The End of the Age of Reason

The End of the Age of Reason March 24, 2012

Resolved:  that the Church should drop the distinctions in the administration of the sacraments of confirmation and eucharist based on “the age of reason” and return to the practice of the early Church, still preserved by the Churches of the East, and administer both sacraments to infants and small children.

Reading the Catechism on the sacraments, I was very much struck by the forced nature of the arguments adduced to support Western practice.   An argument based on the “age of reason” (which seems to miraculously occur at age 7 or 8)  pushes the efficacy of the sacraments from God’s grace on to the recipient:  in some sense turning them into spiritual “works”.   On a personal level, I am very troubled by the fact that this argument is still used even today to deny the sacraments to mentally retarded children and adults.

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  • “On a personal level, I am very troubled by the fact that this argument is still used even today to deny the sacraments to mentally retarded children and adults.”

    Yes, this is ridiculous. If INFANTS in the East can receive with no knowledge of their own (or even baptism in the West) to deny that which works ex opere operato to anyone is awful.

    However, I don’t think that means we need to get rid of postponing first communion and confirmation (though I’d like to see confirmation come before/at the same Mass as first communion). There is a long Western tradition there, and though tying it to “age of reason” (which as you point out is really an arbitrary legal line in practice) may not be good theory, I think it does help allow us something more of a “post-baptismal catechumenate” for children whose baptism (for reason of the more urgent necessity there) was carried out for infants. In the early Church, sacraments were often being received by adults, so an “adult” paradigm for Christian initiation being preserved in some sense is not necessarily a bad thing.

  • Count me in–I agree with you. The “age of reason” is one more example of the tendency of the West to strain the gnats of minute and tendentious distinctions while swallowing the camels of barring the faithful from the sacraments or making them jump through hoops to receive them. I say this especially as one who’s taught CCD Confirmation classes for the last four years.

  • Melody

    I had to laugh when I saw the title of your post “The End of the Age of Reason”. I was thinking it would be about something else entirely; was thinking it might be a post decrying the loss of reasoned discourse or something along those lines.
    I agree with you that drawing a line in the sand at age 7 or 8 is a bit arbitrary. Those of us who are parents know that there is no magic moment when the ability to reason happens (and we sometimes might think that ability goes away again when they are teenagers!). And the argument definitely shouldn’t be used to keep mentally retarded people away from the sacraments. However I also agree with Sinner that keeping the ordinary age of reception where it is allows for some catechesis, which is a good thing.
    Confirmation is another story. In my lifetime the approved age of reception has been all over the map. I received it at 9 years of age. One son received it in high school, the other in 6th grade (we were in a different diocese by then). The kids in our parish here receive Confirmation in 8th grade. Different arguments have been used for all these time-frames. Sometimes it is treated as a Catholic “Bar Mitzvah”, which I disagree with. I think, as you say, we might as well go back to the earlier practice of having it be at the time of Baptism. Something that I also don’t agree with is the practice in most parishes is requiring that the kids log a given number of “living the faith” hours in order to be confirmed. The intention is good, but it’s like one has to earn the sacrament, which seems a bit Pelagian.

  • Per Signum

    Personally, I like the current arrangement because it gives one something to gradually progress through. I can still fondly recall the hype when I was prepared for First Communion around eight years old, then Reconciliation the next year and finally Confirmation when I was about twelve. In the last, we got to choose the name of a Saint, choose a sponsor (which turned my thinking to the importance of godparents) and both Communion and Confirmation were causes to celebrate with the family at home.

    Finally, it It gave the religion cirriculum at school a good focus for each of those years. I don’t think we should tamper with this just for good theology.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “I don’t think we should tamper with this just for good theology.”

      I disagree: good theology should be at the heart of what we do: “lex orandi, lex credendi” and all that. The points that you raise, however, do point to very important pastoral issues: first communion, in particular, has gotten deeply embedded in the cultural practices surrounding Catholicism, and it a great deal of sensitivity needs to be shown should this abstract discussion ever move to the point of implementation.

  • I think the Eastern, and traditional (yes, traditional) practice is best. I do know the discipline can change but also I know why the West changed it, and I think it has hurt the West in many ways (especially in the modern age). So much is confusing a false intellectualism for the faith, expecting more than what is necessary for faith, as a result of it. The idea also that elements of grace are to be necessarily tied to rites of adulthood is off, because it really misses the point, and indeed, disconnects sacraments which were meant to be tied together (baptism/chrismation).

    To tie catechesis with the sacraments is a danger, because, again, it slowly moves to the Protestant notion of sacraments (and why it denies baptism for infants). The whole life of one should be a constant catechesis; to portray this it is best to see initiation as indeed initiation, not something which one attains through age. It means, also, there is no artificial sense of “I’ve had it all now” as the current system provides.

