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Commandments of the Church

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We shall consider:

I. The nature of the Commandments of the Church in general;
II. The history of the Commandments of the Church;
III. Their classification.


The authority to enact laws obligatory on all the faithful belongs to the Church by the very nature of her constitution. Entrusted with the original deposit of Christian revelation, she is the appointed public organ and interpreter of that revelation for all time. For the effective discharge of her high office, she must be empowered to give to her laws the gravest sanction. These laws when they bind universally, have for their object:

  • the definition or explanation of some doctrine, either by way of positive pronouncement or by the condemnation of opposing error ;
  • the prescription of the time and manner in which a Divine law, more or less general and indeterminate, is to be observed, e.g. the precept obliging the faithful to receive the Holy Eucharist during the paschal season and to the Holy Eucharist during the paschal season and to confess their sins annually;
  • the defining of the sense of the moral law in its application to difficult cases of conscience, e.g. many of the decisions of the Roman Congregations ;
  • some matter of mere discipline serving to safeguard the observance of the higher law, e.g. the Commandments to contribute to the support of oneUs pastors (Vacant, Dict. de theol. cath., s.v.).
All these laws when binding on the faithful universally are truly commandments of the Church. In the technical sense, however, the table of these Commandments does not contain doctrinal pronouncements. Such an inclusion would render it too complex. The Commandments of the Church (in this restricted sense) are moral and ecclesiastical, and as a particular code of precepts are necessarily broad in character and limited in number.


We outline here only in a general way the history of the form and number of the precepts of the Church. The discussion of the content of the several Commandments and of the penalties imposed by the Church for violation of these Commandments will be found under the various subjects to which they refer. We do not find in the early history of the Church any fixed and formal body of Church Commandments. As early, however, as the time of Constantine, 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; but no reference is here made to any precepts of the Church accepted in a particular sense. Neither do we discover such special reference in one of the short sermons addressed to neophytes and attributed to St. Boniface, but probably of later date, in which the hearers are urged to observe Sunday, pay tithes to the Church, observe the fasts, and receive at times the Holy Eucharist. In German books of popular instruction and devotion from the ninth century onwards special emphasis was laid on the obligation to discharge these duties. Particularly does this appear in the forms prepared for the examination of conscience. According to a work written at this time 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

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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 insistence on the precepts here implied, and the fact that they were almost invariably grouped together in the books already referred to, had the inevitable effect of giving them a distinct character. They came to be regarded as special Commandments of the Church. Thus in a book of tracts of the thirteenth century attributed to 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) St. 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 the Spanish canonist, 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, owing to the prevalence of heresy, there appeared many popular works in defence of the authority of the Church and setting forth in a special manner her precepts. Such among others were the "Summa Doctrinæ Christianæ" (1555) of St. Peter Canisius and the "Doctrina Christiana" of Bellarmine (1589). It is plain, however, that the precepts of the Church, as a particular and distinct body of laws were recognized long before the sixteenth century; the contention that they were first definitely formulated by St. Peter Canisius is unwarranted.

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The Church is her supreme authority has defined nothing regarding the form and number of the Commandments of the Church. The Council of Trent while recommending in a general way in its twenty-fifth session the observance of these precepts says nothing regarding them as a particular body of laws. Neither is any specific mention made of them in the "Catechismus ad parochos" published by order of the council and known as the "Catechism of the Council of Trent" or "Roman Catechism" . We have seen that St. Antoninus of Florence enumerates ten such commandments while Martin Aspilcueta mentions only five. This last number is that given by St. Peter Canisius. According to this author the precepts of the Church are: To observe the feast days appointed by the Church ; to hear Mass reverently on these feast days; to observe the fasts on the days during the seasons appointed; to confess to oneUs pastor annually; to receive Holy Communion at least once a year and that around the feast of Easter. Owing undoubtedly to the influence of Canisius, the catechisms generally used at present throughout Germany and Austria-Hungary have adopted the above enumeration. The fourth precept has, however, been amended so as to allow of confession being made to any duly authorized priest.

In Spanish America the number of church precepts is also five; this being the number as we have seen, set down by Aspilcueta in the sixteenth century. Here, however, the First and Second commandment in the table of Canisius are combined into one, and the precept to pay tithes appears. It is to be noted, also, that the precept of annual confession is more specific; it enjoins that this confession be made in Lent, or before, if there be danger of death. (Synod of Mexico, 1585, Lib. I, tit. i, in Hardouin, Conc., X, 1596.) French and Italian catechists reckon six precepts of the church, the enumeration given by Bellarmine. According to this writer the Commandments of the Church are: To hear Mass on Sundays and Holy Days; to fast during Lent, on prescribed vigils, and the ember-days; to abstain from meat on Fridays and Saturdays; to go to confession once a year; to receive Holy Communion at Easter ; to pay tithes ; and finally not to solemnize marriage during the prohibited times.

The French catechisms, following that of Bossuet, omit the last two precepts, but retain the same number as that given by Bellarmine. This they do by making two Commandments cover the obligations to observe Sunday and the Holy Days, and two also regarding the obligations of fast and abstinence. It will be readily observed that the omission by French writers of the Commandment to pay tithes was owing to local conditions. In a "Catechism of Christian Doctrine " approved by Cardinal Vaughan and the bishops of England, six Commandments of the Church are enumerated. These are:

  • to keep the Sundays and Holy Days of obligation holy, by hearing Mass and resting from servile work;
  • to keep the days of fasting and abstinence appointed by the Church ;
  • to go to confession at least once a year;
  • to receive the Blessed Sacrament at least once a year and that at Easter or thereabouts;
  • to contribute to the support of our pastors ;
  • not to marry within a certain degree of kindred nor to solemnize marriage at the forbidden times.
This list is the same as that which the Fathers of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1886) prescribed for the United States.

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