Precepts of the Church

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Catechism of the Catholic Church

CCC #2041-2043
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 neighbor:
  • The first precept ("You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor") requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring 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.[1]
  • 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.[2] [The canon actually refers to "serious" or "grave" sins, so one may not, in fact, be obliged to confess every year if one has committed no such weighty sins.]
  • The third precept ("You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least [once] 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 center of the Christian liturgy.[3]
  • 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.[4]
  • 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.[5] The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own abilities.[6]

Summary forms

1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and 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 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.

Even shorter:

1. Attend Mass.
2. Confess sin.
3. Receive the Eucharist.
4. Fast and abstain.
5. Donate money.

Age for Fasting and Abstinence

Canon 1250
All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.
Canon 1251
Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Canon 1252
All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults [those over age 18][7] are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.
Can. 1253
It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

U.S. norms for Friday penance

"Is Friday Penance Required?"
The U.S. norms are found in a document entitled "On Penance and Abstinence," dated November 18, 1966, which, despite the revision of the Code of Canon Law, remains in force.
In this document, it is particularly necessary to distinguish between the language of law and the language of exhortation.
The bishops removed legal obligations while going on to exhort people to do things freely that were formerly obligatory. In this way they sought to avoid the impression that they were undermining the Church’s penitential practice.
The big legal change comes in norm 3, where the bishops state that "we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence as binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday." So the obligation to abstain from meat was terminated.
"On Penance and Abstinence."
16. During the Lenten season, certain feasts occur which the liturgy or local custom traditionally exempts from the Lenten spirit of penance. The observance of these will continue to be set by local diocesan regulations; in these and like canonical questions which may arise in connection with these pastoral instructions, reference should be made to article VII of Poenitemini and the usual norms.
March 17, March 19, March 25 ...
20. Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
21. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died,urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.
22. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.
23. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.
24. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law. Our expectation is based on the following considerations:
We shall thus freely and out of love for Christ Crucified show our solidarity with the generations of believers to whom this practice frequently became,especially in times of persecution and of great poverty,no mean evidence of fidelity to Christ and His Church.
We shall thus also remind ourselves that as Christians, although immersed in the world and sharing its life, we must preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world. Our deliberate,personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.
25. Every Catholic Christian understands that the fast and abstinence regulations admit of change, unlike the commandments and precepts of that unchanging divine moral law which the Church must today and always defend as immutable. This said, we emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that "no" scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience,confessions, or personal decisions on this point.
26. Perhaps we should warn those who decide to keep the Friday abstinence for reasons of personal piety and special love that they must not pass judgment on those who elect to substitute other penitential observances. Friday, please God,will acquire among us other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat. In this connection we have foremost in mind the modern need for self-discipline in the use of stimulants and for a renewed emphasis on the virtue of temperance, especially in the use of alcoholic beverages.
27. It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends,our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.
28. In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. Rather, let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God's people.
N.B. The effective date of these regulations is the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, 1966.

Solemnity of St. Joseph

Dispensation from fasting and abstinence

Can. 1245
Without prejudice to the right of diocesan bishops mentioned in ⇒ can. 87, for a just cause and according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop, a pastor can grant in individual cases a dispensation from the obligation of observing a feast day or a day of penance or can grant a commutation of the obligation into other pious works. A superior of a religious institute or society of apostolic life, if they are clerical and of pontifical right, can also do this in regard to his own subjects and others living in the house day and night.

Rationales for Lenten Practices

  • Fasting was and is part of the Jewish Liturgical Year.
  • Yom Kippur rules for the meal after the fast — no meat?
  • Moses and Elijah fasted 40 days each.
Exodus 34:28
So Moses was there with the LORD for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words.
1 Kings 19:8
He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.
  • 40 days of rain to cleanse the earth. Did Noah and his family fast?
  • 40 years in the desert.
  • John the Baptist: lived on "locusts and wild honey."
  • Jesus' 40 days in the desert. What could he have eaten? Desert food?
  • Jesus fasted from Last Supper until death on the Cross. (Was this the original fast before Easter?)
  • Gen 2 — humans seem to be meant to be vegetarians at first.
  • Gen 2:16-17 — Adam and Eve had to abstain from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil!
  • Cain and Abel? Grain good, animal sacrifice bad? Grain more primitive?
  • Fish meat is less bloody than land animals or fowl?
  • 40 years in the desert: Manna first; quails later.
  • Fish (ixthus) stands for Jesus, therefore "we eat nothing but Jesus"? I've never seen any ancient sources that mentioned this rationale.
  • A Pope's relatives sold fish, and therefore asked for relaxation of Lenten fast so that their business would not suffer during Lent. Legend from the Middle Ages?
  • Improved the diet of the poor? Suggested by a listener, but it doesn't make sense to me.

We have toned down the Lenten fast considerably from the "black fast," which required abstinence from meat, dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, cream), eggs, fowl, and fish, and was for all 40 days of Lent!

Fridays are a tiny remembrance of the old Great Fast. The East still calls the whole season of Lent "the Great Fast." They fast and abstain on Wednesdays and Fridays all through the Great Fast.

Many concessions to human weakness in the Roman tradition.


In the Middle Ages, it was licit to eat a beaver's tail, but not the rest of it. The tail was considered fish, but not the rest of the animal. "The definition of 'fish' was often extended to marine and semi-aquatic animals such as whales, barnacle geese, puffins and even beavers. ... fake eggs could be made by stuffing empty egg shells with fish roe and almond milk and cooking it in coals."


  1. Cf. CIC, cann. 1246-1248; CCEO, cann. 881 § 1, § 2, § 4.
  2. Cf. CIC, can. 989; CCEO, can. 719. "The faithful are obliged to confess any serious sins at least once a year" (Kevin E. McKenna, A Concise Guide to Canon Law: A Practical Handbook for Pastoral Ministers [Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2000], 50).
  3. Cf. CIC, can. 920; CCEO, cann. 708; 881 § 3. I have inserted the word "once" into the text. Canon 920 reads: "§1. After being initiated into the Most Holy Eucharist, each of the faithful is obliged to receive holy communion at least once a year. §2. This precept must be fulfilled during the Easter season unless it is fulfilled for a just cause at another time during the year.
  4. Cf. CIC, cann. 1249-1251; CCEO, can. 882.
  5. Cf. CIC, can. 222; CCEO can. 25; Furthermore, episcopal conferences can establish other ecclesiastical precepts for their own territories (Cf. CIC, can. 455).
  6. Cf. CIC, can. 222. [This last sentence seems redundant, but the duplication exists both in the online and the printed version of the Catechism.]
  7. Canon law defines an adult as a person who has completed their eighteenth year of age (Canon 97) and does not lack the use of reason (Canon 99).