Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

08 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Preliminary Reflections

Catechists (teachers of the Faith) often present Catholic doctrines in lists.  There are four cardinal virtues, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, eight beatitudes, and ten commandments.  Teachers present the lists and unpack the details of each item on the lists.  The Internet makes information readily available, so memorization doesn't seem to be advocated or necessary anymore.

Call me "old school," but I still appreciate the value of memorizing things.  Now, with these newfangled cell phones, I haven't been memorizing phone numbers in a few years; but I still can remember phone numbers I used to dial ("Dial"? What does that mean?).

In the next several posts I shall present and develop the individual items of an old, familiar list: the Precepts of the Church.  Paragraph 2041-2043 of the Catechism lists five precepts, although earlier lists contain six or seven.  I shall treat the CCC five as well as two other precepts which, for whatever reason, failed to make the cut.
(Some scholars will list the book of Joshua and perhaps even Judges among the books of the Pentateuch, thereby renaming it the "Hexateuch" or "Heptateuch"!  Whither the disparities among catechetical lists?  The best answer lies in the axiom, "Academia thrives on disagreement.")
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We can begin with the CCC glossary definition of the Precepts of the Church:
Positive laws (sometimes called commandments) made by Church authorities to guarantee for the faithful the indispensable minimum in prayer and moral effort, for the sake of their growth in love of God and neighbor.

St. Thomas Aquinas defines "law" as "a certain ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has care for the community."  Perhaps we will notice how this definition supports the precepts of the Church.

Positive laws (commandments): The Catholic Church is often stereotyped by her negative precepts.  "Thou shalt not" do...just about everything!  What can or ought we do?  Look no further!  There is infinite freedom to "live Christ."

Made by Church authorities: Members of most other earthly bodies would recognize the right and responsibility of those earthly bodies to craft liturgical, moral, and procedural rules for the sake of maintaining group identity and order.  But people so often question the Church's rights to do these same things for these same reasons.  They may fail to see Christ actively at work in the Church's teaching authority, in contrast to His more visible and acceptable presence in the discharge of corporal works of mercy.  The former makes possible the latter.

To guarantee...the indispensable minimum in prayer and moral effort: I don't know which came first: the theoretical establishment of a minimum or the practical observance of it.  Some years ago I came across a sign on a priest's desk that read, "What's the least I must do to avoid mortal sin?"  It seems mildly irreverent to put it that way, but to be honest, I'm not always eagerly advancing "from glory to glory."

Jesus' threefold interrogation of Peter (in the Greek) comes to mind.  "Simon, do you love Me [in terms of laying down your life for me]?  Not quite?  Well, do you love Me [as a friend]?" (cf. Jn 21:15-17)  If Jesus accepts from no less than His chief shepherd the love of friends in the provisional absence of sacrificial love, then I'm better off than I might think.  Of course, neither for Peter nor for me will lesser loves suffice.  Discipleship is all about disposing myself to growth in love of God and neighbor.

At the outset, the CCC reminded us: The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life.  Whether you are observing the Church's precepts won't much matter to you if you are absenting yourself from the Lord's Day assembly and not bothering to form your conscience properly.  Sincere attempts to obey the commandments and beatitudes, devotion to the Lord, to Our Lady, and to the saints: these are a "given" that, unfortunately, cannot be taken for granted in this age.

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