Meet the precepts of the Church.
They aren’t divine law. Jesus never said them. They’re not in the 10 Commandments. They’re not even in the Bible.
Yet, they’re still commandments. These commandments or precepts are the handful of rules that the Church gives us as our Mother. The Church is our mum. She is the New Jerusalem, the new heavenly city, “the Jerusalem that is above… and she is our mother.” (Galatians 4:26) You can’t have God as your Father, St Cyprian said, if you don’t have the Church as your Mother.
This in itself is an act of faith. It takes courage and great trust to look at a human institution like the Catholic Church and say, yes, I believe in the Catholic Church, the visible Body of Christ who is guided by the Holy Spirit. She is the Bride of Her holy Spouse, Christ Himself, and the mother of all Christians.
Like all acts of faith, it’s also utterly transforming.
If we think of the Church primarily as an institution, we’ll always be just a little bit resentful about the demands of the Church, however small they may be. I have to go to Mass because, ugh, it’s mortal sin if I don’t. I have to put a few dollars in the collection plate because, ugh, the Church just wants my money. I can’t have sex before marriage or use contraception because, ugh, there’s some bigwig in Rome wants to make my life difficult.
But if we understand the Church as our mum, we start to see these same demands in a different light.
What do all mums want? For their kids to grow up. She has been charged with Christ, Her Spouse, to nourish the children of God. She gives birth to us in baptism and feeds us with the Eucharist. She wants us “to grow up in every way into him who is the head [of the Church], into Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)
She also gives us the freedom to live out our faith. If it’s all rules and no personal responsibility, we’ll never grow up. We have received the Holy Spirit precisely so that we “may grow up to salvation.” (1 Peter 2:2) But…
But every so often, Mother Church has got to be a like a mum and say, ‘Enough! You are CLEARLY not going okay. All I ask is that you do this one tiny thing!’
These tiny things are the precepts of the Church.
The precepts of the Church 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 neighbour. (Catechism of the Catholic §2041)
Did you catch that? The very necessary minimum. Mum knows that if we don’t at least do these, we’re going to find ourselves in some serious trouble. No mum wants that.
These precepts are:
- You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labour.
- You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
- You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
- You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
- You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.
The Catechism includes a sixth precept (which you’ll often see listed in older lists). It is to marry according to the laws of the Church. The different with this precept is that it’s an ‘if…’ one. If you marry, it must be according to the laws of the Church. Whereas the five precepts above apply to all Christians, whatever their state or vocation.
As our Mother, the Church knows what we need. She knows that we need to worship God and to receive the graces that flow from the Cross in order to remain in the love of Jesus Christ. She also knows that we need to rest!
For the overly lax, she demands we go to Confession at least once a year. For the overly scrupulous, she demands we receive the Eucharist at least once a year.
She also knows that, with prayer covered at least by Mass, we also need at least some fasting and some almsgiving. These are the three pillars of the spiritual life. So she says to fast on the appointed days and give as we are able to the needs of the Church.
When I look at these precepts, they don’t seem so demanding. I mean, go to Mass on Sundays and actually rest as well? Wow, so demanding. Observe all two days of fasting a year? Ugh, I’m dying. Confess your sins once a year? That’s the Elizabethean equivalent of bathing when it comes to the Spiritual life (i.e. stinky).
The difficult of these precepts for many isn’t the requirements themselves. They’re not onerous.
It’s the very idea that the Church would make demands on us.
That’s why we need to see the Church as our Mother. Our own mothers aren’t perfect and the Church, in her humanity, is far from perfect. But by the Holy Spirit who guards and the guides Her, She is our Mother. All good mothers make rules for their kids for their own good. In this case, it’s the highest spiritual good, our salvation.
Our Mother the Church wants us to love the Lord and grow up “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) She wants us to become saints.
Oh, and to eat something.