    Finally, it also fixes the problem of eucharistic reception in the West, where communion is had before chrismation. It is not the way it should be; yes, it can be done, and we do know of rare circumstances in history where one receives communion even before baptism (!!!) but that doesn’t mean it should be the norm. It deconstructs the notion of communion and ecclesiology, imo.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Well said, Henry.

  • An article titled Bishop Aquila Obtains Papal Approval for Changing Order of Sacraments was a topic of discussion a couple of weeks ago on the First Thoughts blog over at First Things. From the article:

    Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo said he is delighted to have firsthand papal approval for changing the order by which children in his diocese receive the sacraments.

    “I was very surprised in what the Pope said to me, in terms of how happy he was that the sacraments of initiation have been restored to their proper order of baptism, confirmation then first Eucharist,” said Bishop Aquila, after meeting Pope Benedict on March 8. . . .

    Over the past seven years, the Diocese of Fargo has changed the typical order of the sacraments of initiation. Instead of confirmation coming third and at an older age, it is now conferred on children at a younger age and prior to first Communion.

    Bishop Aquila said he made the changes because “it really puts the emphasis on the Eucharist as being what completes the sacraments of initiation” and on confirmation as “sealing and completing baptism.”

    When the sacraments are conferred in this order, he said, it becomes more obvious that “both baptism and confirmation lead to the Eucharist.” This sacramental assistance helps Catholics live “that intimate relationship of being the beloved sons and daughters of the Father in our daily lives,” he added.

    The Bishop of Fargo said the changes have also distanced the sacrament of confirmation from “some false theologies that see it as being a sacrament of maturity or as a sacrament for ‘me choosing God.’”

    Instead, young people in Fargo now have “the fullness of the Spirit and the completion of the gifts of the Spirit” to assist them in “living their lives within the world,” especially “in the trials they face in junior high and high school.”

    Bishop Aquila explained his theological thinking to Pope Benedict during their meeting.

    In response, he said, the Pope asked if he had “begun to speak to other bishops about this.” He told the Holy Father that he had and that “certainly bishops within the Dakotas are now really looking towards the implementation in the restoration in the ordering of the sacraments.”

  • How can those who, by reason of youth or intellectual disability, cannot act as moral agents, benefit from any sacrament other than that of baptism? Matrimony and Holy Orders would be denied to them. Reconciliation would be unnecessary. Are we talking about “actual grace”?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “The principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus….Communion with the flesh of the risen Christ…preserves, increases and renews the life of grace received in baptism.” (CCC 1391)

      This, it would seem to me, is a great gift to any person, whether or not they have the intellect and/or will to truly be independent moral agents. Grace is God’s gift, given to all of us. I would not want to speculate on the interior life of little children or the mentally retarded, but Jesus was clear when he said, “Suffer the little children to come to me.” In the Eucharist he willing goes to them, and their communion may be different in its specific effects than ours, but it is no less real and I cannot believe that it is no less valuable to their souls.

  • onlein

    The developmentally disabled or not fully aware can’t receive communion? I’ve seen a number of cognitively impaired adults in church and never noticed before whether they were given the host. I assumed they were. I hope so.

    My mother received communion almost daily until she died at age 95, her last few years severely clouded by memory problems. The last time she was offered communion, in her hospice bed, she was dying and was dehydrated. She held the host on her tongue, pulled it in partially, reflexly pushed it out again, and with her lips tried to push it off her tongue. Her body undoubtedly knew she had insufficient saliva to swallow it. We smiled sympathetically. The eucharistic minister gently took it and swallowed it. My mother had enough grace. She was ready to go.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      practice varies but the (near) constant teaching of the Church is that they should receive communion. However, on a local level, individual priests and pastors have denied communion to such folks claiming they could not understand it or, as David Nickol asks above, they are not moral agents and so do not need it. (I don’t know of any bishops who have done this, but I would not be surprised.) This has become less common as social acceptance of the mentally retarded as grown over the past thirty years, but it still happens. A google search will turn up examples from within the past couple of years.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    A sinner and Melody both raise the point of delaying first communion to a later age to allow for catechesis. I understand the reasoning, but I think it is putting the cart before the horse. I think it would be better and more meaningful to instruct children about the nature of the sacrament as they are receiving it: mystagogy in the traditional sense. This way the sacred experience could precede and inform the intellectual understanding of it.

  • Interesting discussion. In The Episcopal Church, where I serve, we began to give Communion to infants back in the 1970s, precisely for the reasons mentioned here, that it is more traditional and that the grace of the sacraments is an act of God not dependent on our reason. Of course, this is not common to all Anglican churches, but I think it’s a good move. If we’re going to wait until someone is cognitively able to comprehend what is happening in the sacrament, then I should be given Communion either. I doubt I’ll ever fully comprehend the mystery of God’s grace there, but I’m happy to receive it all the same.

