Question: When I was young, we learned six precepts of the Church. Someone told me that the list has been reduced to five. Can you clarify the current number and why the change was made?
— G. Russell Reiss, via email
Answer: The word “precept” comes from the Latin praeceptum, meaning to “warn, admonish or instruct.” As such, the precepts of the Church specified historically a kind of bare minimum that Catholics must observe in living the Catholic Faith. The “prae” (or before) in the word indicates that they were often given as an admonition to converts prior to their entry in the Church.
The number and specifics of the precepts have varied a bit over the centuries and places where they were given. They do not rise to the level of formal Church doctrine but are more in the nature of an authoritative pastoral admonition.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent did not mention them, though the current Catechism does (cf., CCC Nos. 2041-2043) and lists five: 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 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.
Older Catholics in England and America are familiar with a list of six, which added: “not to marry within a certain degree of kindred nor to solemnize marriage at the forbidden times.” This sixth precept was not in lists in other parts of the world. Thus, when the universal Catechism was published in the 1990s, the more widespread list of five was used. The sixth precept is surely important but is spelled out clearly in other Church legislation related to marriage law.
Other moral and ecclesial laws not mentioned in the precepts surely also bind us. The precepts focus on Church life and the minimal requirements of the faithful related to that.
Question: I get frequent questions from parishioners about the need to “reformulate” our Genesis-based understanding of creation and the fall, based on scientific findings of the age of the universe and its origin. How do you answer critiques that point to this apparent conflict between faith and science?
— Father Donald Wright, West Bend, Wisconsin
Answer: The Genesis account does not propose to us a literalistic and scientific account of the origins of the cosmos. As the Catechism says, “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event” (No. 390). This applies also to the accounts of Creation. For example, what does it mean in the Genesis account to speak of a “day” when the sun and moon are not created until the fourth “day”? How could it be that “evening came, and morning followed” (Gen 1:8) before there is a sun? Further, there are actually two accounts of creation in Genesis and both are very different. Scripture speaks to the truth of God as creator and sustainer of all things but does not propose to us a strict univocal account of the details. As such, there is no intrinsic conflict between what Genesis affirms and what science, using its terminology, affirms.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.