ASK FATHER: Neglect of the Precepts of the Church and Mortal Sin. Wherein Fr. Z rants.

From a priest…


I am trying to clarify whether or not the precepts of the church bind under mortal sin? According to the catechism of St. Pius X they do, however the current CCC gives no clear indication.

I have read it a dozen commentaries on the issue and some say they do, others say they don’t. This question is specifically in regards to “confessing our sins once per year.” Does a person need to confess even venial sin once a year under pain of mortal sin?

The Precepts involve grave matter. Neglecting them can be a matter of mortal sin, under the usual conditions (that is, you have to know that neglecting confession is wrong, etc.).  Of course the Precepts reflect the low bar for our conduct as Catholics, not a high bar.

The Precepts or Commandments, which are for the most part also reflected in the Church’s Canon Law, are strong guidelines which point a Catholic to a bare minimum of conduct of Catholic life.  They are not comprehensive.  They are the “At Least Do These Things” List.  They also concern outward, concrete actions and not interior thoughts or attitudes.  You either go to Mass for your Sunday obligation when possible or you don’t.  You receive the Eucharist once a year or you don’t.  Etc.

These days, however, there is a bit of confusion over the Precepts or Commandments of the Church.  Lists differ.

First, the Commandments or Precepts can change.  The Church determines what they are.  They are not doctrinal, though they are rooted in doctrine.  They concern discipline, our outward conduct.

The online article in the Catholic encyclopedia has a fascinating review of the history of the Commandments and show how their number changed according to time and place.  HERE  I can’t improve on the last part of that article.  Perpend:

The Church in 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 one’s 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.

Fascinating, no?

That said… the Catechism of the Catholic Church has this:

II. The Precepts of the Church

2041 The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. [NB] The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor:  [If you knowingly and willingly break these precepts, you commit a mortal sin.]

2042 The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.”) requires the faithful to participate in the Eucharistic celebration when the Christian community gathers together on the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord.

The second precept (“You shall confess your sins at least once a year.”) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness. [Cf. ? CIC, can. 989; CCEO, can. 719.]

The third precept (“You shall humbly receive your Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter season.”) guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.

2043 The fourth precept (“You shall keep holy the holy days of obligation.”) completes the Sunday observance by participation in the principal liturgical feasts which honor the mysteries of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.

The fifth precept (“You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.”) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.

The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.

Note that the Precept about marriage is not listed.  Issues concerning marriage are spelled out in Canon Law (Cf. can. 1091).

To your question, I say, and the Church seems to say, that if you don’t make a sacramental confession of mortal at least once a year, you are – objectively, at least – sinning either by omission (because you are being generally negligent about your soul) or – if you consciously refuse to go – you are sinning by commission (because you know and will the neglect for your soul).  Culpability for the sinful omission or commission might vary.

So, I say yes. More than likely if a Catholic doesn’t confess her sins at least once a year (which also means she probably can’t receive Communion once a year), she commits an additional sin.  She is neglecting her immortal soul and needlessly endangering her salvation.  She might also be committing a sin of scandal, by giving a bad example to her family and friends.

We all have an obligation to see to, to tend our immortal souls.

Some people are so far gone for one reason or another that they never think about their eternal fate.  Others are in a pattern of neglect that could eventually lead to total heedlessness.

Back in the day, I think that most Catholics, even lazy ones, knew that they ought to go to confession.  These days, after decades of horrid, negligent, bizarre or empty “catechism” and vapid, feckless, incompetent preaching in pulpits and teaching in classrooms… who knows?

The Precepts are a simple list of the bare minimum that are easy to communicate and remember.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you victims of the feckless, and feckless perps are warbling, “Francis says you are a legalistic sour-puss!  You cling to laws?  We are an Easter people now!  You obviously hate…”.

This time I respond, “SHUT THE HELL UP!  Souls are risk!”

Obey Holy Church!  She is the greatest expert on humanity that ever was.  Laws, divine or ecclesiastical, are not given to spoil what otherwise might be a good time.  They are given, from love, to help us to avoid pitfalls on the way salvation.  They tell us, “Don’t hurt yourself!”

Dear readers… disregard the Precepts at your peril!  Hell is real and you can go there.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "But Father! But Father!", "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION, Our Catholic Identity, Wherein Fr. Z Rants and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Dspauldi says:

    I cannot think of a time that the Precepts were presented to any group I have ever been present with.

