With the Lenten season upon us, and the faithful preparing for the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Our Lord, the precepts of the Church have inevitably come up from the foxhole in which they dwell throughout the rest of the liturgical year. Primarily because the Easter season is called out by name in the third precept in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2042), people begin to remember the compact list of “minimum requirements” every Catholic needs to meet to remain in “good standing” with the Church. As you can imagine, these precepts raise the question: “Why do I need to do anything else?” That’s a good question. A better question is this: “What is really required of me?”
Let’s quickly cover the five precepts taught by the Church and examine them in light of their intention:
- Catholics must attend Mass every Sunday, and on every holy day of obligation. They must also “abstain from those woks and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God” (Canon 1247).This is not to say that attending Mass daily isn’t better to do.
- Catholics must confess their sins at least once a year.This is for your own good. Most Catholics today don’t confess their sins at all, let alone once a year. This precept hopes to protect those who would otherwise not attend. This precept, however, will not save you from Hell. Even if you observe it, if you die in a state of mortal sin, you are condemned to Hell. Observe this precept and surpass it.
- The faithful must receive the Eucharist once a year, at least during the Easter season. This seems like a no-brainer. The Eucharist is Christ in the Flesh; we should be doing everything in our power to receive Him weekly. More than that, even the Catechism tells us we ought to strive to receive communion daily (CCC 1389), which we cannot do unless we are cleansed by confession, which would mean – for most of us – going more than once a year.
- All Catholics are to observe the days of fasting and abstinence.This precept has all but fallen by the wayside of modern Catholicism. All that needs to be said here is this: if you find yourself coming up with an excuse to avoid fasting or abstinence, stop it. There’s no good reason for a healthy person to disregard this law.
- The faithful must provide for the needs of the Church. Contrary to trendy belief, this doesn’t mean acting like a substitute for the celebrant at Mass. It has nothing to do with what we can do to stay busy at Mass; it has everything to do with bringing our best selves to God and providing for the material needs of the Church. Rather than volunteering as a so-called extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, it means “make sure your parish can pay its bills.” Keeping the lights on so that the miracle of the Mass can take place is far more obedient – and reverent – than handling our Lord unworthily at communion or by strumming a guitar during Mass.
The cold, hard truth is that the precepts of the Church will not save you. Shocking as it seems, the fact is that meeting these precepts is by no means the answer to salvation. They are not intended to save you; they are meant to protect you.
Analogous to the precepts’ purpose, consider the daily task of driving. A motorist might observe a stop sign or a traffic light, but he is by no means a “good” driver for doing so. Becoming a skilled driver means practice, dedication, perseverance, and hard work. Just because he can the follow rules, that doesn’t mean he won’t crash his car. Such is true of the precepts.
At the risk of sounding flippant, the precepts of the Church ought more to be treated like a membership fee rather than an active participation in the organization. The Church itself acknowledges that these are the bare minimum requirements to remain a Catholic in good standing. Think about that.
To better understand what is truly asked of us by God, and vicariously by the Church, it’s prudent to understand what is not asked of us. First, we aren’t asked to try to do as little as possible. Common sense tells us that effort and diligence bring forth better fruit. Second, we aren’t asked to disregard the precepts. They offer us a sense of direction and help to keep us on the right path. Finally, the precepts are not guidelines for salvation, as mentioned above; they are guidelines for our own protection, safeguards against one of the biggest problems we face: the growing problem of secular humanism – that is, the notion that humans rather than God have pride of place in the universe. The precepts, if followed, serve as an arrow that points us toward God and away from ourselves, but they don’t take us to the doorstep of God’s kingdom. For that to happen, we must abide by the whole faith in its holistic sense, not merely its parts.
This Lenten season, and beyond, each Catholic should make it his goal that we meet and exceed the precepts of the Church. In that way, we can honor God by acknowledging that His rule extends far beyond the five rules listed above.
Rules, guidelines, instructions, and the like permeate the entire culture of the Catholic faith. We have canons, doctrines, precepts, and commandments because they each serve different purposes toward the same goal: an eternity with God. If we seek to go above and beyond them, if we try to do what we ought to do, rather than just what is required, we will obtain the reward of Heaven.
Christian Patin is the founder of and head writer for Cathlogic.com, an online lay apostolate dedicated to uncovering and understanding the Catholic faith as it has been traditionally taught over its 2,000-year history. He lives in southern California with his (pregnant) wife of two years, Emily, and their 1-year-old daughter.