  • Melody

    I am grateful to Pope Pius X for at least allowing children to receive First Communion earlier than common at that time. My grandmother told of her first Communion at age 14, in about 1910. She also said that frequent Communion was not encouraged until maybe the 1940’s and ’50’s, perhaps a lingering effect of Jansenism.

  • Julia Smucker

    As with many things, I am divided on this. I definitely agree that it doesn’t make sense theologically or pastorally to insist on some particular age as a one-size-fits-all “magic number”, and your point about sacraments for the mentally retarded is important. But I would also be squeamish about putting the sacraments of initiation back together into a single rite, even though I know there is a traditional precedent for that. Part of it is that I’m still too Mennonite to let go of the need (insofar as the possibility exists) for some kind of conscientious appropriation of the faith, in which the initiand makes a public commitment to grow in discipleship within the life of the church. On the other side of the same coin, Mennonites have also recognized the pastoral need to initiate infants, hence the now widespread practice of child dedication.

    Actually, one of the things that Mennonites (at least in my lifetime) have in common with Catholics is the tendency to think of conversion as an ongoing process. So I can comfortably affirm, as a Catholic, the appropriateness of this process being marked and shaped by ritual milestones along the way at different points in time – provided, of course, that this is done with the necessary pastoral flexibility rather than in a legalistic way.

  • Agellius

    I would favor it for the simple reason that the Confirmation preparation classes, in my diocese at least, are a complete waste of time.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      While I appreciate the support, I think the correct pastoral response, if this is your only concern, would be to ask what is wrong with the confirmation prep programs, and can they be reformed? Though moving away from my central question, I think this is an important pastoral issue closely related to my original post, so I would be happy to see some comments on it.

      For the record: I received no confirmation preparation in the traditional sense. Through a series of events that involved me leaving the faith and wandering back, I received the sacrament gratuitously: as a free and (in my case) completely unmerited gift from God. I taught confirmation prep many years ago, but my experience is so limited that I don’t have an opinion on what it should be like.

      • Agellius


        I say they’re a waste of time for a couple reasons: First, because they’re vapid and unsubstantial. This aspect of it definitely needs reforming.

        But second, they’re a waste of time, at least in the case of Catholic school students, because they don’t teach anything that a Catholic school student should not have already learned in school by age 16 (the age at which kids are confirmed here). So kids who have attended good Catholic schools that teach what they’re supposed to be teaching, are forced to sit through weeks or even months of classes, going over stuff they already know (aside from having to endure all kinds of embarrassing and sometimes humiliating touchy-feely crap, all of which is often “taught” by people who don’t know what they’re talking about).

        So I’m just saying, if kids could receive Confirmation at the same time they receive First Communion, all this waste and duplication of effort could be avoided.

  • Thales

    I’m not sure about going to the Eastern tradition of Confirmation and First Communion at infant baptism, but I’m really intrigued by the Diocese of Fargo method: give Confirmation younger and before First Communion. (And for those who are in favor of going all the way to the Eastern tradition, this would be the logical first step.) The Fargo method makes sense as a progression of sacraments; it gets more sacramental grace onto the kids at a younger age; it fixes the problem of Confirmation classes being a waste of time for older kids, as it is too often considered an after-thought.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I found the article about the Diocese of Fargo very interesting. Here is the exact timetable of the sacraments, as laid out by the Bishop:

    “The order of the reception of the sacraments in the Diocese of Fargo are: the sacrament of reconciliation in the 2nd grade, and the sacraments of confirmation and First Eucharist in the 3rd grade, celebrated during the same Mass by me during the Easter Season.”

    So this pattern in Fargo restores the traditional order, but it continues to separate baptism and confirmation by 7-8 years. Moreover, I cannot but help but suspect that the age (3rd grade) is driven (at least implicitly) by the same concerns over the “age of reason”. Indeed, the bishop in the article quoted above, refers to canon law on this very point. He does raise the question of “maturity” and does acknowledge that there is no bright and shining line. However, in the end he pulls back, merely saying that since 3rd graders are mature enough to receive communion, they are mature enough to received confirmation.

    From a pastoral perspective, I understand completely why he is saying this. However, it still begs the question of timing: why 3rd grade? Since it is conceded that no maturity is necessary for the reception of the sacrament, what are the pastoral/theological reasons for delaying reception to 3rd grade? Why not at infancy?

    The full article I am referring to can be found at:

    • grega

      David the way I read this – and Agellius recent comment in my mind points to the same ‘reasoning’ – allowing young catholics a choice in these matters just creates confusion and on average it results in a net membership loss for the church. Besides musing about ones realtionship with God is touchy feely stuff dont you know? We better let the bishops and experts do the thinking for us – the role of us parents is to provide the God/church with plenty of lovely children – thus the evil of contraception – lets baptize those children right away and lock them further into the faith through confirmation and first communion.
      Thinking and discussion is for Unitarians and those sort of people and bad for us average catholic dimwit. We are the flock -the shepards know best – who could argue with that?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I think we need a special type face for irony…..

