Should Infant Confirmation & Communion Be Restored in the Christian West?
Why Vatican II's Theology of 'Ressourcement' Challenges the Status Quo
“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.” -St. Augustine of Hippo (4th century)
As a former Parish Catechetical Leader and Catholic High School Theology Teacher, I was often asked by parishioners and students alike what age I thought the sacrament of confirmation should be given. I rarely gave my direct answer at first. Instead, I would describe popular practices in the Catholic West today and ask them what they thought. This is how a typical conversation would go (with some added patristic and medieval quotes):
Parishioner 1: “I think our parish should lower confirmation to 8th grade like most other parishes. Maybe confirmation in 8th grade would strengthen them to hold on to their faith in high school so they are less likely to drift away.”
Parishioner 2: “I think we should keep our current practice of confirming youth in 11th grade (17 years old). They can better accept the faith for themselves. 8th grade is still too young.”
Parishioner 3: “I think we should wait until 18 or even older. They should come to the church with an adult mind asking for the sacrament of confirmation. Maybe we could even combine it with R.C.I.A!”
Parishioner 4: “I have heard of some bishops moving confirmation to 2nd grade in their diocese and having it combined with the First Communion program. How can he do this? Those kids have no idea what the Catholic faith really means yet!”
Parishioners 1, 2, 3: “Yes, that’s way too young! How can they decide for themselves?”
Me: “You would definitely disagree with my position then! I think they should give baptism, confirmation, and communion all in the same rite to infants.
Parishioners 1,2,3,4: “What?! There is no way! Where are you getting this?”
Me: “First, we have to correct our theology about confirmation. It is not the sacrament for choosing the Catholic faith with an adult mind, but it is how we are initiated into the Catholic Church and receive the name of ‘Christian.’ We are anointed with chrism oil in the rite of chrismation which is the ancient name for this sacrament. The name of ‘Christ’ means ‘Anointed One’ and chrism oil incorporates us into His identity as ‘little’ Christs. One church father says it like this,
“Are you unwilling to be anointed with the oil of God? It is on this account that we are called Christians: because we are anointed with the oil of God”
—Theophilus of Antioch (To Autolycus 1:12 [A.D. 181])
Confirmation is the sacrament that prepares us to become spiritually mature and fills us with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is not for those who are already mature.
Parishioners: “Well, that’s interesting. But I still think 2nd grade and definitely babies are still too young!”
Me: “What if the Apostles handed down the sacrament this way and chrismated adults converts as well as their children and infants right after baptizing them?”
Parishioners: “How do we know? What do the church fathers say about this?”
Me: “I would say that all of the ancient churches practiced the sacrament this way from India to Rome to Spain. All of the Eastern Christian Churches chrismate infants to the present day (Eastern Catholic Churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and the Assyrian Church of the East). It slowly faded out in the Western Church, but it was certainly the widespread practice there as well. I’ll mention two church fathers in the West that provide evidence. The first is none other than St. Augustine, the great father of the West! He writes:
“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.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, 4th century, Sermon 174)
Another Western father that provides evidence is Pope Innocent I in the 5th century. He writes:
“Regarding the signing of infants, this clearly cannot be done validly by anyone other than the Bishop. For even though presbyters are priests, none of them holds the office of pontiff. For not only is it ecclesiastical custom that shows this should be done only by pontiffs – in other words, that they alone would sign or give the comforting Spirit – but there is also that reading in the Acts of the Apostles that describe Peter and John being ordered to give the Holy Spirit to those who had already been baptized. For whether the Bishop is present or not, presbyters are allowed to anoint the baptized with chrism. But they are not allowed to sign the forehead with the same oil consecrated by the bishop, for that is used by the bishops only when they give the Spirit, the Paraclete. I cannot reveal the words themselves, lest I seem to betray more than is needed to respond to your inquiry.” -Pope Innocent I (5th Century) [(Ep. Ad Carolum, 3).
“... To preach that infants can be given the rewards of eternal life without the grace of baptism is completely idiotic. For unless they eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, they will not have life in them.” -Pope Innocent I (5th Century) in Ep. 30, 5, a doctrinal letter to the Fathers of the Synod of Milevis
Parishioners: So they also gave the Eucharist to infants? Have Catholic scholars and historians also concluded this about the church fathers?
