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First Confession:
An Historical and Theological Analysis

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The subject of first Confession for children is a late development in Catholic thought. Until recently, about the only literature on the subject was an occasional reference in theological monographs on Jansenism in the nineteenth century. Since the Jansenists had restricted the reception of the sacraments for all the faithful, children were also affected. With the advent of Pius X, however, and his clear legislation in favor of frequent and early Communion and Confession, the moral rigorism of former days had subsided. And until the early sixties, it was taken for granted that children should receive both sacraments shortly after reaching “the age of discretion.”

But in the last ten years new ideas began to appear that indicate the rise of a problem which deserves the attention of parents, pastors and Catholic teachers.

What makes the issue serious is not only the speculation of religious educators or of psychologists of child behavior. First in Europe, and now in North America, some dioceses have begun to implement theories that demand careful examination. At stake is more than a delay of a few years in receiving the sacrament of Penance. Every important facet of the Church’s sacramentology is involved.

The purpose of this study is to bring into the open what, so far, has been treated almost exclusively in popular magazines and unpublished directives of diocesan liturgical commissions. Hopefully this beginning will spark further attention to a subject that is deceptively simple, yet on its balanced understanding depends a large part of the contemporary liturgical movement.

Historical Background

The early history of the first Confession of children is implicit in the larger history of the sacrament of Penance before the Middle Ages. It is certain, however, that children were admitted to both sacraments. Confession and Eucharist, at an early age.

When the Fourth Lateran Council met in 1215, it reacted to the prevalent neglect of the sacraments among the faithful. The situation had long before deteriorated to such a degree that, as a meeting of French bishops complained (813 AD.), many people did not receive the Eucharist even on Holy Thursday, whereas on this day the sacrament should be received by all the faithful, “except those who are laden with some grievous crime.” [1] Significantly the bishops expected the people to receive the Eucharist unless they were certainly in the state of grievous sin.

The decree of Fourth Lateran is well known. It enjoined at least annual Communion at Easter time and Confession once a year.

Every one of the faithful of both sexes, after reaching the age of reason, should in private faithfully confess all his sins at least once a year … reverently receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist at least at Easter time. … Let this salutary decree be published frequently lest anyone try to excuse himself on the score of complete ignorance. [2]

As might be expected, the Lateran decree did not solve the problem of infrequent reception of the sacraments. It only clarified the Church’s mind on the absolute minimum required of every Catholic from the age of reason.

At this point it is possible to trace two traditions, the maximist and the minimist. The first practice was to encourage the frequent and early reception of Confession and the Eucharist, laying stress on the value of both sacraments for growth in Christian virtue. The second, for a variety of reasons, ranging from plain indifference to elaborate theory, confined sacramental reception to once a year or less. It also advanced the age for approaching the tribunal of Penance and the Eucharistic table. There are extant documents from canonists in France and Italy in the fourteenth century who argued that no one was strictly obliged to receive the sacraments before puberty. Some therefore reasoned that what was not mandatory was also not feasible, and not a few pastors withheld both sacraments from the people until they had reached the age for marriage.

At the same time many were unimpressed by this subtle limitation of access to sacramental grace. They admitted that grave sin was not likely before the age of puberty. But this was no reason for being deprived of the graces inherent in the sacraments of Confession and Communion.

In spite of this bifocal tendency, even the maximist proponents of early Confession did not urge the sacrament on the grounds that grave sin had been committed from the first dawn of reason. When men like Soto, Cajetan and others suggested that serious sin could not be committed before the age of ten or twelve, they were merely voicing the common opinion of Christian moralists: that some stage of mental maturity is needed to even suspect the possibility of complete estrangement from God implied in the commission of grave sin.

This distinction will be crucial for understanding some of the ideas in current vogue. It is one thing to say that Confession is necessary when a person is in the state of grievous sin; it is quite another to recognize its value from the time a child begins to struggle with sinful tendencies and needs divine help to avoid, if possible, lapsing into mortal sin after reaching the age of puberty.

Part of the problem of the Reformation in the sixteenth century dealt precisely with this question of what sins may and which must be confessed by divine law. Centuries of neglect of the sacraments had created confusion in the minds of canonists and theologians and contributed to such positions as that of John Calvin and Martin Luther. Calvin argued against sacramental Confession on the score that it was impossible to do full justice to all the sins a person had committed. Luther was more explicit, so oppressed was he by the specter of a person’s having to “tell all” in confession.

Under no circumstances, should you presume to confess all your venial sins, or even all mortal sins … since in the primitive Church only the most obvious (manifesta) grave sins were confessed. [3]

Luther was mistaken. Inspired by the desire for holiness and encouraged by the rise of monasticism, the Catholic faithful went to Confession even when (as normally) they had only venial sins to confess. Among others, Cyprian, Tertullian, Basil, and Augustine allude to the practice. [4]

Luther’s discomfort was not with venial sins. It was with the sacrament of Confession. In his judgment, neither mortal nor venial sins were remitted by priests who received the power of remission through ordination, by the laying on of hands, traceable to Christ’s conferral of the Episcopate on the apostles and their successors.

Leaders of the Counter-Reformation witnessed to the effect of not receiving the sacraments. St. Robert Bellarmine was not the only one who felt that neglect of Confession and Communion contributed to the cleavage of the Church in the sixteenth century. Consistent with infrequent reception of the sacraments was the long delay in admitting children either to Confession or Communion.