      • grega

        🙂 yes and in my case additional decent spellchecking and editing…

        In my parish for example first confession is a year or two after first communion. Confirmation is actually taken serious and indeed some of the teens decide NOT to be confirmed – the horror.
        But hey perhaps we should do what the Mormons do and confirm everybody and his brother postmortem – short of that the idea to confirm prior to first communion is certainly a good start – perhaps to really seal the deal lets think about some human branding …JHS comes to mind

  • Devin

    Another consideration is also that the separation of confirmation and baptism allows for the Bishop to confer the sacrament, something that may not be practical if administered at Baptism. Unfortunately for many people this is the only opportunity for many parishioners to intact with their bishop

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The problem is that some people receive confirmation from the bishop, and others from their parish priest. This lack of consistency calls into question the importance of having the bishop celebrating this sacrament. And actually, in smaller dioceses, you can interact with your bishop regularly. In both Oakland, CA, and Lafayette, IN, I got to know the bishops fairly well, I thought.

      • Devin

        Rightly or wrongly, I have interpreted one aspect of confirmation through the lens of the Acts 8:14–17 where (at least to me) the already baptized were to be brought into deeper communion through the laying of the hands of the Apostles (and thereby their successors). I understand the presbyterate sharing in the same spirit w/ the Bishop does this at infant baptism as well or at the Easter Vigil. I guess my concerns are trying to differentiate the two sacraments and seeing them uniquely which is helped by the outward signs of different times of initiation and by the Bishop as the ordinary minster where as administering confirmation at the same time with baptism and the eucharists helps to highlight their complementary natures and internal unity. I fear that the unique nature of the sacrament would be swallowed up by the other two. But the solution may be not continuing the division but a better catechesis. I am curious about other people’s thoughts about highlighting the importance of Chrismation when administered in conjunction w/ baptism (and the eucharist)?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


        I think you are raising a valid point about confirmation being “swallowed up” by baptism if the two are celebrated together. This can be handled, in part, by a careful structuring of the ritual so that it is clear that two sacraments are being administered. Something as simple as moving from the font to the altar could make this point quite effectively.

        I would be interested in hearing the details of the Eastern rite on this point.

        • Well the thing is, confirmation (chrismation) is supposed to be the fulfillment of baptism, and so to say that it would be “swallowed up” by baptism is to show a misunderstanding of the sacrament itself. Indeed, the Western approach has led to the idea that the sacrament is not necessary — especially when communion is given before confirmation — making it that many Catholics don’t feel the need for confirmation.

  • I love this question, David. I completely believe that we need to receive all three sacraments of initiation at the same time. When I take my daughter to the Byzantine church she is frustrated when she sees children younger than herself receive communion and she is still denied it because of age. She has been asking to receive communion for three years now. I have not found a sufficient explanation as to why she should be denied Our Lord.
    On the other hand, and this is very real, in my parish, 60% of all children in the current First Communion class do not attend Mass regularly. I understand why the Church fears that if all three sacraments are done at the same time we will be as small as the Byzantine church. It might be a legitimate concern.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Your concern is real, but the fact that it exists suggests that having first communion years after baptism does not have much of an effect. Indeed, separating the sacrament in this way gives weight to the cultural aspect which is what you see when you have so many parents sending their kids to first communion class but not attending mass themselves. The solution, I think, is better catechesis and evangelization.

      • Right, but more than that, the reason why the Byzantine parishes are smaller have to do with the nature of the Eastern Rites as a whole, and the anti-Eastern bias which have hurt and hindered our traditions in the US. There are other facts as well, such as that many go to Roman parishes and get swallowed up by them when they are in a town with no Eastern parish (or, when there is only one, but with a priest that they have significant conflict with).

    • I especially don’t mind separating confirmation. Because there is a question, then, as to whether people would come to realize confirmation is even a separate sacrament. Yes, it used to happen at the same time for adults…but if baptism and confirmation are ALWAYS at the exact same time, then in what sense are they two sacraments, even, rather than two parts of the same sacrament? Even the Epistles, I believe, seem to indicate that there were communities of baptized Christians who waited for the apostles to come lay on hands (ie, confirm). If the “completion” of baptism always occurs right after baptism, it raises the question of why God even bothered to have two things instead of just packaging all the effects into baptism or whatever.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Given the existence of asexual reproduction, you could ask the same question about male and female, I guess. 🙂

        I think there are two sacraments because of their distinct and complementary nature. Baptism and confirmation reflect two different spiritual realities related to the nature of the Trinity. In baptism, we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, in confirmation we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. Now there is some overlap between the two and certainly the Catechism itself blurs this distinction. But I think that they can be logically separated to emphasize the effects of the two sacraments.

        And in practice I think we are going to see these two sacraments carried out at different times for a significant minority: both returning Catholics and converts from Protestant denominations who come to us baptized but not confirmed.