Me: Fr. Robert Taft, one of the greatest historian and liturgical scholars of our time, writes:
“Now in the case of Christian Initiation, modern historical research and theological reflection have shown that the universal primitive tradition of both East and West viewed the liturgical completion of Christian Initiation as one integral rite comprising three moments of baptism, chrismation, and eucharist, and without all three the process is incomplete. In Christian antiquity, to celebrate initiation without eucharist would have made about as much sense as celebrating half a wedding would. For this reason, contemporary Western Catholic experts on the liturgy and theology of Christian Initiation have insisted on the necessity of restoring the integrity of this process which broke down in the Middle Ages.”
Parishioners: “So when did we stop giving confirmation and communion to infants?”
Me: “Evidence for infant communion in the West continues up until about the 12th or 13th century:
“Concerning infants, care should be taken lest they receive food or be nursed (except in case of urgent need) before receiving the sacrament of Christ’s Body. And afterwards, during the whole of Easter week, let them come to mass, offer, and receive communion every day.” -Roman Pontifical (12th-century)
In 1755 (July 26th), Pope Benedict XIV in his encylical Allatae Sunt (On the Observance of the Oriental Rites) admits that the West stopped giving communion to infants about 4 centuries before his time (13th century). He writes,
“24. For several centuries the practice prevailed in the Church of giving children the Eucharist after the sacrament of baptism….For the last four centuries, the Western church has not given the Eucharist to children after baptism.
Parishioners: “Why did we stop confirming and communing infants?”
Me: “Probably the main cause was that the chalice was no longer offered to the laity after the 13th/14th centuries. Infants communed through the precious blood and could not yet consume food, and so when the cup was no longer offered, it naturally eliminated infant communion.
Secondly, ancient Rome preferred that the bishop give confirmation and so it seems likely that the bishop would baptize, chrismate, and commune the infants all at once. As the church grew and the bishop could not be everywhere present, the priest would baptize and commune the infant, and the bishop would come shortly after to complete the rites of initiation by chrismating the infant’s forehead. The bishop didn’t delay confirmation until the age of 7 nor did he wait until the age of 17 or 18 when they were adults, but there was a short delay. An 8th century text reveals how this may have been done:
“As the infants come up from the font the presbyter (priest) makes the sign of the cross out of chrism with his thumb on the crown of their head… But if a bishop is present, they must be confirmed at once, and afterwards receive Communion. And if the bishop is not there, let them be given Communion by the presbyter, saying thus, ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ protect you for eternal life. Amen’” (Supplement created by Benedict of Aniane for the Gregorian Hadrianum, Gregorian Sacramentary “Aniane” 1086-9)
If the bishop was present at the baptism, the infant was confirmed with oil upon the head immediately. If not, the priest was permitted to baptize and commune the infant, but he had to bring the infant to the bishop shortly after to complete chrismation. (In the Christian East, priests were permitted by the bishop to baptize, chrismate, and commune at once).
Thirdly, the West began valuing the role of the intellect and the ability to reason more and more. St. Thomas Aquinas generally viewed the intellect as higher than our other faculties, and since infants could not reason or have an active devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, he thought is was ‘unfitting’ for them to receive communion until the age of reason. So scholars are agreed that it was about the 12th or 13th century that they began delaying communion and confirmation to the age of 7 or even older in some parts of the West. (Delaying communion eventually got out of hand and so Pope St. Pius X in 20th century mandated that first communion be given by the age of 7. However, he did not require that the confirmation age be lowered with First Communion and so in many places it remained in the teenage years. It is quite popular in the United States to confirm youth in the 8th grade although some bishops have lowered it to 2nd grade during the First Communion program in order to restore the original order of baptism, chrismation, and communion).”
Parishioners: “So you disagree with St. Thomas Aquinas’ opinion on delaying communion until the age of reason?”
Me: “St. Thomas Aquinas articulates the Christian faith so well that I rarely disagree with him, and when I do, I do so with fear and trembling! However, in regards to infant communion, he reveals that he is not aware of the ancient and widespread practice. Thomist scholars know that he didn’t have all of the church fathers and liturgical texts at his finger tips like we do in the modern era (although he did have access to many fathers and even some resources that we do not have today).
