Monday, April 23, 2012

Should Confirmation and First Eucharist be given to infants?

The common practice in the East of giving both Confirmation and Eucharist to infants immediately upon their baptism occasionally causes Catholics of the Latin Rite to question whether such a practice ought to be adopted also in the West.

Especially now that, at least in the USA, a number of dioceses have lowered the age for Confirmation to seven, some individuals would like to see the age for both Confirmation and First Eucharist lowered to infancy.

While admitting that Confirmation and Communion can be given to infants, I will defend the Latin tradition of delaying these sacraments until the age of reason.

In defense of giving Confirmation and Communion to infants

A friend of mine, who is a father of five (three of whom have yet to receive Confirmation and First Eucharist) and who yet manages to find time to study a good deal of theology (thanks, certainly, to his wife’s support and encouragement), mentioned to me that my recent “defense” of the practice of priests blessing children in the Communion line seemed to come close to an affirmation of the Eastern practice of giving Communion to infants and small children.

In the earlier article (where I give my reasons for thinking it is no major problem for a priest to bless infants brought forward by their parents during Communion [here]), I had pointed out that the young children who have been baptized are truly united to the Mystical Body of Christ through the theological virtues of faith and love and that, therefore, it is even quite fitting that they be received in the Communion line wherein the Church is built up and bound together through the Eucharist.

While my friend was certainly not advocating giving Communion to infants, he was quite correct to indicate that my reasoning could be interpreted as a defense of the Eastern practice – since, if the infants are united to the Church, there does not at first seem to be any great reason for refusing to distribute Communion to them.

A further point in favor of the Eastern practice is that, even in the West, infants in danger of death are to receive both Confirmation and Communion, when possible. Dr. Ed Peters summarizes the canonical points well and offers the relevant citations [here].

From all this, some would argue that the Eastern practice is to be preferred. Given that the baptized infant is truly united to Christ and his Church, and given that Confirmation and Communion are important enough for children that the Church insists that they be given when there is danger of death, why not allow the young children to receive these sacraments from infancy as a norm in the West?

Against delaying Confirmation

Before answering our primary question, I will offer a brief defense of the practice of administering Confirmation at or around the age of seven (that is, at the time of First Eucharist). In many places throughout the West, Confirmation is delayed until the teenage years; however, in some dioceses (especially in the USA) there has been a return to the more ancient practice of administering Confirmation as soon as a child attains to the use of reason. To my mind, this practice is theologically sound and pastorally beneficial.

Though Confirmation is not simply and absolutely necessary for salvation (i.e. it is not “necessary” in the way that baptism is necessary), it is necessary after a manner of fittingness. St. Thomas uses the following example: A horse is not absolutely necessary for a long journey (since one could walk), but anyone would understand what a man would mean if he said that he needed a horse to travel from Paris to Rome.

In the same way, a man “needs” to be confirmed in order to be saved. Thus, it is safer to receive this sacrament at the age of reason, rather than to delay it several years.

Further, we point out that this sacrament strengthens a man in the faith – and, given the assaults against faith and morals which many young teens face, it is pastorally beneficial for them to first be fortified by this sacrament even from the age of reason.

Those who are interested may consider our earlier article on this subject, [here].

In defense of the Latin practice: Confirmation

Confirmation is compared to growth, just as Baptism is to birth and the Eucharist is to nourishment. Thus, as by Baptism, one is born anew in Christ Jesus; by Confirmation, a man is brought to spiritual maturity in the Lord. However, the soul does not age and thus there is no reason why a child cannot receive this sacrament. Such is the argument of St. Thomas Aquinas (cf. ST III, q.72, a.8 [here]).

For this reason, the ancient practice of the Latin Rite has been to administer Confirmation to children upon the age of reason. Since, even from this young age (about seven years old), they are able to be spiritually mature in the Lord.

However, it is more fitting that Confirmation not be given to infants but be delayed until the attainment of reason on account of the fact that the spiritual maturity which this sacrament effects is only capable of being expressed by those who have the use of reason.

Further, while Confirmation strengthens the soul to resist assaults against the faith, the infant has no need of such defense since his faith cannot in any way be hindered until after he attains to the use of reason and is able to commit sin.

Again, Confirmation is not absolutely necessary for salvation, and thus there is no urgency to warrant that it ordinarily be given to infants – however, in danger of death the sacrament should be given.

Finally, it is better that this sacrament be administered by a bishop, who has the fullness of Holy Orders. This emphasizes the Ecclesial dimension of this sacrament, which unites the recipient to the universal Church, “to her apostolic origins, and to her mission of bearing witness to Christ” (CCC 1313). However, on a practical level, this necessitates the separation of Confirmation from Baptism, since a bishop cannot possibly confer all the baptisms in his diocese in a timely manner (and baptism must not be unduly delayed). Thus, if Confirmation is to be given by the bishop and is thus separated from Baptism, it is fitting that it be delayed until the attainment of reason which is the age in which the child is able to actively participate in the reception of the sacrament.
[In the East, the sacrament is given to infants at their baptism, but is then administered by a priest rather than a bishop. Thus, while the relative necessity of the sacrament is clearly seen, the Ecclesial dimension is all but lost.]

In defense of the Latin practice: Communion

In the case of delaying First Eucharist to the age of reason, the Latin Church affirms the devotion which one ought to have when receiving the Blessed Sacrament. Clearly, an infant (even in the state of grace after baptism) can have no devotion, since he lacks the use of reason. On this account, Communion is not given until around the age of seven in the West.

Though it is true that a baptized infant is most pure and is truly united to the Church through the theological virtues, yet it is not proper to give him Communion because he has no devotion for the Sacrament. The graces of the Eucharist benefit the soul in this life only in proportion to the devotion with which one receives the Sacrament. Therefore, the infant ordinarily ought not to be given Communion, since it will be of no personal benefit to him.

And we must mention that there is even less reason to give an infant Communion than there is to give him Confirmation. At least in the case of Confirmation a sacramental character is bestowed, together with the increase in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the virtues. In the case of Communion, there is no sacramental character and neither is there an increase in virtue, since there is no devotion (not that there is any fault in the infant, but only that he has no need for nor can he make any use of the Blessed Sacrament).

Why give Confirmation and Communion in danger of death?

Still, although the Latin Church is right in delaying these sacraments to the age of reason, she is also correct in affirming that they should be given to infants in danger of death.

While Confirmation and Communion are of no great benefit to an infant before the age of reason in this life, yet they are of great spiritual benefit to the soul after death.

Thus, an infant, who is confirmed and who then dies, will attain to greater glory in heaven on account of the sacramental character (as well as the other graces) received in Confirmation. (cf. ST III, q.72, a.8, ad 4)

Likewise, if possible, the Western Church deems it fitting for a dying infant to be given First Eucharist, since the Blessed Sacrament is then received as Viaticum unto spiritual benefit in heaven.
I do not here intent to claim that the Eastern practice is sinful or disordered, but only to show the logic of the Western Rite. There are good theological and pastoral reasons for the Latin practice of delaying these sacraments until the age of reason.
New Theological Movement

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