The Jansenist Prelude.  Conditions were ripe for the growth of Jansenism, which may accurately be described as the Calvinist presence in Catholic thought and practice, centering heavily on the reception of the sacraments. The co-founder of Jansenism was Antoine Arnauld, the protégé of Jansenius’ collaborator, du Vergier de Hauranne, more popularly known as the Abbot of St. Cyran. Where Jansenius was heavy and speculative, Arnauld had a consummate mastery of his native tongue and was eminently practical. But he was at one with the master in opposing those who favored early and frequent reception of the sacraments. He crystallized his position in De La Fréquente Communion, first published in 1643, and destined to become, with Jansenius’ Augustinus, the arsenal of Jansenist theology for subsequent generations.

Arnauld’s book was a stout volume of more than 700 pages in duodecimo, yet so engagingly written that the first edition was sold out in a couple of days. Within six months a fourth edition became necessary, and this was followed by many more. An eleventh edition was printed at Lyons before the middle of the eighteenth century. The most consequential feature of this popularity was the favorable reception which the book found among the clergy. From its first appearance it was presented to the world with splendid letters of commendation from fifteen bishops and twenty-one doctors of theology.

It was no sooner off the press than La Fréquente Communion provoked a spirited opposition, particularly among those against whom it was expressly written. The Jesuit Jacques Nouet, subsequently known as a popular ascetical writer, was the first to dare attack Arnauld in a course of six sermons. He was promptly accused of having spoken disrespectfully of the hierarchy who had praised Arnauld. The Assembly of the Clergy in 1643 compelled Nouet to make a retraction, which meant that he assured the bishops of his obedience, and explained that he had not made use of the alleged expressions of disrespect to episcopal authority. [5] Among others than Jesuits who wrote against Arnauld were the Bishop of Lavaur, Abra de Raconis; Henri de Bourbon, the Prince de Condé; and unwittingly a Protestant divine, Brachet de la Milletière, who used Arnauld’s book as the basis for his theology of mediation between Catholicism and Calvinism. [6] But the outstanding opponent of Arnauld, in action if not in writing, was St. Vincent de Paul. Arnauld figured prominently in Vincent’s correspondence during this period. Entire letters were given to the Jansenist controversy, in which the saint deplored the harm done to souls by La Fréquente Communion. According to Vincent, “No longer do we see persons frequenting the sacraments, not even at Easter, in the way they formerly did.” He went on to describe Arnauld’s fierce reaction when he saw the opposition which his book encountered “on all sides on the matter of public penance, and the penance which he wished to introduce before Communion.” [7]

He countered with “an explanation of his view that the form of absolution is simply declaratory.” [8] The actual remission does not take place until after, and is conditioned upon, the performance of extraordinary penances in vogue in the early Church. Regarding Arnauld’s demand that the Church must return to this ancient practice to vindicate itself of the charge of falling into error, Vincent de Paul observed that this is tantamount to heresy.

Is not his contention that the Church which in the beginning observed the practice of public penance before absolution has always desired to re-establish this custom and that, if she did not do so, she would not be the pillar of truth, ever consistent with herself, but a synagogue of errors; is not that statement baseless? Cannot the Church, which never alters where matters of faith are in question, make changes in matters of discipline, and has not God, who is immutable in Himself, altered His way in regard to men? Did not His Son, our Lord, sometimes act differently towards His own followers, and the Apostles towards theirs? What, then, does this man mean when he says that the Church would err if she did not hold fast to a desire to re-establish those forms of penance which she employed in the past? Is that orthodox teaching? [9]

The most detailed of St. Vincent’s letters on the subject was addressed to a priest of the Mission, M. Dehorgny, resident of Rome, who was being seduced by the Jansenist propaganda. The painstaking care with which Vincent answered Dehorgny gives an insight into the conflict which Arnauld’s book had produced in the contemporary Catholic mind. Dehorgny had objected that Arnauld was only following in the footsteps of St. Charles Borromeo who in his day stirred up a spirit of penance in his diocese and took care that the penitential canons were observed. As Borromeo had been opposed by the men of his time, so Arnauld is now being persecuted in the same way. Not so, Vincent answered.

Borromeo did not say that penance or, if you like satisfaction, consists in abstaining from holy Confession or the adorable sacrament of the Eucharist, except in cases laid down by the canons.…He is very far indeed from saying what has been attributed to him, namely, that he enjoined public penances for private sins, and that satisfaction should be performed before absolution, as the book in question pretends to prove. [10]

Vincent’s correspondent had other ideas; so he was told,

notwithstanding whatever you may say about this book On Frequent Communion, it was primarily written to restore the practice of the ancient penitential discipline, as a necessary condition for being restored to God’s favor. [11]

The reason why Dehorgny called it calumny to accuse Arnauld of this purpose was because he did

not know the basic principle of the maxims of this author, and of all his doctrine, which was to bring the Church back to her ancient usages, combined with the assertion that the Church has ceased to exist since those primitive times. [12]

To substantiate this charge, Vincent recalled that two Jansenist leaders had told the Mother Superior of St. Mary’s in Paris, whom they hoped to win over to their course, that “there has been no Church for the last 500 years.” He added, “She told me so herself, both verbally and in writing.” [13] Vincent de Paul admitted it is not always easy to recognize the latent errors in Jansenism, since they are frequenly interlarded with otherwise orthodox statements of Catholic teaching. All heretical innovators do the same.

