A couple of years ago, I was at a men’s group meeting, and the presenter asked for someone to name the precepts of the Church. No one could, out of over thirty people.
The precepts of the Church are defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2041 to 2043. They are the minimum requirements to be considered in communion with the Church, to be considered an active and full member of the Catholic Church.
Keeping the precepts doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to go to heaven. It doesn’t mean that you don’t sin or are not living in a state of moral sin. It doesn’t even mean that you are a good person. Not keeping the precepts might, however, put your soul in jeopardy. Breaking the precepts is considered a grave matter, and if done with consent and understanding would constitute a mortal sin.
How do the precepts help us? They are “meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” (CCC 2041) They are foundational. Necessary but not sufficient. Good grammar won’t make you a great novelist, but you won’t be a great novelist without good grammar.
Here are the precepts:
1. “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor” (CCC 2042). This pretty much reflects the commandment to make holy the Sabbath. It isn’t really complicated, though what is meant by resting from servile labor could take a whole book to discuss.
2. “You shall confess your sins at least once a year” (CCC 2042). Many people only go to confession during Lent. If you are pretty saintly and avoid mortal sin assiduously, and don’t have a problem with habitual venal sin, then maybe that is enough. But for the rest of us, monthly confession is helpful, and if you do fall in to mortal sin, going right away is imperative.
3. “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season” (CCC 2042). If you only go to confession during Lent, then only taking the Eucharist at Easter makes sense. But remember we are going to Mass weekly. Most people take communion every time they go to Mass (though this hasn’t always been the case).
4. “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” (CCC 2043). At the current time in the U.S. that means that we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent. We are also (in the U.S.) called to make some sort of penance on all Fridays. There is even talk of renewing the Friday abstinence (which, by the way, was the direct cause of the McDonald’s Fish Filet sandwich).
5. “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church” (CCB 2043). That means giving to the collection basket as well as volunteering. We are called to give according to our ability, and what that means is left up to our consciences.
So that is it: go to Mass, go to confession, partake of the Eucharist, fast and abstain, and provide for the needs of the church. The basics of being a Catholic.