The number of the precepts is confusing to Catholics of a certain age: Some memorized six in grammar school, but the present Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) lists five. Sometimes known as the “Commandments of the Church,” Catholics had observed the general content of these ecclesial obligations since the Middle Ages and later the Council of Trent recommended them in the 16th-century. Yet they weren’t issued as a body of laws until the 19th century by the bishops of England. The clergy of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 in turn adopted this list for the United States.
1. To attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation;
2. To confess one’s sins at least once a year;
3. To receive Holy Communion during the Easter season;
4. To observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the church;
5. To help provide for the needs of the church.
This list from the CCC reinforces the “indispensable minimum” of participation meant to instigate “growth in love of God and neighbor” (no. 2041). The current precepts are primarily focused on guaranteeing engagement in the liturgical life of the church. Although the former precept about honoring the marriage laws of the church is no longer on the list, anyone who approaches the church to be married can vouch for the fact that the laws regarding matrimony are still enforced (see CCC, nos. 1601-1654).
It may sound like the precepts are not really very obligatory for Catholics, considering that they’ve shifted around so much. But in any form they’re fairly old ideas. Since the 4th century, the church encouraged a distinct character and behavior for its members. Sunday and feast-day Mass attendance, the practices of receiving communion and confession, and the particular laws governing marriage were expected of all members. While an official set of obligations wavered between five and ten for another 1,000 years, Saints Peter Canisius argued persuasively for five and Robert Bellarmine for six in the 16th century. Most Catholics in different regions around the world today follow one of these two lists. Some countries add the obligation to provide a Catholic education for one’s children.
• This Is Our Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults by Michael Pennock (Ave Maria Press, 1998)
• Catholic Essentials: An Overview of the Faith by Michael Amodei (Ave Maria Press, 2008)