    They certainly were not presented in RCIA, any evening formation, or in any homily that I have witnessed. Is it any wonder that there is confusion and rebellion if the Church is squeamish about saying what is True?!

    (Thanks for this, Father. I will be sharing it with the children tonight for I have neglected as much as anyone and it needs to be set right.)

  2. MrsMacD says:

    So if a nine, ten, eleven year old, little girl, who is otherwise very good and helpful, rarely grouchy, and attends daily Mass and receives Holy Communion doesn’t go to confession once a year because she’s very shy, she commits a mortal sin? [11 year olds are dependent on their parents.]

    Or a mother, who has a whole bunch of babies, no support system and a husband who is hostile to her Faith, (or just plain oblivious to her needs) commits a mortal sin if she can’t get to confession once a year? [God asks what is possible, not impossible. But in a year’s time… unless on board a freighter at sea, it is hard to imagine.]

    What about an old person, or crippled person who is homebound? [See above. Also, we need to help each other. If you know such a person, inform the priest.]

    I ask these questions, in honesty, from the knowledge of real life cases.

  3. thymos says:

    Father, our Religion class taught that Canon 989 (noted above) necessitates Confession once a year, for grave sins. It was concluded that if one does not have a grave sin on one’s soul, one is not obliged by the precept, under pain of sin, to confess. I understand your point about scandal, neglecting one’s soul, etc., but is it wrong to say that if one does not have grave sins, the precept does not bind? (I’m sorry if my wording is confusing.)

    [No mortal sins in an entire year…. uh huh. Right. There are also venial sins. We can confess those, too, of course. Also, there are other reasons to make a confession, for example, to strengthen the soul against sin and the increase of sanctifying grace. I suspect that such a person, who commits no mortal sins in a year’s time, would want to go to confession for the sake of small imperfections (which become more important with the perfection of one’s spiritual life, and the gain those graces.)]

  4. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Ummm, I mostly agree, about the confessing sins part, if I understand you correctly. I’d just note that the Western Code (c. 989) limits the annual obligation to confess to “grave” sins, and the Eastern Code does not mention the obligation at all. I think the 83 Code’s more limited language is easier to square with traditional moral theological advice than is the Catechism’s more sweeping demand.

  5. THREEHEARTS says:

    First of all, the 6 Commandments of the Church promulgated in each synod of bishops were slightly different from country to country. [Which is evident from the top entry.]
    The Penny catechism of the UK taught like no other that we had to go to confession and communion at least once a year and that at Easter or thereabouts. It was called our Easter Duty and a period of time was set for this action, ash Wednesday to Holy Trinity Sunday. There was not one doubt left our childish minds that it was a very grave and mortal sin not to fulfill this commandment. By the way how or what does the Church teach us about how long we can expect to be in a state of grace to receive any plenary indulgence by fulfilling the conditions laid down by Her. The rubrics of indulgences so mangled by the Novus Ecclesia state that we must go to confession within the octave (8 days before and 8 days) after receiving HOLY Communion. Roughly two weeks before we sin grievously. For those who claim they do not sin or as one woman told me I still have peace of mind and I have not been for years remember then St John of Avila, of the Cross who in his sermons from Ascension to Pentecost wrote, The Devil does not bother his children, but to those who are really holy they experience such awful spiritual warfare.

  6. “These days, after decades of horrid, negligent, bizarre or empty ‘catechism’ and vapid, feckless, incompetent preaching in pulpits and teaching in classrooms… who knows?”

    Maybe CARA knows. Their 2008 survey (and more recent surveys suggest no great change since then) reported that

    — 1 in 50 Catholics goes to confession monthly (or more often);
    — 1/8 go to confession several times per year;
    — 1/8 go to confession once annually;
    — 3/4 go never (45%) or less than once a year (35%).

    These statistics may see surprising to the TLM attender, who may see the same good people standing in the confessional line before or after Mass seemingly every week.

    Years ago a confessor recommended Bauer’s Frequent Confession, a 266-page book on the spiritual values of frequent confession (perhaps as often as weekly) for those who try, probably successfully, never ever to commit a mortal sin, and how they can nevertheless make a spiritually strengthening confession. But surveys like CARA suggest that Bauer may not be on-target for the majority of today’s self-identified Catholics.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award


  7. acricketchirps says:

    I thought: it was always that beautiful expression, “to hear Mass (on Sundays and Holy Days),” until in the modern catechism to “attend” Mass — as one attends a party, and joins in, and makes noise, and hands out canapes to all assembled.

