We now draw toward the end of our reflection on the precepts of the Church. In summary, the precepts are norms given by the Church that establish a minimum baseline for a healthy Christian life. St. John Paul II has given five precepts to the universal Church: 1) attend Mass on Sundays and other holy days of obligation and to refrain from work and activities which could impede the sanctification of those days; 2) confess one’s sins, receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once each year; 3) receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season; 4) abstain from eating meat [on Fridays] and to observe the days of fasting established by the Church; and 5) help to provide for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.
Now a number of parishioners have asked me: “aren’t there six precepts of the Church?” To answer this question, I return to a point I made at the very beginning of our reflections. The precepts are not an unchangeable fixed list, but minimum norms to help Christians have a healthy faith life. In different times and places the Church has proposed different sets of precepts corresponding to the needs of the faithful at that particular time and place. In fact, the very first set of precepts is found right in the Sacred Scriptures.
At the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear that the leaders of the Church established four precepts: 1) to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, 2) to abstain from blood, 3) to abstain from the meat of strangled animals and 4) to avoid sexual immorality. Since idol worship is not a common temptation for Christians today, the Church no longer has precepts warning against the dietary practices associated with it.
So returning to the question of the sixth precept, we see that, here in the United States, the bishops gave Catholics a particular set of precepts that related to our own unique spiritual situation. They did so in the Baltimore Catechism. It, indeed, did have a sixth precept. It stated: “You shall observe the Church’s laws on marriage.” So, though it was not part of the universal catechism, this sixth precept was given by our bishops to the faithful in the United States. Clearly, they perceived a crisis when it came to the Sacrament of Marriage. I do not think it takes much reflection on the current state of marriage in this country to perceive their foresight and wisdom.
The marriage laws of the church, though they may seem odd or burdensome to couples at times, have only one goal—successful, happy marriages. For example, though many don’t realize it, Catholics need to receive special permission to marry non-Catholics and, in particular, non-Christians. Why does the Catholic Church encourage believers marrying believers? Because that is what God revealed in the scriptures through his apostle St. Paul: “Do not be yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14).
Besides the spiritual mandate of scripture, there is also a very practical rationale for this. Marriage is hard; the fewer fundamentals couples have in common, the harder it is. And, what is more fundamental then the way in which we relate to God? Indeed, though many young couples dismiss differences of faith as insignificant, as they grow and mature, it is not uncommon that one of the spouses experiences a spiritual awakening. Faith and a relationship with God become of central importance.
There are many husbands and wives who, striving to practice their Christian faith, will be the first to share how incredibly difficult and lonely it can be not to have a spouse who shares and participates in this most intimate part of their daily lives. It is as much from the lived experience of such men and women, as it is from the revelation of Sacred Scripture, that the Church proposes her norms for marriage. In so doing, she recommends the strongest and surest grounds for stable, happy, and life giving marriages.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!