  • dominic1955

    The age of reason isn’t locked down at 7, it can be judged depending on the actual situation.

    I do not think the Western practice is flawed, particularly. I do think that reordering the sacraments is a good idea, but I see no problem with maintaining the reception of Communion and Confirmation at the age of reason for the West. The problem is that often times we treat sacramental preparation like running cattle through chutes, with no real regard for what people are ready for. There needs to be some degree of organization and standards, of course, but I don’t see why the bishop couldn’t confirm and give First Communion to anyone who happened to be ready at that time.

    As to retarded folks or children under the age of reason, I see no reason that they need to receive Communion. No one thinks they need to be absolved so why should they receive communion? There is a marked danger of profanation (unintentional, certainly) and since they are basically good to go if they are baptized, I see no reason to go much beyond that.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I answered the question about the why children should receive communion above: see my response to David Nickol. I think the danger of profanation exists but is not, in my mind, terribly pressing. When Jesus said, “let the children come on to me” I think he was cognizant that little kids are messy and babies pee and puke with no respect for persons.

      And again, I want to press the question: what is the importance of delaying the reception of eucharist and confirmation until the age of reason? Beyond catechesis, no one has given a good explanation for this.

      • dominic1955

        Take a look at the Summa Theologica, 3rd Part, Q. 80, Art. 9.

        The quote from the Gospels is irrelevant in this case. Who says it applies to the Eucharist?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I checked out Aquinas, and with all due respect to the Angelic doctor, I think he is wrong in this case. First, as one commentator I checked noted, he misstates the prevalence of communion for infants among “the Greeks”. This practice is far more widespread than he acknowledges and is grounded in a clear understanding of the Eucharist in theosis (as Henry points out).

        I find the quote from the Gospels quite relevant since the Eucharist is, without equal, THE encounter between the soul and Jesus. Why should we deny even infants this chance to be in the presence of their Lord and savior?

      • dominic1955

        He merely says “certain Greeks”, which is hardly descriptive of the precise degree of prevalence. Besides this, the degree to which “the Greeks” (which I’m sure he means the Easterners in general) practice infant Communion is irrelevant to his point.

        If an infant is baptized, they have sanctifying grace. Can they benefit from the Eucharist? I would assume so. However, they are good to go should they die.

        No one can say this practice is of necessity or that the Western practice really does some sort of grave disservice, it would seem that the best practice would be to maintain the Western and Eastern practices in their respective realms.

        “The same holy council teaches that little children who have not attained the use of reason are not by any necessity bound to the sacramental communion of the Eucharist; for having been regenerated by the laver of baptism and thereby incorporated with Christ, they cannot at that age lose the grace of the sons of God already acquired. Antiquity is not therefore to be condemned, however, if in some places it at one time observed that custom. For just as those most holy Fathers had acceptable ground for what they did under the circumstances, so it is certainly to be accepted without controversy that they regarded it as not necessary to salvation.” (Council of Trent, Sess. XXI, Chapter iv)

        “If anyone says that communion of the Eucharist is necessary for little children before they have attained the years of discretion,let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Sess. XXI, can. iv)

        As to the quote from the Gospel, that’s the key-*you* find it relevant. That is nice, but it doesn’t prove anything. Now, if the Fathers or Council say anything different, I’d be happy to see it.

    • They don’t need communion with Jesus? What are you talking about? Communion is “medicine for immortality,” and by it we are “partakers of the divine nature.” It is not just for absolving of sins – it is rather, for theosis. The West really got messed up thinking everything is all about sin.

      • dominic1955

        If they’re baptized, they already have it. The “West” (I’m assuming you mean Rome) decided that St. Augustine’s and St. Thomas Aquinas’ theology were especially fitting to describe the Mysteries of the Faith, so we hardly got “messed up”. Besides, what you say is just a stereotype. We don’t think its “all about sin”.

  • Julia Smucker

    The question David has asked in two different ways (about the practice of the Fargo diocese) leads to two different answers. “Why 3rd grade?” Well, that would seem to be a rather arbitrary norm. “Why not at infancy?” I would say, because maturity should indeed come into the initiation process at some point before all is said and done. By maturity I do not simply mean cognition. For most of us, the two are closely related, but regardless of the extent of one’s cognitive capacities, everyone has the capacity to mature in Christian discipleship. On the other hand, I would not go quite as far as Grega does in boiling it all down to personal choice. I’m thinking of a Mennonite pastor who has voiced concerns on this in relation to rebaptism:

    Sympathizing with SLW’s concern (and I know she’s not alone in this), I do believe that children who request the sacraments, and demonstrate a mature (keeping in mind the relativity of this word) understanding of what it means to receive them, should not be required to wait for some magic age. By the same token, I still believe there should be room for some kind of sacramental initiation to be given on request, which is why I wouldn’t want to take all the sacraments of initiation all the way back to infancy. With certain other sacraments, such as reconciliation, not to mention marriage and orders, there is an obvious need for maturity, and nobody is protesting that we are barring children from these parts of the Christian life by allowing them to wait until they are more fully prepared to receive them.

