How to get to heaven: The Five Precepts of the Catholic Church

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 29-30)

Some Catholics really live out their faith, but many unfortunately do not.

Perhaps a Pareto Principle approach to the faith is to start with the very necessary minimum.  These, are called The Precepts of the Church.  According to a Priest I know, if a Catholic did just these five things, they would get to heaven.  He also mentions that these don’t even require daily prayer, though I imagine that habit would develop quickly for most if they were implementing the precepts.

The Precepts of the Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the Precepts of the Church as follows:
“The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life.  the obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is 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:

  • The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labour”) requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principle liturgical feasts honouring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.
  • The second precept (“You shall confess your sins at least once a year.”) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.
  • The third precept (“You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season”) guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and centre of the Christian liturgy.
  • The fourth precept (“You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.
  • The fifth precept (“You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church”) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.

The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church – 2041-2043)

There appears to be a double up of the last one, as it seems that an earlier version of the precepts in the Catechism had #1 split into two (at the time #2 & #4), with the current #4 being #5 five originally, and the current #5 originally being the final paragraph.

My own personal opinion is that these doing this ‘very necessary minimum’ would in time lead most people to more than the minimum.  For example:
  • According to Felix Just’s Lectionary Statistics, attending Mass on Sundays (not including holy days of obligation that don’t fall on Sundays) would see you 40.8% of the New Testament and 3.7% of the Old Testament (not including the Psalms used).  You would be exposed to the Nicene and Apostles Creed, the Our Father (or Lord’s Prayer) and the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.  On top of that, you would be receiving homilies and praying to God and developing a personal relationship with him via using the highest prayer, the Prayer of the Mass.  
  • By resting one day a week, God allows people time to worship Him and to rest for the week ahead.  
  • The second precept assumes you have been baptised and confirmed, the two initiation sacraments of the Church.  This would likely mean you have been Catechised to get to this point.
  • The consumption of the Body and Blood of the Lord at least once a year ensures that people have a healthy fear of abusing this sacrament (1 Corinthians 11), whilst also ensuring they consume Christ’s Body and Blood so as to have eternal life (John 6).  It also ensures people pay additional attention to the Paschal season.
  • The times of ascesis and fasting ensures that we do not become attached to the world, but that we continue to remember that the Lord is the focus for us in all things.  It also helps us to develop the virtues such as humility, chastity, etc. by opposing sin.
  • By assisting with the needs of the Church, we contribute to the evangelisation of the world, whilst also giving alms.
Thus one can see that these precepts would naturally bear fruit in the life of Catholics beyond them if they were truly implemented.
How are you going with the implementing the Precepts of the Church in your own life?

Related information for Australian Catholics: Friday Penance and Holy Days of Obligation

There are some aspects to the above Precepts of the Catholic Church implemented by the Australian Catholics Bishops Conference that seem to be unknown even to many practicing Australian Catholics.  For the sake of completion, I have included the details on these points below.

Friday Penance

I have (regrettably) heard a Priest or two say that the Church has done away with no meat on Fridays.  On a technicality this is true, but it is only half the message.  Based on my research (which is open to correction), it appears the Catholic Church in Australia has not suspended Friday penance obligations.  Rather, they have made no meat on Fridays throughout the year one of a range of options for penance, with the expectation that one of the options is still completed.  This means there is still an expectation that penance will be completed every Friday throughout the year for those within a certain age group.  
The details are as follows, which is taken from the ‘Complementary Legislation for Australia Enacted by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’:

“Days of Penance
(Canons 1251, 1253)
Abstinence for meat, and fasting, are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On all other Fridays of the year the law of the common practice of penance is fulfilled by performing any one of the following:
(a) prayer – as for example, mass attendance; family prayer; a visit to a church or chapel; reading the Bible; making the stations of the cross; praying the rosary; or in other ways;
(b) self-denial – v.g. not eating meat; not eating sweets or dessert; giving up entertainment to spend time with the family; limiting food and drink so as to give to the poor of one’s own country and elsewhere; or in other ways;
(c) helping others – v.g. special attention to someone who is poor, sick, elderly, lonely or overburdened, or in other ways.

ACR LXII, 4, October 1985″


A Change Back to the Old Ways is Possible

Recently England moved back to the traditional requirement of all Fridays of the year having not eating meat as the prescribed penance.  Whilst we currently have liberty to do the other options, it has been suggested by some that the Australian Church could move in the same direction.  Therefore:

  • The law of common practice of penance requires something is done each Friday of the year.
  • One is naturally not limited to just one if they feel inclined to do more.
  • The traditional option of no meat on Fridays may be preferable on the assumption the Australian Catholic Church could return to this as the only option for fulfilling the obligation in the future (plus, it is a good witnessing opportunity).

Holy Days of Obligation in Australia

The Holy Days of Obligation (in addition to Sunday obligations) according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church total 10 days, as per the following:

“Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension of Christ, the feast of the body and blood of Christi [sic], the feast of Mary the Mother of God, her Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, the feast of Saint Joseph, the feast of the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and the feast of All Saints.”111
(Catechism of the Catholic Church – 2177)

However, footnote 111 referenced says the following: “CIC, can. 1246 S 2: “The conference of Bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.”” (Catechism of the Catholic Church – 2177 – footnote #111)

The Australian Catholic Church therefore celebrates Holy Days of Obligation as follows.

“Holy Days of Obligation
Canon 1247
The holydays of obligation in Australia are:

All Sundays of the year
Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
ACR LXII, 4, October 1985
These two holydays of obligation are to be observed annually, regardless
of the day of the week on which they fall.
Decree of Promulgation 
15 May 2001
ACR 78,3, July 2001″

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