    Then I remembered: “to attend” also means “to hear or give heed to.” Let us attend Mass this Sunday.

  8. Imrahil says:

    While it is the pious practice to certainly appear at least once a year (better, on a roughly monthly basis, which would be necessary if you want to get plenary indulgences) in any case, still the technical obligation refers one’s new mortal sins.

    (It can be, and should be the normal case to be, that a practicing Catholic does not commit them for an entire year – that is, if you exclude things that may feel pretty sinful when you do them, but are still venial.)

    That was the majority opinion even when the “omnis utriusque sexus” was introduced (interpreting “one’s sins” as, in this case, “one’s mortal sins”) – while others held that in this case, you had at least to appear at the priest’s and say, “bless me, Father, I have not sinned; that is, not mortally”. I don’t know how priests would react if you do that… The 1983 Code made the thing clear; it’s “mortal sins”.

    That said, there are things you have to do, and there are other things that pretty-much all good Catholics just do. Some days ago I said that going to Church on Ash Wednesday belonged to them; Confessing once a year even when not technically obliged certainly also does (and more so).

  9. Joseph-Mary says:

    I visit a number of older people at a senior center who have lived through these last decades of being a ‘resurrection’ people who don’t need penance, etc. I have heard that garbage in the church myself. And most of them absolutely refuse to go to confession. We do have Mass once a month but the priest never suggests confession. I have suggested it and a couple of souls will take the opportunity.

    But how many huge parishes across this land have confession offered for 45 minutes before Saturday Mass. Try hitting that window on a regular basis! That shows that it is not important or needed. In a former large parish with the small opportunity for confession, the same half dozen souls would show up. I used to say to one man that he and I were the only sinners in the parish. And the pastor hired a retired priest to hear confessions and would not hear them himself and would refuse if someone asked during the week, telling them to come back on Saturday. Precepts of the Church? Not on the radar in many parishes. How many show up C and E and troop up for Communion with not one word said about it? That is everywhere!!!

  10. JesusFreak84 says:

    My prayer book for the Ukrainian-Greek rite omits the precept about marriage, I think partially because the precept often mentions solemnizing marriage during forbidden times, but IIRC, there ARE no such forbidden times on the UGCC calendar. (Maybe Good Friday, but I think that goes without saying…) Civil law general already forbids solemnizing marriage within the Canonically-forbidden degrees of kindred, so that may have been determined to “go without saying,” as well.

    The other part that caught my eye was that the precept to attend Divine Liturgy on Sundays was separated from doing so on HDOs, but I am not sure if Father, when editing, was simply trying to keep the number at 6.

  11. Alice says:

    I remember being interviewed by the DRE before my Confirmation and being told that the obligation to confess once a year was only binding on those who had grave sins to confess. She made it clear that one *should* make a habit of going more than once a year (I think she suggested every 2 weeks or a month at most) for spiritual health, but that the Church didn’t demand it unless one has mortal sins to confess.

    To MrsMacD, if this is your child, please, please, please, make it a habit to take her to confession regularly. You probably don’t want to make her go into the confessional, but take her along and insist that she examine her conscience and wait in line. If she doesn’t have the courage to confess venial sins, will she be able to overcome her fear to confess a mortal sin should she fall into it? In my years of teaching in a Catholic school and also teaching CCD, I never met a kid who was too scared to go when his/her class went. Peer pressure can be an awesome thing.

  12. amenamen says:

    Does anyone wonder about the enumeration of the “five” precepts in the Catechism?

    1. First Precept: Attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days
    2. Second Precept: Confess your sins …
    3. Third Precept: Receive Holy Communion …
    4. FOURTH Precept: See the First Precept
    5. Fifth Precept: Observe days of fast and abstinence
    6. ALSO A DUTY: Contribute to the material needs of the Church

  13. Will D. says:

    I taught this in my High School religious ed class last week. I hope it sank in.

    In our diocese, we are blessed with a Capuchin-staffed chapel at a nearby mall in which they hear confessions every day except Sunday from 10 AM to 8 PM. The lesson I’ve learned there is that if Confession is made available and convenient, even to working people, there is quite a demand for it.