    Now, on the other other hand, I very much agree with Henry on theosis. I think Augustine in particular got us too hung up on sin and contentment with mere validity. It seems to have taken the church a long time to develop a more robust view of sacramental efficacy (i.e. fruitfulness), beyond technicalities. It strikes me as very ironic how a hyper-Augustinian interpretation of sacramental validity can end up becoming another form of Pelagianism.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Julia, thank you for eliciting the subtle difference in the way I have been asking my question. I see a connection, however, between the two. “Why third grade?” highlights the fact that the current age for first communion and for confirmation have a certain degree of arbitrariness. “Why not infancy?” points to the unity of the sacraments of initiation and does advance a positive reason for that particular timing. So they are two sides of the same coin, at least in my mind.

      “I still believe there should be room for some kind of sacramental initiation to be given on request, which is why I wouldn’t want to take all the sacraments of initiation all the way back to infancy.”

      I am not sure what you mean by this: can you expand? In baptism we become part of the the Church, the Body of Christ, we have been initiated into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Confirmation completes what is already begun in us, so I am not sure I see what role a personal request can play in this process.

      Although, even as I wrote the above paragraph, I realized that perhaps the Eucharist, the one sacrament of initiation that can be repeated, does already provide the natural vehicle of initiative and request that you are talking about. Once we receive our first communion each additional reception is an act of initiative on our part (or perhaps, if we receive as an infant, on the part of our parents): we do not receive unless we make a conscious decision to request it. Now, in practice, there may be very little of a conscious decision involved: we get up and go to communion because everyone else does as well. But in fact each of us, at every opportunity, needs to commit ourselves more fully to what we are receiving.

      The other sacraments (reconciliation, marriage, orders) are different since they are not sacraments of initiation and so play different roles in the economy of salvation: in some sense, they do require mature action in a way that the other sacraments do not.

      • Julia Smucker

        Interesting point about the ongoing initiative in receiving the Eucharist. That would seem to lower the stakes in this debate somewhat, which may be a good thing.

        My attachment to having a place for personal request comes from my Anabaptist sensitivities. I have come to accept the validity of infant baptism as equally normative with that of adults – which, from a Mennonite background, is already coming a long way. What I remain uncomfortable with is excluding the possibility of the initiand’s initiative in the process of Christian formation. As you say, receiving the Eucharist is in a sense a repeated recommitment to this process. Does this fulfill the role of conscientious public commitment to participation in the community of faith which I find so important? I can’t comfortably answer yes to this question, but it does make your proposal somewhat less scandalous.

      • This concern with “initiative” sounds Pelagian, though.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I see why you say that. While I cannot speak for Julie, when I speak of initiative, perhaps you can read me as saying “taking the initiative in responding to God’s grace” which is prior to and supportive of our initiative. So not Pelagian: though perhaps more in line with the “semi-semi-Pelagianism” I once heard a reform theologian accuse Trent of.

      • Sure, but it still seems to me that infant reception (in this case, I’m taking your side and arguing FOR infant reception) is a great picture of how grace is utterly, well, gratuitous and is given to us totally from without and without any merit of our own.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Wow: we agree on something! 🙂

          Yes, the gratuitousness of grace is central, I think, to this approach to the sacraments. How we respond to grace has been a question I have wrestled with since College.

      • Julia Smucker

        There is a lot I could say here about my problems with overreactive emphasis on gratuity to the exclusion of cooperation, to the point where we dread sounding even remotely “semi-semi-Pelagian” while overlooking the pitfalls on the other side of that polemic. Let me just say I’m grateful to Luther for pushing the church at Trent back toward a happy medium from hyper-Augustinian paralysis.

      • The problem is that even “cooperation” can only be a grace already. There can’t be a good whose cause is separate from the final good relative which is the only thing relative to which anything can be called “good” in the first place, and supernaturally good acts must be directly and immediately initiated by that Final Good (they cannot merely arise remotely from naturally good acts or anything like that).

        I’m not pushing for “hyper-Augustinianism” by any means, but “cooperation” sounds like there is some sort of ACTIVE, well, act on our part. That cannot be true. At most free will can be attributed with a passive non-rejection of grace (which is actually a non-choice, a metaphysical zero), but even then the good “default” of the non-rejection must be attributed only to (sufficient) grace. That way, merit is entirely God’s, and sin is entirely ours.

        This may be getting off topic, but I am very partial to Fr. William Most’s “solution” to the grace/free will controversies in this regard.

        He basically says that the order of God’s decrees is 1) conditional will to save everyone, 2) …UNLESS they make an active choice to reject, 3) the rest are saved, not conditional on any active choice of their own, nor even on their non-rejection, but merely by the fact that they were ALREADY included by the totally gratuitous step 1. The fact that they didn’t reject requires no further Cause than that (and the fact that some DID reject requires no further cause than their free will).