They sow contradictory statements through their books, so that, if found fault with on any point, they can escape by saying that they had said the contrary In other places. [14]

Arnauld might have been silenced under this avalanche of criticism except for the backing he received from the Gallican prelates of France and the Netherlands. They had approved Arnauld’s ideas and, when their protégé was summoned to Rome, they felt that injury had been done to their authority. A month after Arnauld wrote a letter of “submission,” they addressed a collective letter to Innocent X in which they definitely sided with Arnauld and against those who dared to resist the bishops’ rights to direct the consciences of their faithful.

For our purpose, the most important Jansenist errors finally censured by the Church were the following:

  1. It is the will of Christ that adequate satisfaction for sins should precede sacramental absolution.

  2. The practice of immediate and easy absolution of sins is contrary to the purpose of the sacrament of Penance.

  3. The current practice in the administration of the sacrament of Penance, although confirmed by long established custom, is clearly an abuse and against the true mind of the Church.

  4. Those who claim they have a right to Communion before having done sufficient penance for their sins are guilty of sacrilege. [15]

For the Jansenists, the condemnation of their moral theories was a severe blow. Arnauld was still living when La Fréquente Communion was condemned. His resentment against Alexander VIII vented itself in a bitter diatribe. “The Pope,” he wrote to a friend, “has disgraced the Holy See and projected the execration of all thoughtful men.” [16] Contemporary historians correctly observed that the real issue in Jansenism was not the conditions for receiving the sacraments but the authority of Rome to determine the dispositions necessary for a valid absolution before Communion. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the seeds planted by Jansenius and his followers took deeper root than might have been expected from the forthright condemnation of Arnauld and his demands for extraordinary satisfaction for sins before absolution and exalted sanctity before receiving Communion.

The high-water mark of modern Jansenism was the Italian variety. Its master mind and most prominent representative was Scipione de Ricci, bishop of Pistoia, who ruled the diocese until his forced resignation in 1791. Among the eighty-five condemned propositions of Ricci’s Synod of Pistoia (1786) were fifteen directly affecting the sacrament of Penance. The Italian Jansenists held that no one should be admitted to the tribunal of Penance until his sorrow for sin was animated by the perfect love of God. They also taught that persons might have to wait a whole lifetime before reaching this degree of supernatural charity. They further claimed that people should drastically reduce their frequentation of the sacrament of Penance, involving the confession of venial sins. The fear, they said, was that otherwise Confession becomes routine and despised by the people. [17]

Reversal of Jansenism.  By the time of St. Pius X, the question of when children should be admitted to the sacraments had reached a peak. He literally reversed the trend set in motion by Jansenism and restored the custom which the Church had urged on the faithful for over a millennium: that everyone should have early and easy access to the Eucharist and Confession - as powerful means of grace given to the Church by Christ.

Several factors contributed to give to the Catholic world, under Pius X, a series of decrees on the early and frequent reception of the sacraments. The pope’s own antecedents, his years of experience as a parish priest, and above all his deep personal faith in the efficacy of the sacraments, made him painfully conscious of the harm done to souls - under whatever pretext - who seldom approached the holy table or the sacrament of peace.

Furthermore, he realized that the root of the problem lay not among the faithful but among those who were to guide the people in the way of salvation. Theologians were undecided on what precise conditions were required for receiving the sacraments.

In principle they agreed on the value of Confession and Communion as means of sanctification; but in practice they were divided on the proper dispositions that were needed. The majority held for stringent conditions. When occasionally an author would modify these conditions, he was accused of teaching “erroneous doctrine.” A bare list of the books and monographs written on the subject at the turn of the century shows how acute the issue had become.

No less than four documents were issued under Pius X, telling the people to pull away from the effects of Jansenism and return to the pristine frequentation of the sacraments. In 1905 came the decree on daily Communion for all rightly-disposed Catholics, including children. Two more decrees in 1906 urged the same and stressed this “reception also for children.” Finally in 1910, to leave no doubt what the Church wants, the historic document, Quam Singulari, spelled out in the most explicit terms at what age and under what conditions the sacraments of Confession and Communion are to be administered to children.

I.    The age of discretion for both Confession and Communion is the time when a child begins to exercise his reason. This is normally around the seventh year, more or less. From this time also begins the duty of keeping the precept of Confession and Communion.
II.    For first Confession and first Communion it is not necessary to have a fully complete knowledge of Christian doctrine. Afterwards, however, the child should gradually learn the whole catechism according to his mental capacity.
III.    The religious knowledge required of a child for suitable preparation before first Communion is the following. He should understand, according to his ability, the mysteries of faith necessary for salvation, and be sufficiently able to distinguish the Eucharistic from ordinary corporeal bread, to approach the most holy Eucharist with such devotion as can be expected at his age.
IV.    The preceptive duty, affecting the child, to receive Confession and Communion, mainly falls on those responsible for his care. This means the parents, the confessor, teachers and the pastor. It is the father’s right, or of those who take his place, and the confessor’s - according to the Roman Catechism - to admit a child to first Communion.
VI.    Those who have charge of children are most urgently to insure that, after their first Communion, these children often approach the Holy Table. If possible, they should receive even daily, as Christ Jesus and mother Church desire; and that they do so with such devotion of spirit as corresponds to their age.
VII.    The custom of not admitting children to Confession or of never absolving them, once they have reached the age of reason, is absolutely condemned (omnino reprobanda). Consequently local ordinaries are to make sure, even using juridical means, that this abuse is completely rooted out. [18]

Fifty years of experience testified to the Church’s wisdom in safeguarding the rights of children to sacramental Confession and Communion once they reached the age of reason.

