Commandments of the Church

Commandments of the Church

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Commandments of the Church or Precepts of the Church are certain laws considered binding on the faithful. As usually understood, they are moral and ecclesiastical, broad in character and limited in number. In modern times there are often said to be six[1], or sometimes five; the enumeration depends on the catechism cited. These specifically Catholic commandments are distinct from those usually called the ten commandments and considered binding by all the Abrahamic religions.


In particular

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its Compendium, enumerates the following five:

  1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and remain free from work or activity that could impede the sanctification of such days.
  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.

The fourth Church Commandmend is commonly remembered as abstinence from meat (but not fish) on Fridays (except solemnities), and abstinence plus restriction to one meal only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Of course, the details are quite various, including some countries to allow for a different way of penance on at least ordinary Fridays. It should also be remembered that the whole of Lent, excluding Sundays, is of penitential character[2], though no specified practice is required.


The most obvious reason for the Church commandments is Church authority, which has a right to be obeyed as delegated by Our Lord[3], which common tradition subsums under the Fourth Commandment. The first Church Commandment is obviously an explanation of the minimum requirements for hallowing the Lord's Day, with the specification that it is Mass, and not anything else, that needs to be heard, that the Lord's Day has been shifted from Saturday to Sunday, and that some other feasts are assigned by Church authority in remembrance of Our Lord, of His blessed Mother and of the Saints. The third Church Commandment is a specification to Our Lord's directive to eat His Flesh[4], reducible to the Third Commendment as well since it is an act of devotion. The second Church Commandment prescribes a preparation for fulfilling the third Church Commandment and was promulgated at the Fourth Council of the Lateran.[5] What concerns the fourth Church Commandment, the Church believes that penance[6] is of divine law, and the notion is general that fasting, as a penitential practise, is quite useful[7], citing such Scripture as "Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting"[8]. Thus again, the commanding act of the Church rather consists in the precisation. The necessity of providing for the needs of the Church results from the faithful belonging to one Mystical Body and is regulated in canons 1260 and 1262.[9]

The Church commandments are generally seen as “minimum requirements” for leading a Christian life in Communion with the Catholic Church.


As early as the time of Constantine I, especial insistence was put upon the obligation to hear Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, to receive the sacraments and to abstain from contracting marriage at certain seasons. In the seventh-century Penitentiary of Theodore of Canterbury we find penalties imposed on those who contemn the Sunday and fail to keep the fasts of the Church as well as legislation regarding the reception of the Eucharist.

According to a work written by Regino, Abbot of Prüm (d. 915), entitled "Libri duo de synodalibus causis et disciplinis", the bishop in his visitation is, among other inquiries, to ask

if anyone has not kept the fast of Lent, or of the ember-days, or of the rogations, or that which may have been appointed by the bishop for the staying of any plague; if there by any one who has not gone to Holy Communion three time in the year, that is at Easter, Pentecost and Christmas; if there by any one who has withheld tithes from God and His saints; if there by anyone so perverse and so alienated from God as not to come to Church at least on Sundays; if there be anyone who has not gone to confession once in the year, that is at the beginning of Lent, and has not done penance for his sins (Hafner, Zur Geschichte der Kirchengebote, in Theologische Quartalschrift, LXXX, 104).

The precepts here implied came to be regarded as special Commandments of the Church. Thus in a book of tracts of the thirteenth century attributed to Pope Celestine V (though the authenticity of this work has been denied) a separate tractate is given to the precepts of the Church and is divided into four chapters, the first of which treats of fasting, the second of confession and paschal Communion, the third of interdicts on marriage, and the fourth of tithes.

In the fourteenth century Ernest von Parduvitz, Archbishop of Prague, instructed his priests to explain in popular sermons the principal points of the catechism, the Our Father, the Creed, the Commandments of God and of the Church (Hafner, loc. cit., 115). A century later (1470) the catechism of Dietrick Coelde, the first, it is said, to be written in German, explicitly set forth that there were five Commandments of the Church.

In his "Summa Theologica" (part I, tit. xvii, p. 12) Antoninus of Florence (1439) enumerates ten precepts of the Church universally binding on the faithful. These are:

  • to observe certain feasts
  • to keep the prescribed fasts
  • to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days
  • to confess once a year
  • to receive Holy Communion during paschal time
  • to pay tithes
  • to abstain from any act upon which an interdict has been placed entailing excommunication
  • to refrain also from any act interdicted under pain of excommunication latæ sententiæ
  • to avoid association with the excommunicated
  • finally, not to attend Mass or other religious functions celebrated by a priest living in open concubinage.

In the sixteenth century Martin Aspilcueta(1586), gives a list of five principal precepts of obligation:

  • to fast at certain prescribed times
  • to pay tithes
  • to go to confession once a year
  • and to receive Holy Communion at Easter (Enchiridion, sive manuale confessariorum et poenitentium, Rome, 1588, ch. xxi, n. 1).

At this time there began to appear many popular works in defence of the authority of the Church and setting forth her precepts. Such among others were the "Summa Doctrinæ Christianæ" (1555) of Peter Canisius and the "Doctrina Christiana" of Bellarmine (1589).


  1. ^ E.g.,
  2. ^ Paul VI, Paenitemini II 1
  3. ^ “He that heareth you, heareth me.” Lk 10:16
  4. ^ Joh 5:53
  5. ^ Technically, he is not bound to confess who has not sinned mortally. Can 989. Previously, theologists have opined that their duty to confess “their sins” is indeed restricted to mortal sins, but if they have none, they are bound to declare just that in the confessional. St. Thomas Supp. 6 III ad 3, who however also mentions the other opinion, safer then and, anyway and now as well, the better alternative anyway in a spiritual way, that such persons at least should confess some of their venial sins.
  6. ^ Paenitemini I 1
  7. ^ St. Thomas, II/II 147 I and III
  8. ^ Joel 2:12
  9. ^ According to Can. 1263, a compulsory church tax may be imposed to natural persons only in extraordinary circumstances, except in countries where this is particular custom.


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed (1913). "Commandments of the Church". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 

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