(Latin: praecipere, to command)
A certain command given directly, not to a community, but to individuals.
Precept is used in many different senses.
Sometimes it designates a common generic concept of two specific terms, law and mere precept.
Law is in a certain sense a precept, as for example when we say:
"The natural law has many precepts each one of which properly and formally partakes of the nature of law."
Again by precept something is meant foreign to the comprehension of law.
Law proceeds from a public official.
The father of a family may impose precepts on his children, but since he is not a public official, he cannot make a law.
Law and precept although frequently used to designate the same thing are different.
Precept is often confused with counsel.
Precept implies necessity.
Counsel is optional.
Good as referred to divine goodness, is of varying standards.
Certain kinds of good are necessary to the attainment of divine goodness and hence are of the nature of a precept; others are conducive to greater perfection and are of the nature of counsel.
The evangelical counsels are so called because they are especially recommended in the Gospel.
Poverty, chastity, and obedience dispose one to perfection.
- They differ by reason of their end, since the end of law is common good, and the end of precept is private good, yet it too may be for public good, e.g., a superior may forbid one to visit a certain house, first, because of danger to such person of spiritual ruin, second, also to prevent scandal.
Precept given directly is for the individual good, to prevent scandal is for public good.
- They differ by reason of the one commanding, for a law maker is a public person; one giving a precept may be a private person enjoying domestic power.
- They differ by reason of subject.
Law is imposed on each individual, even on those not yet born, in so far as in the future they will be part of the community.
Precepts are imposed directly on private persons, and they are imposed for the present only.
- They differ by reason of extension.
Law obliges in the territory for which it was enacted; precepts affect and follow the individual everywhere, hence the axiom,
"Law clings to the territory, precepts adhere to the bones of a person."
- They differ by reason of stability.
Law is of its nature perpetual and remains even after the death of the legislator.
Precept is of its nature transitory and dies with him who gave it, or with his removal from office.
New Catholic Dictionary