Not so well known, but critically important for our study, was the reluctance of moralists to accept the Church’s directives regarding children’s confession. In spite of the clear implications of Pius X’s mandate in 1905, they argued that, even if the Eucharist is given early, at least Confession should be delayed. This was a dramatic about-face. For years they had argued against either sacrament being administered as early as the age of reason; against Confession until near puberty, and against Communion until well into adolescence.

Pius X undercut these subtleties: those who had “distinguished one age of discretion for Penance and another for the Eucharist were in error.” Rather,

the age of discretion for Confession is the time when one can distinguish between right and wrong, that is, when one arrives at a certain use of reason. In like manner, for Holy Communion is required the age when one can distinguish between ordinary bread and the Bread of the Holy Eucharist, which is also the age when a child attains the use of reason.” [19]

In spite of all speculation to the contrary, the Church has the right - as custodian of the sacraments - to teach the faithful when they can (and should) benefit from sacramental grace.

The Modern Scene

There the matter still stands, as far as Rome and the Church’s official teaching are concerned. In most sectors of the world, children are admitted to first Confession before they make their first Communion or, in any case, they are prepared for sacramental Confession around the age of seven.

Pastoral Theologians.  Textbooks in pastoral theology and directives for parents and teachers, into the 1960’s, uniformly taught children should be confessed and absolved at an early age. Speaking for England in 1935, moral theologian Henry Davis assured priests that,

Children in this country are usually well prepared for Confession and there need not be any doubt as to their capacity. In the rare cases when a child does not appear to have come to the use of reason conditional absolution may be given. [20]

About the only trouble anticipated at the time was that priests should know how to deal with young children. Not all priests knew what to do and some were notoriously incompetent. Davis gave some sage pastoral advice, drawing on the experience of men who understood the child mind and did not make the mistake of either dismissing what a child confessed as meaningless prattle or of attributing adult responsibility to a youngster of seven or eight. First some counsel on taking the children seriously. They can offend God, venially no doubt, but they are quite conscious of some guilt.

The confessor will choose one particular sin confessed, such as disobedience, lying, or stealing, and concentrate the child’s particular purpose of amendment on that one, pointing out the special sinfulness of the sin, explaining the reasons why God forbids it, and the need for special care to avoid it. The highest motives may be suggested to children even of tender years, for the gift of faith and divine grace make them susceptible to the highest ideals, but the motives should be proposed in clear and simple language. [21]

If the child is capable of high motivation, it is quite incapable of malicious intention. Again wise advice that some priests badly needed. The problem, as knowledgeable moralists pointed out, was not with bad will - presumably absent in the very young. It was with protecting children from falling into bad habits which, later on, might become serious and, by then, hard to overcome.

The confessor should not trouble about a child’s motive or malice in sinning, for their sins are due mostly to thoughtlessness. An erroneous conscience must be corrected, especially in matters of stealing, lying and want of modesty. A most practical way of doing so will be for the confessor to say that venial sin in these matters may gradually lead to mortal sins, and that serious sorrow and firm purpose of amendment should be expressed in cases of even venial sins. The less a confessor says about sins against modesty the better, except in the rare cases of precocious vice or of habits already contracted. [22]

Realistically, moralists stressed the importance of knowing under what home conditions children lived, often exposed to bad example from their elders or crammed in limited sleeping quarters that were an open invitation to sexual activity. The earlier these conditions were known, the better precautions could be taken, on the safe assumption that not a few “parents” can be “blind to the moral dangers of their children to an astonishing degree.” [23] Later on they wonder whatever happened to a son or daughter about whose natural tendencies they had never given a second thought.

Confession of Venial Sins.  Although the issue had been raised before, it became a problem - first practical and then theoretical - as children began confessing from the age of discretion and got into the habit of continuing to do so with the passage of years.

Clearly the Church’s pastoral stand favoring early confessions, long before the age of probable grave sin, was based on sound principles of faith. Among these the most basic was that sacramental absolution of venial sins confers special graces on the recipient, that are not otherwise available to the faithful.

If these graces are available before adolescence, why not afterwards? And if they are received through priestly absolution, why not obtain them as often as conveniently possible? This was the logic of thousands of Catholics the world over, priests and religious, children and adults. The result was a matter of record from within ten years of Pius X’s death (1914) to the end of the Second World War. Frequentation of the sacrament of Penance was common and few people were aware of the troubles brewing.

We shall examine in a later context what new theology (comparable to Jansenism in the previous century) provoked a reaction. But one practical fact cannot be omitted here. As only priests can know, the sheer quantity of Confessions and Devotion, started by admitting young children to the sacrament, placed heavy demands on the zeal (and faith) of confessors in most countries of Europe and the Americas.

By 1943, Pius XII had to show a firm hand to writers who argued against these “endless lines of penitents,” most of whom had no more to confess than occasional faults against charity or, the children, disobedience to their parents. The pope called the critics purveyors of “false doctrines,” which are “not directed to the spiritual advancement of the faithful but turned to their deplorable ruin.” Their position was essentially negative, asserting that “little importance should be given to the frequent confession of venial sins. Far more important, they say, is that general confession which the Spouse of Christ, surrounded by her children in the Lord, makes each day by the mouth of the priest as he approaches the altar of God.” [24]

The pope admitted the value of penitential formulas in the Mass. But a sacrament is an effective sign of grace, here of assistance to deal with human sinfulness. What follows is at once a clear statement of Catholic belief in the confession of venial sins and a defence of the Church’s encouragement of the earliest possible reception of the one sacrament specially instituted by Christ for healing the frailties of our nature.

