By Nick Jones, University of Rhode Island
You know the drill. It’s the New Year, so everyone is posting or talking about their resolutions. Some seem better, or at least more actionable, than others. Regardless of the specifics, they all seem to hover around the idea of self-improvement. No one’s goal is ever to become a worse person. How should we Catholics understand this notion of self-improvement? Contrary to the culturally woke notion of self-love as an end in itself, we are called to love ourselves for God’s sake. To be sure, we ought to be constantly cooperating with God and His actual graces in order to become more like Him. Consider the Parable of the Talents (cf. Matthew 25:14–30). Much is expected of those of us to whom much has been given. The greatest talent, or gift, entrusted to us is that of the Faith. Thus, if we want to become a better person, we ought to improve our practice of the Faith every day. In a vacuum, this might seem quite arduous; it may seem like we can’t even begin to understand where to begin. Luckily, our wise Holy Mother Church has the practical experience of nearly two millennia and gives us the baseline in the Precepts (or Commandments) of the Church. These six obligations, to be enumerated below, provide the bare minimum for the practice of the Faith. Imposed by the Church upon her faithful, the Precepts gain their obligatory status from both Divine Law and the Power of the Keys entrusted by Christ to Peter, and the Apostles, and by extension to their successors the Pope and bishops (cf. Matthew 16:19).
Before naming and explaining the implications of the Precepts, it is useful to discuss their nature as the bare minimum. We hear in Luke’s gospel the chilling lament “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10) When we consider the love shown for us by our Lord, we see Him constantly giving more than just the bare minimum. On Calvary, in the ultimate display of His Divine Charity, Christ gave totally of Himself as He endured a suffering worse than any before or since. He could have simply redeemed us by mere a pinprick shedding of His Blood, or simply by His Incarnation, or even simpler by Divine fiat without His dwelling among us. Instead of these, He chose the most dramatic and dolorous means to show the immensity of His Divine Charity. We are called to that same radical, self-defeating Charity. So, while the Precepts provide a baseline to be considered a Catholic in good standing, it would be quite disingenuous to simply and merely carry them out in blind obligation. Rather, they provide for us the absolute minimum, upon which we are called to build a robust spiritual life. Any effort to do so, of course, should only be carried out in accordance with the wisdom of the saints and the counsel of our confessors and spiritual directors.
The Precepts of the Church are as follows (N.B. The particular disciplines of fasting and abstinence and holy days of obligation as discussed below are proper to Catholics belonging to the Latin Rite):
1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.
2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
3. You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least once during the Easter season.
4. You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
5. You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church.
6. You shall observe the Church’s laws on marriage.
You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor. In the United States, the following days are holy days of obligation: 1/1, Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God; 40 days after Easter (most often transferred to the following Sunday), The Ascension of the Lord; 8/15, Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; 11/1, Solemnity of All Saints; 12/8, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary; 12/25, The Nativity of the Lord. Servile labor is considered that which would hinder one’s ability to keep the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest. Exactly which acts are to be avoided can be considered subjective, depending upon one’s profession and/or state in life.
You shall confess your sins at least once a year. This precept technically applies only to mortal sins, which must be confessed in kind and number. A sin is considered mortal in that it totally deprives us of sanctifying grace and kills our relationship with God. There are three characteristics a sin must meet to be considered mortal. First, it must be grave matter. There is no exhaustive list of actions constituting grave matter. Serious violations of the 10 Commandments (cf. CCC 1858), as well as the Four Sins which Cry to Heaven (murder, sodomy, taking advantage of the poor, and defrauding the laborer of his wages), the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth), and Saint Paul’s lists from Galatians 5:19-20 & 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are good points of reference. The second condition for a sin to be mortal is that it must be committed with full knowledge of its gravity. If someone is truly ignorant through no fault of their own that the action is grave matter, then it would not be a mortal sin. The last condition is that the sin must be committed with deliberate consent of the will. Conditions such as habit, or mental illness, or duress from an exterior agent or force could mitigate the extent to which we deliberately consent to an act. Any sin not meeting all of these characteristics is said to be venial. These sins wound our relationship with God and can lead to a weakening of the will that may predispose us to commit mortal sin. While not obligatory, many authors attest to the value of habitual confession of venial sins. Of course, it can be hard for us to discern the gravity of our sins. This is especially true on account of our sinful pride. When we aren’t sure, our best recourse is always to seek the counsel of a wise priest in the confessional.
You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least once during the Easter season. In the United States, this time period has been customarily extended to the time between the First Sunday of Lent and Trinity Sunday, one week after Pentecost. Worthy reception of the Eucharist has a few necessary conditions. Most importantly, must observe the one-hour fast from all food and drink, except water and medicine, prior to receiving the Eucharist. One must likewise be free from any unconfessed mortal sin. One must also be sure to desire the Eucharist out of love of God, not due to vain habit or desiring merely to appear holy. We ought to live our lives in a manner such that we are always properly disposed to receive Communion whenever we attend Mass, unless that would mean more than 2 receptions a day, which is forbidden. The key to a healthy spiritual life is to often and piously receive the Eucharist, without it becoming something to which we feel entitled.
You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church. Fasting is obligatory for all Roman Catholics aged 18 to 59 and entails eating no more than one regular sized meal and two smaller meals which together do not exceed the size of the larger one. Fasting is obligatory only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, although it is good practice to adopt with some regularity on days when it is not required. Abstinence is required for anyone older than 14 and entails not eating the flesh of any warm-blooded animal. It is obligatory on all Fridays of the year, except when a solemnity occurs. Bishops’ conferences may choose to substitute another penance on Fridays in their countries. In the US, the bishops have decided that the penance can be considered optional, albeit highly recommended. With the law being so lax, it would not hurt us all to try and simply keep all Fridays as meatless.
You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church. This is the most subjective of all the precepts. The question of how much to give is best left to the individual, and to their spouse if applicable. We do well to bear in mind the poor widow, who gave all she had, a few coins and was contrasted to the rich who gave more, at no cost to themselves (cf. Mark 12:41-44).The custom of tithing, whereby one gives 1/10 of their income before tax is laudable, although it might not be feasible for all people. It is good to recall that almsgiving can also include gifts of time or of our talents. What is important is that we give freely, without counting the cost.
You shall observe the Church’s laws on marriage. While these are many and various, there are some basics every Catholic should know. The Church has the right to govern any marriage wherein at least one party is Catholic. Marriage is voided only at death; there is no Catholic divorce. A declaration of nullity, deeming that the marriage never was valid in the first place, may be granted. Two Catholics must be married within the Church for the marriage to be valid, unless granted a dispensation from the local bishop. Permission from the local bishop is likewise needed for a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian. A different dispensation is needed in the case of a Catholic and a person who has not been baptized.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs
 After the Second Vatican Council, the command to observe the laws of marriage is no longer one of the precepts of the Church.