The Curious Case of the Purloined Precept

Why did the sixth precept—"To observe the laws of the Church concerning marriage"—disappear from Catholic catechisms?

In working on a homily recently, I wrote about the six Precepts of the Church. Desiring to be sure in my recital of them, I consulted the Catechism for the listing (CCC #2041-2043). There, I found them. Briefly: (1) to attend [assist at] Mass on Sundays and Holy Days; (2) to confess sins at least yearly; (3) to receive the Holy Eucharist at least during the Easter season; (4) to observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church; (5) to contribute to the financial support of the Church; and…and? Only Five? Where was the sixth precept, which had been regularly and faithfully taught for many decades by the venerable Baltimore Catechism (#281, in my edition): “To observe the laws of the Church concerning marriage”?  

In Archbishop Athanasius Schneider’s new Credo: Compendium of the Catholic Faith, one also finds mention of the sixth precept about marriage (p. 167, #330). In YOUCAT, the enfeebled “Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church,” however, the sixth precept about marriage is bowdlerized or expunged (see #345). The elimination of the sixth precept comes precisely at a time in the educational and moral lives of young Catholics when orthodox instruction and formation about marriage is critically important.

I was unaware that the sixth precept had been canceled. As a deacon, I am supposed to know these things, after all; but it’s not my fault. I never got the memo.  

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I knew that the Catechism had been revised in 2018, through papal rescript, stating that the death penalty was now “inadmissible”—a rather baffling, if intoxicatingly innovative, theological word used also in Fratelli Tutti (263). This proffered “development of doctrine” has come about after multiple centuries of support for the biblical warrant of capital punishment (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:4). Perhaps there had been a similar evolution with respect to the traditional sixth precept of the Church about observing the ecclesiastical marriage laws before the Catechism was first released thirty years ago.

From the cases of John the Baptist, Herod, and his “wife” Herodias (Mark 6:14-29), to King Henry VIII and his “wives,” to Obergefell v. Hodges (which, in 2015, approved or, in fact, celebrated same-sex “marriage,” again offering incontrovertible proof that civil law may be inimical both to natural moral law and to positive divine law), we know that disputes over the nature of sacramental and licit marriage have often been the source of both sacred and secular—not to mention personal—confusion. There can be no legitimate question that the Church must valiantly, vigorously, and virtuously proclaim and protect Christ’s teaching: “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order…” (#2032, quoting Canon Law 747, #2). If a perverted understanding of marriage obtains, or holds sway, in the mores of the day, it is all the more essential that the Church teach truth, however unpopular or “regressive” that may seem to the morally madding crowd (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2, Matthew 19:46). If a perverted understanding of marriage obtains, or holds sway, in the mores of the day, it is all the more essential that the Church teach truth, however unpopular or “regressive” that may seem to the morally madding crowd.Tweet This

It would take a spiritual Perry Mason or Sherlock Holmes to identify the reasoning, or ethical astigmatism, which led to the practical censoring of the publication of the sixth precept. One fears—but, admittedly, cannot perfectly ascertain—that the omission of the sixth precept owes to the fact that it implicitly addresses hard truths found, by some, to be “unsocial” or patently “unsympathetic” to our de rigueur modernist ideologies.  

The New American Bible admonition found in 2 John 9 about wandering from the truth may, however, be of interest or help here: “Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.” The great French writer Charles Péguy (1873-1914), who would have championed the sixth precept, put it bluntly: “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” 

In rather unceremoniously neglecting, abandoning, or rejecting the sixth precept, the current Catechism and YOUCAT are ignoring about 17 percent of the traditional precepts. If we were to round this percentage up to 20 percent and then apply it to the Ten Commandments, we could reduce that number to Eight. We might need a synod, however, to determine precisely which two commandments we can cavalierly jettison.  

We will not, of course, ever reduce the Commandments to eight. Why should we, when we can just as easily ignore all ten?

With or without the traditional sixth precept, priests and their parish catechetical programs can, should, and must continue to teach the truth about marriage. Should, say, the seventh commandment be omitted from formal listings, we would continue to teach that stealing is sinful. Can you, though, imagine the message being sent if that commandment were no longer to appear in listings? The point is, then, that failure to announce, to declare, or to specify the sixth precept is to blow a very weak trumpet in the defense of marriage. And we know that “if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8).

Like Nehemiah, we must rebuild, not only moral walls but the culture which sponsors them (see Nehemiah 5:9). There lies before us an immense project of restoration. Most of us will not live to see its completion, but that does not relieve us of the great and grave duty of beginning the project, a key part of which is the defense of marriage, including, of course, the reinstatement of the missing sixth precept.

As a deacon, I may not, as I mentioned earlier, have received the memo about throttling the sixth precept. Still, as a deacon, I have the honor of offering one of the valedictory prayers at holy Mass, among which is found: “Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” including, we might well add, the traditional sixth precept of Holy Mother Church.


  • Deacon James H. Toner

    Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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