It is true that venial sins may be expiated in many ways which are to be highly commended. But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the practice of virtue, we will that the pious practice of frequent Confession, which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, should be earnestly advocated.
By it genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself. Let those, therefore, among the younger clergy who make light of or lessen esteem for frequent Confession realize that what they are doing is alien to the Spirit of Christ and disastrous for the Mystical Body of Christ. [25]

A number of writers, mainly in Europe, supported the pope’s teaching with articles and even books. The best known volume was Baur’s Die häufige Beichte, that went through nine editions in German by 1960, besides translations in other languages. The authors went beyond the pope in charging the critics of early and frequent Confession with trying to sell their own neglect of the sacrament to others and unwillingness to be of service to souls, including the very young, who wished to grow in holiness.

In 1947, the pope returned to the same theme, using stronger words against those who discouraged confessing venial sins. He recalled “with sorrow” the consequence of such an attitude, which is “most dangerous to the spiritual life,” and pleaded with bishops to propose this teaching “for the serious consideration and dutiful obedience of your flock, especially to students for the priesthood and young clergy.” [26]

We may pause for a moment to see where things stood about 1950. A growing number of clergy was ill disposed to the idea (and the burden) of Confessions that were certainly not necessary for reconciliation with God. Young children were a substantial part or these “needless penitents” and, in fact, it was Pius X’s decree in 1910, telling children to receive absolution at the age of seven, that started the whole process in the first place. The logic was right for action, and the next twenty years were a witness of how it was applied.

The drop in Confessions across whole nations, notably in Belgium, Holland and the United States - where the crusade has been most consistent - is common knowledge.

All the evidence shows that the real focus in this crusade is not the children but sin, whether among children or adults; and the real problem that faces the Church is the acceptance of a mystery of faith: that sacraments (like Confession) actually confer the grace they signify and are not mere symbols of religious experience.

Opponents of Early Confession

The immediate impression one gets from examining the extant literature dealing with first Confession is surprise. Why the sudden worry about the age at which a child receives absolution? To answer the question we should review all the main arguments proposed against the Church’s long-standing practice. They touch every fundamental position of Catholic Christianity on human sinfulness and of Christ’s promise of peace to His followers from the dawn of conscious volition.

The principal arguments are being mustered by those who feel the Church is wrong in allowing young children to approach the sacrament of Confession. All writers covered are American and European. With few exceptions, they have published almost exclusively on this topic, and include anonymous authors who drafted the guidelines for diocesan liturgical Commissions.

Some of the arguments overlap, and not all are proposed by any one writer, although some diocesan commissions lump several together, without discriminating their relative importance.

It may help to synthesize the arguments in key terms, each referring to a more-or-less distinct argument: undeveloped conscience in the pre-adolescent, the new morality, confession only for grave sins, guilt consciousness induced, sacrament in danger of being taken as magic, neglect of human forgiveness, and basic objections to auricular Confession.

Undeveloped Conscience of Pre-Adolescents.  Those who have written most extensively to debar children from sacramental absolution appeal, without hesitation, to what they call “the latest findings in psychology.” As they read these findings, children are incapable of any formal sin before the age of puberty, which may range from eleven to fourteen, or beyond.

In view of the gravity of this claim, it seems best to quote at length from those who make it, and add only such interpretative comment as may be necessary to bring out the full implications of their thought.

Beginning with the adage that “good psychology and good morality cannot be in conflict,” they state - on the testimony of experimentation - that before adolescence, no child can adequately distinguish right from wrong. Children are, therefore,

incapable of interpreting or evaluating their actions in a morally culpable way. The attainment of certain crucial concepts, and the exercise of autonomy of judgment do not occur until the onset of adolescence, i.e., between eleven and thirteen years of age in most children. Until that time, they can be guilty of only material, not formal wrong. [27]

These authors and their followers recognize that any kind of actual sin, even minimal, would be reason enough for permitting children to confess and be absolved. They are at great pains, consequently, to establish two facts: on psychological grounds that formal sin is impossible before puberty, and on theological grounds that the same age at which a person is capable of venial sin he is also able to commit mortal sin.

This psychology is substantially based on the experiments of the behaviorist Piaget, whose “work spans more than forty years and has resulted in over twenty-five books.” [28]

Piaget concluded that formal operational thinking, which means the full and perfect use of reason, does not appear until about eleven or twelve years of age at the earliest. He defined formal thought by two criteria: 1) “the ability to carry out a mental experiment, i.e., hypothetical reasoning from assumptions or definitions rather than from concrete reality, and 2) an ordering and awareness of the thought operations, such as retaining definitions.” [29]

Other experimenters are quoted to support Piaget, namely that pre-adolescents are incapable of theoretical reasoning. If some children seem to act otherwise, researchers

at no point consider abstract, conceptual, relational thinking possible, in a consistent and sustained way, before eleven to thirteen years of age. [30]

It is still a giant step from admitting that children do not practice “consistent and sustained” theoretical reasoning, to saying they are therefore unable to commit any sin. The step is never taken on psychological premises, but the ground is shifted to theology.

St. Thomas is appealed to and the authors’ case rested on a passage in the Summa, where Aquinas theorizes on “Whether venial sin can be in anyone with original sin alone.” He answers negatively: “It is impossible for venial sin to be in one with original sin alone, and without mortal sin.” [31]

Aquinas’ purely speculative question and answer deal explicitly and uniquely with a person who had never been baptized. Does such a person, on reaching the age of discretion, face the option of choosing or rejecting God - on the assumption that he is not yet in the state of God’s friendship? Thomas believed the option occurs early in life, for the unbaptized, and his opinion is a commonplace in theology.