  14. Dspauldi says:

    This is my experience as well at the Basilica in Philadelphia. Confessions are available before noon Mass every weekday and there never is enough time for the priests to get through the line before Mass.

    I suapect that the parishes that claim there is no demand are suffering from the negativity, the Can’t-Do attitude that so infects Catholics and our organizations. We assume something cannot be done and then prove that we are right,

  15. Gerhard says:

    All – my dearly beloved mother, who is 95 and in declining health, has refused to go to confession for many years. My mother’s excuses are many, none of them good, but there is no reasoning with her. She taught me my faith, and she knows the precepts. Please, please pray for my mother as only God’s grace can get through to her. Thank you.

  16. Sconnius says:

    This catechist teaches his 5th/6th graders the Precepts, which works out very well since the overall guide to my students’ lesson for the year is God’s Law as revealed through the 10 Commandments.

    I quiz them on the Precepts by the end of the first months of classes, and help them remember it this way:

    1. Attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and rest from servile work.
    –Sunday’s are the Lord’s Day so we should spend time with him and our family. We attend Mass on Holy Days because these days mark important moments in the life of the Church, our family, and what family doesn’t get together to mark important occasions.

    2. Confess our sins at least once a year
    –I remind them that while we should always attend Mass, we probably shouldn’t receive the Eucharist all the time. If we’re conscious of sin we must go to Confession before receiving or ask Father if he can hear a confession after Mass. They also get Father Z’s 25 step guide to a good Confession.

    3. Receive the Eucharist at least once a year, and during the Easter Season
    –Jesus gives us the greatest gift of Himself, we have to make sure we’re open to receiving him the right way.

    4. Observe the days of fasting and abstinence
    –One of the biggest points of the whole year is that God’s Law exist to keep us safe (that’s the whole point of most laws), and He gives us his Law because He loves us. Like how our parents give us rules; out of love and out of concern for our safety. This Precept helps us to observe the penitential seasons of the Church, and sometimes by withholding something it makes us appreciate that which we have all the more.

    5. Support the material needs of the Church
    –Our Holy Mother Church gives us so much, all that She has, we must in turn support her.

    I’d include the one about marriage as an extra, but wouldn’t make them remember it since I didn’t find it in the Catechism.

  17. IoannesPetrus says:

    Gerhard, please be assured of my prayers for her.

    Father, it’s interesting your feckless/victim warblers spoke about being “Easter people”. I mentioned what this phrase implies in writing to my diocesan newspaper on the Pope’s Mandatum mandatum: “The law of the Lord is perfect”.

    (Check out the little “thread” it caused, but don’t mind the letters are numbered [1], [3], [2] – [2] explains it all.)

  18. frjim4321 says:

    I enjoyed the piece on the historical development of the precepts.

    There certainly is a wealth of information in the older Catholic Encyclopedia, and the fact that it is available on line for free is great.

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear Henry Edwards,

    Those statistics are frightening, but they vary greatly depending upon whether or not one is a weekly Mass-goer, Pre-Vatican II, etc. Interestingly, Millenials are the least likely to believe that confession/with contrition reconciles one to the Church, so, even though they attend confession slightly more than the Post-Vatican II generation, there, still, seems to be some defective teaching going on.

    The CARA report may be found here:

    The Chicken

  20. Nan says:

    Dr. Peters,

    The Byzantine Ruthenian Church recommends that all make confession on Wed. During Holy Week, prior to receiving the Holy Anointing, which is recommended to receive annually.

    I would imagine that as the Eastern Canon is silent on many things that vary among the members. Also, the BR priest describes the Latin Rite as legalistic.

  21. Nan says:


    I will pray for your mother. Do not despair. God’s mercy is great.

  22. Bender says:

    There are actually two principles in play here – the action itself and the Church’s direction to do it.

    If it is not itself sinful to do or fail to do a certain act, it is a sin to set yourself against the unity and communion of the Church. If you are not one with the Church, particularly if it is a matter of defiance and dissent, then that is a problem.

  23. Pingback: SUNDAY MORNING EDITION – Big Pulpit

  24. mater101 says:

    Wish that we would have more of this from the pulpit, Fr. Z! And also within RCIA teachings and in the
    schools before the children receive…!…We are berift of True teaching and instruction! Poverty stricken is this and earlier generations! Confession is God’s Mercy…His Love …His Embrace..
    the focus is on Him…not us..poor us. God Bless your latest rant.!

Comments are closed.