        It’s like…if I write the phrase, “Ave Maria Gratia Plena” on the chalkboard…and we ask “Why are those letters on the board?” We’d answer, “Well, because you chose to put them there, as the first line of the Hail Mary!” If I then decide to delete the vowels, and am left with ” v M r Gr t” we can ask “Why aren’t some of the letters there anymore?” and answer “Because they were vowels.” However, if we ask “Why are those letters on the board?” about the remaining ones, it is actually incorrect to say “Because they are consonants.” No, obviously, the reason they’re there is the same reason they were there in the first step: “Because I chose to put them there.” Saying they’re there just because they’re “not vowels, since vowels were removed” is as metaphysically incorrect as saying that I’m here typing this post because I’m “not dead” or “not eating” or “not gardening.” Non-events cannot be causes. I’m not here today “because I didn’t get hit by a car on the way to work.” That would be absurd.

      • Julia Smucker

        Here’s the key: if grace truly is prevenient to the extent that existence itself is graced, then the nature/grace dichotomy does not hold. Ergo, there is no need to remain stuck in the Augustinian/Lutheran dualism whereby all sin is fundamental human nature and all goodness is imputed extrinsically. And no need to limit our understanding of sacramental grace as mere passive reception: we are made, and the sacraments are given us, for something greater than that. As Henry pointed out, it’s for theosis.

        In short, grace is more original than sin.

      • But existence is a “natural” grace. When we’re talking about sacraments, we’re talking about a supernatural grace, which does need to precede every such act of the will exactly because it is beyond the natural faculties of such a will.

      • dominic1955

        Grace builds on nature, nature itself is not grace nor inheritently “graced”. This collapsing of grace and nature is the root of the errors on grace of the Protestants, Jansenists, Modernists, and the proponents of the Nouvelle Theologie.

        This also hearkens to the philosophical error of rejecting what came before and appeal to some imaginary pure foundation which showed itself in the theological and liturgical deformations which emerged writ large after the Council.

      • Julia Smucker

        I disagree, and would say with Henri de Lubac that it’s the dichotomizing of grace and nature that has often led us into unnecessary theological constraints, not the least of which is the “duplex ordo” dualism between “natural” and “supernatural”.

        A faithful critique of such pitfalls as they have occurred within the tradition is far from being a rejection of tradition as such. To me, it is simply a question of how far and how deep grace really goes.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    “As you say, receiving the Eucharist is in a sense a repeated recommitment to this process. Does this fulfill the role of conscientious public commitment to participation in the community of faith which I find so important?”

    Thank you for clarifying your position: I understand much better what you are trying to say. And I agree, for a Mennonite to concede the validity of infant baptism is miles further than many Catholics I know would be prepared to walk.

    I find this question of “conscientious public commitment to participation in the community of faith” an intriguing idea that I need to think about more. Certainly, as a one off event, a sacrament of initiation undertaken at an age or state when one can exercise some conscious initiative does fulfill this. But while this is a great beginning, is it enough? I am beginning to see the need for some kind of ongoing, or repeated, (re)commitment to the gospel. Part of this is intrinsic to our liturgical cycle: how do we respond to the call on Ash Wednesday to “turn away from sin and believe the Gospel”? From your Mennonite perspective, what form does/should this public commitment take?

    Continuing my line of thought from above, I think that the Eucharist can play this role, but only if we expand upon people’s understanding of the sacrament. In particular, it needs to expand upon their public, communal response to the sacrament. There is a push in some circles of Catholicism to deepen our awareness of and gratitude for the Eucharist. I think that this is a good thing in principle, but I find it to be problematic in practice. My Franciscan fraternity recently read Vinny Flynn’s “Seven Secrets of the Eucharist”. This book stresses Eucharistic devotion at mass in ways that I think miss fundamental aspects of the Eucharist, precisely where they involve “public commitment” to the community of faith. The model this book presents very much embeds the Eucharist into a juridicial/personal pietistic framework that does not leave room for these other dimensions of the Eucharist.

  • Julia Smucker

    David, I like where you’re going with “the need for some kind of ongoing, or repeated, (re)commitment to the gospel” and how the Eucharist can fulfill this. At this point I can’t speak as much from a distinctly Mennonite perspective, because this may be getting close to the heart of why I am Catholic. In fact, I was thinking about it at Mass today, and it made me think of something I once heard a wise priest say: “When you go to communion, you’re swallowing the whole community!” So thanks for that reminder.

  • ContraInertia

    Pope Pius X said all of these things in Quam Singuari in 1910. He scandalized many Bishops with this decree which encouraged the giving of the Most Holy Sacrament to the youngest possible children. He outlines the history and practice of the Communion in the most beautiful way. Check it out.