But for those who need to make the step from pre-adolescents who do not reason theoretically to pre-adolescents who cannot sin, Aquinas is used to serve another purpose. He is made to say, universally and univocally, “that children cannot commit venial sin before they possess sufficient use of reason to commit mortal sin. . . . It is not an isolated opinion, but part of his formal doctrine on the nature of sin and man’s final end.” [32]

The logic of this use of Aquinas is clear. If Thomas held that no one can commit a venial sin before he can sin mortally; and if to commit grave sin a person must be capable of full reasoned deliberation, then surely eleven or thirteen years (or older) are required for any sin - even the slightest. And on the same premises, Confession should be deferred to beyond the age of puberty.

Nothing in Aquinas gives warrant for this conclusion. He is speaking in context not about baptized persons - the only ones to be considered for first Confession. On that score alone, the authority of Thomas is here irrelevant. But even if, Contrary to fact, he were referring to baptized persons, he specifically opts for an earlier rather than a later age at which even a child is capable of mortal sin. “When he begins to have the use of reason,” urges Aquinas, “he is not entirely excused from the guilt of venial or mortal sin” - speaking of one who has not yet been justified.

Having briged the gap between pre-adolescent reasonless thinking and inability to sin, the authors draw some startling conclusions.

Lacking the ability to make truly moral judgments, preadolescent children are incapable of committing either mortal or venial sin. Hence there is no matter for the valid administration of the Sacrament of Penance.
Those aspects of religious and moral training which include such concepts as sin, punishment, and Hell are psychologically harmful and theologically indefensible before twelve or thirteen years of age.
There are few alternative positions to take regarding the thesis of this paper. Some will dismiss it out of hand; others will agree wholeheartedly, but most will be ambivalent, reacting positively to the evidence but negatively to the conclusions. This latter group will probably strive to effect some intrapsychic compromise involving a dilution of the conclusions or a wait-and-see stance. It is important that this group not confuse cautious skepticism with anxiety over change. If a valid, grounded-in-fact counter-argument cannot be produced, then radical changes are demanded. [33]

Not long after this judgment was made, radical changes were introduced in more than one diocese, including one midwestern see where the foregoing authors were the mainstay of an episcopal mandate against early Confession for children.

Those who accept these premises also accept their conclusions, and not only to defer sacramental absolution. Since children are presumed not to sin before puberty, their parents and guides are warned against repressing such natural instincts as the sex drive by an appeal to divine justice.

As the proponents of this new ethic see it, the whole gamut of Catholic religious education should be revamped.

There must be a fundamental reorganization of curricula and rewriting of the present religion units and C.C.D. texts. The current curriculum in schools, as well as the texts used, is oriented toward premature confession, consciousness of sin, distinction between types of sin, and the consequences of sin.
Our firm conviction is that not only can religion (including the commandments) and moral principles be inculcated without threat of sin…but that it can be achieved much more effectively…
Forsaking Hell, sin, and punishment, the appeal can be made to the “golden rule” as a rudimentary principle. Building upon this, one can add humanitarian values of concern for the health, welfare, integrity, and dignity of others. [34]

More than sound pedagogy is at stake. No doubt, the “practice of the Church in hearing children’s confessions at an early age apparently contradicts this opinion.” Unfortunately, “the practice of the Church in this regard has never been subjected to critical evaluation in the light of modern psychology.” [35] Once such an evaluation is made, it will be seen that not only should Confession be postponed. The Church’s very concept of morality needs to be revised. Among the necessary revisions is the practical elimination of sanctions from the moral teaching of children. Indeed, “there is no reason at the preadolescent level to mention, much less emphasize, attributes such as All-Just . . . or All-Knowing.” [36] They only serve to frighten people without making them any better.

It is not clear at what age a person can be safely exposed to the attributes of an all-just and knowing God. No provision is made for such exposure after years of studied silence on the subject. In fact, the very trauma which these new catechists fear to inflict on children is sure to affect them as adolescents. To be told suddenly that actions like masturbation (approved by the authors up to adulthood) is supposedly sinful after one becomes habituated to the practice - is pedagogically unsound and may be psychologically disastrous.

The New Morality.  Another approach to the same question is implicit in the previous one. Once granted that children are incapable of sin, the door is open to redefining sin - for adults, and defending the absence of sin in anyone except a “fully mature person.”

Every writer who opposes early sacramental Confession takes this approach, though not always in the same form and generally interleaved with other, less embarrassing, arguments.

Three stages to the argument are discernible. First the Church is criticized for having too long cultivated a legalistic concept of morals. Then the new morality is expanded. And finally the matter is applied to one practical aspect of the issue, namely children’s Confessions.

The Church’s legalism has become a familiar target for situation ethicians. It is also the object of criticism for those who believe that Catholic morality needs a complete overhauling.

In the past, training in morality had its basic orientation in the law - the Ten Commandments of God and the six precepts of the Church. If there was a moral question, the thing to ask was, “What does the law say?”
Previously Catholics pictured the Church as having the answers to all questions - a bulwark of security In a changing world. But the Catholic Church today acknowledges that it doesn’t have all the answers. Unfortunately, many Catholics, unknowingly perhaps, might prefer to pattern their action on the example of the 19th century English intellectual who, it was said, like to read at breakfast each morning a new papal decree. He had his marching orders for the day. [37]

Given this state of affairs in the past, the character of religious education was no different. “The image of the teacher of that era would have been that of the schoolmaster with a textbook in one hand and a ruler in the other.” And, “if he was teaching religion, his concern would be to defend the rights of God even if he sometimes had to attack the rights of man.” [38] In that cultural setting, the Church naturally adopted the role of “mother and teacher” tending “its sheep.”

