your money to help keep the lights on, and to help the Church in her ministry, is always a good thing. The Catechism says, “the faithful also have a duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own abilities.” (CCC 2043)
I think that last one is relatively simple. If we offer nothing, we can’t expect anything in return. God sees our charity, and rewards it in heaven. More than that, some of us are blessed with more, and with that, we are obliged to give, even by the standard of scripture: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48, my emphasis added)
Overall, the precepts of our Holy Church offer us an opportunity to grow in the penitential life, and to strengthen, or even renew, our deep affection for God and his Church. As we continue to journey through this Lenten season, remember to meet the demands of God’s Church, and then, surpass them. I’m excited to continue to grow in my love for the faith, and to deepen my intimate relationship with Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
*This post is part of a two part series. Stay tuned for the completion! It's on Catholic Duty: Conducting ourselves at Mass.