“The same reason holds good of newly born children as of the insane who never have had the use of reason: consequently, the sacred mysteries are not to be given to them. Although certain Greeks do the contrary, because Dionysius says (Eccl. Hier. ii) that Holy Communion is to be given to them who are baptized; not understanding that Dionysius is speaking there of the Baptism of adults. Nor do they suffer any loss of life from the fact of our Lord saying (John 6:54), "Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you"; because, as Augustine writes to Boniface (Pseudo-Beda, Comment. in 1 Corinthians 10:17), "then every one of the faithful becomes a partaker," i.e. spiritually, "of the body and blood of the Lord, when he is made a member of Christ's body in Baptism." But when children once begin to have some use of reason so as to be able to conceive some devotion for the sacrament, then it can be given to them.”
St. Thomas Aquinas is clearly unaware of what St. Augustine or Pope Innocent I taught on the issue and many other fathers throughout the East & West. He thinks that the ‘Greeks’ have misread the data, which is clearly inaccurate. Being a saint and doctor of the church doesn’t mean you have magical powers to know all historical and theological data that is not available to you. To be declared a ‘saint of the church’ simply means that you were a holy person worthy of imitation and that you faithfully passed on the faith to the next generation. It doesn’t mean that your writings are infallible or ‘error-free.’”
Parishioners: “So do you think it was wrong or heretical for the Church to change when confirmation was given?”
Me: “I do think infancy should be the ordinary age for the sacraments of initiation—Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion, but I do not think it was a dogmatic heresy for the West to separate out the sacraments. Every one acknowledges that separating the sacraments of initiation was obviously done in emergencies when only a deacon or layperson could baptize a dying person. They simply could not chrismate or commune the person. An ancient church council (Council of Elvira in Spain, 305 AD) even records this:
“Canon 38. That in cases of necessity, even the faithful may baptize: A faithful man, who has held fast to his baptism and is not bigamous may baptize a sick catechumen at sea, or where there is no church at hand: provided that if he survives he shall bring him to a bishop so that he may be perfected through the laying on of a hand.
Canon 77. Concerning baptized people who die before they have been confirmed: It was agreed that when a deacon who has charge of faithful people baptizes some of them in the absence of a bishop or presbyter, it shall be the duty of the bishop to perfect them: but if any depart life before confirmation, he will be justified by virtue of the faith in which he has believed.”
We must also keep in mind that some people did accuse Rome of heresy during the Protestant Reformation for not communing infants. Some people truly thought that if infants did not receive Holy Communion that they would not enter the Kingdom of God (referencing John 6) and that it was necessary for their salvation. The Council of Trent in the 16th century condemned this error:
“Finally, this same holy Synod teaches, that little children, who have not attained to the use of reason, are not by any necessity obliged to the sacramental communion of the Eucharist: forasmuch as, having been regenerated by the laver of baptism, and being incorporated with Christ, they cannot, at that age, lose the grace which they have already acquired of being the sons of God. Not therefore, however, is antiquity to be condemned, if, in some places, it, at one time, observed that custom; for as those most holy Fathers had a probable cause for what they did in respect of their times, so, assuredly, is it to be believed without controversy, that they did this without any necessity thereof unto salvation (CHAPTER IV).”
Fr. Robert Taft comments on this last quote from Trent:
“Though the Fathers of Trent (Session XXI, 4) denied the necessity of infant communion, they refused to agree with those who said it was useless and inefficacious…”
Parishioners: “If it isn’t heresy, why don’t we keep communion and confirmation for older children and youth?”
Me: “I do think confirming and communing infants right after their baptism is the superior option.
This was the constant practice of the Western Church for the first 1,200 years. It anchors us more deeply into Apostolic Tradition. Anyone who seriously reads church history must admit that sometimes the Church chooses the lesser of two goods without committing heresy. It is certainly possible for the Pope and the magisterium to not always choose the best path forward. Under certain conditions (Ecumenical Councils, Ex Cathedra statements, etc.), the Pope and the bishops can gather to declare a doctrine of the Church to be infallible and binding on all of the faithful, but this does not mean that every choice they make in regards to pastoral care, ecumenical dialogue, or liturgical practice is always the most prudent one.