So much for the past. It had its value, perhaps, but things have radically changed.

The change has taken place so rapidly that some are still unaware of what happened. Instead of security, Catholics are now expected to take risks; and instead of the comforting assurance that what the Church teaches is right, they must now learn from each set of circumstances what they are supposed to do.

Formerly, Catholics thought the Church had stable principles of morality and certain unchangeable prescriptions of the divine law. They know better now.

It is important to realize that although the Church has definitely spoken out on moral matters, it has never done so in an…irrevocable way. As Father Daniel Maguire, professor of moral theology at Catholic University, points out, the Church in its practice seems to realize, in spite of the denials of traditional theologians, that “it does not enjoy an infallibly guaranteed competence to apply the moral vision of the Gospel to complex natural law questions.”
To date no exception has been admitted in many moral cases, such as abortion and birth control.…Today, Catholics are pressing for answers in many sensitive areas of the Christian moral life. They will not be satisfied with absolutism or evasion. [39]

The only way out of the dilemma, Catholics are told, is to rely on their conscience. Their own judgment of each situation as it comes up is their only true norm of morality.

What about the Church? Has it no place anymore to enlighten the conscience of a Catholic? It can only advise; it should never prescribe.

This can only mean that the moral teaching of the Church in the future will give general directives.
There are different opinions among people of good will. An absolutely authoritative statement is not possible. The facts and circumstance are not totally known. But the Church can give its evolving thoughts as a strong guide. [40]

After all this prelude, the author comes to children’s Confessions. He fully subscribes to the statements previously quoted about a “premoral conscience” in normal persons before the age of puberty. But he goes a bit further in his low estimate of a child’s ethical outlook. It is simply a-religious. “Because the young child tends to think of morality in terms of fear and punishment, it is unwise to identify moral demands with God’s will for him.” What, then? “He should be taught to obey and conform because the parents want him to, not because God does.” [41]

If this seems like a reversal of historic Christian teaching, it is. The young mind is assumed to be without capacity for higher than stimulus-response activity, and certainly not equipped for making any decisions of a moral order from which the Church is excluded, on principle, as divinely authorized preceptor and infallible guide.

The path is cleared for the obvious conclusion: that children are not ready for Confession until well into adolescence, because they are not prepared to cope with the new concept of morality. In other words, “the average child is not capable of the kind of thinking necessary to make a personal and relevant confession.” [42] Then, on a pastoral note for the future, “if the adults of tomorrow are to approach the sacrament of Penance with maturely developed consciences, the experience of those dioceses and parishes that have delayed first confession should not be ignored.” [43]

Certainly, if Catholics in the future cannot look to the Church for the kind of moral guidance the faithful had received in the past, it would be naive to expect children to qualify for Confession. It might even be asked how many adults would qualify under these conditions.

At the Age of Mortal Sin.  Still consistent with the “new findings of psychology,” that children are incapable of moral wrong, some advocates of late Confession argue from duty to practice. Since no one is divinely obliged to confess unless he has sinned gravely, children should not be expected to receive the sacrament until the age when, presumably, they may have committed serious sin.

Those who take this position fully subscribe to the claims of behaviorist experimenters, that true conceptual judgment comes only with adolescence. They are even willing to admit that some children might profitably receive sacramental absolution and, absolutely speaking,

The child has a right to the sacrament which God has instituted as a sign of reconciliation. It is strictly forbidden to refuse to allow a child to confess or to refuse absolution once he has reached the age of reason. If such a child asks or is presented by his parents for absolution, he must not be turned away. [44]

After this generous concession in favor of liberty, the reader is not prepared for what follows: a subtle integration of the most extreme form of ethical personalism with the practical discouragement of Confession before the age of puberty.

The value of a close analysis of this integration is heightened by the fact that the author’s ideas have been incorporated into at least one textbook religion series used in the United States.” [45]

Unlike other critics who deny that children can sin at all, this opponent of children’s Confessions admits that they can sin - but they should not (as a rule) receive sacramental absolution. Why not?

Arguing first on a peripheral level, the writer offers four objections - before coming to his main thesis.

  1. …Confession is by Its very nature a personal act intensely free and spontaneous. Lengthy and detailed organization of ‘spontaneous demonstrations’ by the Communists in Red Square rightly is regarded as a fraud. So, too, marching children off to Confession produces subconscious resentment to this affront to their freedom and sows the seeds of indifference…

  2. If early and frequent Confession will give the child an awareness of venial sin…this same awareness can be achieved in other psychologically less dangerous ways through sound religious education…

  3. …Children can get the idea that they must confess before Communion, whether they have sinned gravely or not - an error which is still widespread …

  4. …A young child does not have the psychological substructure to be so disposed for the sacrament that he can profit from its frequent use for the remission of venial sins. [46]

Without dwelling on these preliminary objections, it may be noted that two of them are concerned with the ill-effects of early Confession. Subconscious resentment and psychological danger are attributed to the practice, with no room left for avoiding these consequences by other means than cutting the children off from the sacrament. Two other objections suggest that children will get false ideas about having to confess every time they receive the Eucharist, and that they lack the requisite dispositions to profit from Confessions of Devotion. All the evidence for several decades indicates the opposite. People as a rule did not feel constrained to confess before going to Communion. And the reference to inadequate dispositions was anticipated by the Church at the turn of the century when a similar difficulty was raised by the Jansenists.

