Being Catholic sometimes asks a lot of us. We are supposed to avoid sin, do good, and serve the poor and marginalized in justice and charity. Those are all things that are required of us by God, or because we are followers of Jesus Christ. But there are also some things we are required to do that have been decreed by the authority of the church. These “positive laws” set forth five obligations called the Precepts of the Church. As found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2042-2043, these precepts are:
1. To attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and to rest from servile labor.
2. To confess our sins at least once a year.
3. To receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter Season.
4. To observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.
5. To help provide for the needs of the Church.
Note that these precepts are not derived from natural law, or from any direct revelation from God. Instead, they are set forth by the Church itself, to “guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and more effort, in the growth in the love of God and neighbor.” (CCC 2041) The problem with how these precepts have been interpreted, particularly in the past, is that many people became satisfied with this minimum. And so receiving communion only once a year, and going to confession once a year, became one’s “Easter duty.”
It’s good to know the minimum that’s required of us. But it’s also important to know that in matters of the heart, soul, and spirit, God will always challenge us to do more than the minimum. Indeed, the words of Jesus in the Gospels, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and “Love one another as I have loved you,” set an ideal for us that we’ll never completely achieve. But these ideals should keep us aiming high. The precepts of the Church are important statements of the Church’s expectations of her members, but our faith will always challenge us to reach higher than the minimum.