This is something St. John Henry Newman and many others saints have had to grapple with over the centuries. One quick example would be the Western Catholic Church taking the chalice (the cup of communion) away from the laity in the 13th and 14th centuries all the way up to Vatican II in the 1960s. It wasn’t heretical for the Church to only offer the consecrated bread to the laity. If it was, it would also be heretical to only give the precious blood to infants as the Christian East still does. However, I do believe that taking the cup from adults in the liturgical celebration of Mass was the inferior option of all the possible options on the table. The Fathers of Vatican II also seem to agree that restoring the cup to the laity was simply better sacramental theology and liturgical practice.”
Parishioners: “I have always seen Vatican II as a way to update and modernize the church. I have never thought of it as a way to make the Church ‘ancient’ again.”
Me: “One of the main goals of Vatican II was to help renew the Church by returning to the ‘mind’ of the church fathers. Sadly, some Catholics after Vatican II ignored this call and attempted to introduce innovations and novelties into the Church rather than restore Her. Today, we must continue the ‘resourcement’ project of Vatican II by clinging more closely to Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, Apostolic Tradition, and Christian orthodoxy. This is why I think it would be a very healthy path to restore infant chrismation and communion.”
Parishioners: “How would restoring this practice make the church healthier?”
Me: “#1 It encourages young fathers and mothers to give their infants the best nourishment possible. Good parents desire to feed their children with nutritious foods and medicine. How much more so should godly parents want to bring their newborn children to Church in order to receive all the graces of the sacraments! The baptismal waters usher the infant into God’s family; the sacred chrism sets the infant apart for the service of God as a Christian or ‘little Christ’, and regular reception of the Christ’s deified body and blood in the Holy Eucharist is both medicine and food for the infant’s soul. As a father, I would love for my young children (I currently have 4 children under the age of 7) to have their initiation into the Catholic Church completed through chrismation and the Holy Eucharist.
#2 It corrects our theology of confirmation/chrismation. Many Catholics today view confirmation like Baptists view baptism as if it is the moment that you decide your faith for yourself. Of course, any sacrament that is received after the age of reason (7) requires an external declaration of internal faith. Even the reception of the Sacrament of Matrimony is an opportunity to renew your commitment to the Gospel! Regular reception of confession and communion is a constant declaration of faith. The inherent meaning of confirmation isn’t our choice to ‘stay Catholic,’ but rather it is gift of anointing upon the royal son and royal daughter of the King of Kings. Our identity is now bound up with the Anointed One of Israel. We have become a Messianic People (Messiah and Christ both mean ‘Anointed One.) We are made Christians with chrism under the Lordship of Christ.
#3 Chrismating infants resolves the significant crisis we have on our hands: The Catholic Church is full of Catholics who have not been fully initiated into the Catholic Church! It is strange to see un-chrismated Catholics regularly receiving communion for years or even decades. Sadly, I know of youth who have rejected confirmation, and yet, they still receive communion on a regular basis. In his Decrees Bernard of Saintes (8th century) states:
“We decree that priest chaplains should bring those needing to be chrismated to us (bishops) where we are. For one is not fully a Christian who has not been chrismated…”
This decree was given because priests would baptize and commune infants, but would become negligent in bringing those infants to the bishop in order to be chrismated/confirmed.
#3 It anchors the Church more deeply in the rock of Apostolic Tradition during very stormy times. Vatican II should have made us all more theological and liturgical conservative but the project was hijacked. The goal of the last council was to strengthen our relationship with Apostolic Tradition and the universal customs of the of the ancient church, but instead, it was ‘protestantized’ in many places with new ideas and new customs.
#4 It unites the liturgical and sacramental practices of the Christian East & West. In general, the Christian East would only refuse a baptized Christian the possibility to receive Holy Communion if they were under penitential discipline for a time or worse, under the pain of excommunication. It is unthinkable for them to not commune baptized infants. Chrismation simply happens at the end of the baptismal rite and so there is simply no delay. If the West were to restore its original practices, it would not only bring us closer to our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters, but it would also foster a path toward unification with our true sister churches in the Christian East. This is important, because Christ prays for His followers to be one, and a united front with the Orthodox will better help us combat rampant secularlism, moral relativism, and the overall loss of meaning today.