    Nihil Novum sub sole.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you. This was a quick but very interesting read. While some might contest this, I see this document as establishing a foundation for a return to Eastern practice as I advocated in the original post. Pius X paused well short of this, but the direction of his reforms is clear. Moreover, when he writes

      “Moreover, the fact that in ancient times the remaining particles of the Sacred Species were even given to nursing infants seems to indicate that no extraordinary preparation should now be demanded of children who are in the happy state of innocence and purity of soul, and who, amidst so many dangers and seductions of the present time have a special need of this heavenly food. ”

      I think that he makes it clear that the ancient practice is acceptable, and that there is good reason for giving children, even infants, Holy Communion.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    “As to the quote from the Gospel, that’s the key-*you* find it relevant. That is nice, but it doesn’t prove anything. Now, if the Fathers or Council say anything different, I’d be happy to see it.”

    Well, Pius X clearly thought this passage from the gospels were relevant, and his reading of the Fathers and the Councils is that they also found it relevant:

    “The pages of the Gospel show clearly how special was that love for children which Christ showed while He was on earth. It was His delight to be in their midst; He was wont to lay His hands on them; He embraced them; and He blessed them. At the same time He was not pleased when they would be driven away by the disciples, whom He rebuked gravely with these words: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God.” It is clearly seen how highly He held their innocence and the open simplicity of their souls on that occasion when He called a little child to Him and said to the disciples: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven….And whoever receives one such little child for my sake, receives me.”

    The Catholic Church, bearing this in mind, took care even from the beginning to bring the little ones to Christ through Eucharistic Communion, which was administered even to nursing infants. This, as was prescribed in almost all ancient Ritual books, was done at Baptism until the thirteenth century, and this custom prevailed in some places even later. It is still found in the Greek and Oriental Churches.”

  • dominic1955

    Yes, St. Pius X uses that verse in Quam Singulari but if you read it in its totality, obviously he doesn’t put the same emphasis on it that you do (i.e. that infants should be receiving Communion). He repeats the positions of the Schoolmen and traditional auctores probati that children are bound by the precept of Confession and Communion (i.e. ‘Easter duty’ as enjoined by IV Lateran) at the age of reason (which he says is around 7) and that no extraordinary tests or knowledge of doctrine and the Sacrament is needed by the child.

    To be clearer, is there any source (Councils, Popes, doctors/theologians/approved authors/etc.) that put the same emphasis on this passage that you do?

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    A fair question. Searching on the web I did not find the passage used in this way, though it seems to have been a subtext in many arguments. I did, however, find a nice quote from St. Augustine:

    “Those who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are denying that Christ is Jesus for all believing infants. Those, I repeat, who say that infancy has nothing in it for Jesus to save, are saying nothing else than that for believing infants, infants that is who have been baptized in Christ, Christ the Lord is not Jesus. After all, what is Jesus? Jesus means Savior. Jesus is the Savior. Those whom he doesn’t save, having nothing to save in them, well for them he isn’t Jesus. Well now, if you can tolerate the idea that Christ is not Jesus for some persons who have been baptized, then I’m not sure your faith can be recognized as according with the sound rule. Yes, they’re infants, but they are his members. They’re infants, but they receive his sacraments. They are infants, but they share in his table, in order to have life in themselves.”

    Augustine, Sermon 174, 7

    I also saw references to St. Cyprian and Dionysius the Areopagit, but could not find exact quotes.

    • Dionysius’s Ecclesiastical Hierarchy — “You might say, however, that what could really earn the ridicule of the impious is the fact that infants, despite their inability to understand the divine things, are nevertheless admitted to the sacrament of sacred divine-birth and to the sacred symbols of the divine communion.” (565D; page 258 in the Classics of Western Spirituality edition of his works).

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Thanks, Henry.

  • dominic1955

    David and Henry,

    Thanks for the quotations. Still, these only represent maybe what the practice was at the time. They do not illustrate the Gospel passage in question as an imperative for infant communion. St. Thomas says (3rd Part, Q.73, Art. 3), quoting also from St. Augustine that Communion is not necessary for salvation (in the absolute sense if one is baptized) because children are deprived of the body and blood of the Lord that they should not have life (eternal).

    Taking from the above mentioned passage from the Summa, “Another difference is because by Baptism a man is ordained to the Eucharist, and therefore from the fact of children being baptized, they are destined by the Church to the Eucharist; and just as they believe through the Church’s faith, so they desire the Eucharist through the Church’s intention, and, as a result, receive its reality.”

    They already have it by and through baptism. The Western practice is completely fine and deprives them of nothing, including theosis. The Eastern practice is fine because of ancient tradition, but doesn’t have anything on the Western practice.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      We will have to agree to disagree. The Eastern practice has been continuous, and there is evidence that it was a widespread practice in the West until at least the 12th century. So in that regard, the Western practice is a recent innovation and I think the fullness of the sacrament is best received when it is fully received and not just received “through the Church.”