Actually the main thrust was not the pastoral one implied by giving children a chance to “grow up” before subjecting them to the “tribunal of penance.” It is the more fundamental question of what constitutes sin.

It is not coincidental that the author being analyzed, devoted fully fifty percent of a thirty page article on, “What Age for First Confession?” - to various aspects of mortal sin. And rightly so. Depending on how a mortal offense against God is understood will determine the correct instruction for the sacrament instituted by Christ to remit grave sin. If this sin is still defined as Catholic Christianity has always conceived it, no revolutionary change need be made in preparing the faithful for Confession - whether pedagogically or chronologically.

But if grave sin is no longer what the Church believed it to be, then great changes are needed (and demanded) not only on the optimum age for first Confession but in the very essence of Christian morals and sacramental practice.

For centuries, the Church’s catechetical practice has been to teach that a person commits a mortal sin when the action he performs involves serious matter, about which he has sufficiently deliberated with his mind, and to which he gave complete consent of the will.

As certain latter-day moralists see it, however, this notion is historically interesting and, for some traditionalists, may be useful. But, for those who read the direction that Western morality is taking, it is quite out of date.

In this definition, the operative term is the first of the triad, i.e., serious matter. Such sins as adultery and murder, blasphemy and fornication have been considered serious, and anyone who deliberately and with full consent did these things was said to have sinned grievously.

But not any more. Instead of grave matter, the language to be used is total commitment. And instead of saying that a person sins by performing a grave mis-deed, we should say he is guilty of a mis-intention.

In more prosaic terms, what constitutes sin essentially is not what a person does but why he does it. He therefore sins gravely not because he breaks a serious law of God but because he fails in adequate love. The essence of sin, on these premises, shifts from the objective to the subjective; from having done a wrong action to acting from an unworthy motive.

At this point some careful distinctions are called for, otherwise the issue being discussed may be obscured.

We first recognize the stress in our day on personal freedom and the role of the individual conscience in moral matters. A balanced personalism is revealed in the documents of Vatican II and the pedagogy of the sacraments ought to reflect this perspective. Thus in teaching the laws of God, due attention must be given to the love that inspires their observance and the interior dispositions that should animate those who are God’s children.

Again theological speculation by some theologians is not the same as drawing (often illegitimately) practical conclusions from such speculation. It is one thing for Karl Rahner to theorize about the “supernatural existential,” and something else to build a case against children’s Confessions on Rahner’s theory.

Lastly, and most pertinently, not a few writers who are justifiably concerned to update modern catechetics are not always conscious of the import of their ideas or of the logic implicit in the ideas they borrow from others.

We return to our analysis of the author whose preoccupation with the new concept of grave sin leads him to deny children the privilege of early absolution.

He is critical of those (previously quoted) who presume that a person cannot “have sufficient use of reason for a true moral act and be at the same time incapable of mortal sin.” [47] This is saying too much. It leads to the awful judgment that children cannot sin at all until they are well into adolescence.

A wiser course, he feels, is to hold that “it seems more likely that it is possible for man to do a good act earlier than an evil one.” [48] Thus the way is cleared for postulating mortal sin at a later age than childhood and yet not exempting children from committing venial sins.

With that hurdle cleared, it is right to ask: Why, then, postpone Confession to adulthood? Why not admit children to the sacrament of peace before puberty? A superficial answer is available, namely that there are other ways of removing minor faults than by absolution and, besides, children’s Confessions raise the practical difficulties already seen.

But the real reason is that, until a person reaches adulthood, he is incapable of that kind of rejection of God which alone specifies the nature of mortal sin. There are two dimensions to this idea, of which the first is being in the state of God’s friendship. In psychological terms this means to love.

Love Is found where the person completely possesses himself, completely pledges himself, and engages himself totally in his freedom…
Love of God is not just any particular intentional tendency; it is the free and in some way or other explicit acceptance of the basic movement of freedom as such which is at the root of everything else. [49]

Having so defined the state of grace in terms of whole-souled, free surrender to God, he goes on to define its opposite.

If, and in so far as, the free acceptance of an individual object is already an implicit acceptance of the transcendental basic movement towards the foundation of all freedom, then every moral decision is already love. To sin is to freely affirm a particular value while registering an ultimate ‘no’ to this transcendental basic movement of the spirit. [50]

Needless to say, no child could be expected to pronounce such a “No!” to God, by choosing a creature in defiance of the Creator.

If this were all there was to the issue, no great problem would be raised. At best, a plausible explanation would be given of what happens when a person turns his back on God, and at worst an implausible argument for deferring children’s Confession.

In presenting his case, the author relies heavily on others, whom he quotes extensively and, in a single sentence, names eight different writers, with precise references to each. Among the authorities cited is the one we analyzed in the preceding section, on “The New Morality.” His exposition of what is mortal sin is somewhat lengthy, but lacks nothing for clarity.

Today theologians are clarifying the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin by speaking of mortal sin in terms of a fundamental choice against God and/or others. There are in everyone’s life peak moments of grace, moments of decisive choice. Conversion, marriage, ordination and the firm will to live a new life are examples of momentous change.
Mortal sin is like that; it is a vocational decision - a fundamental choice - an act which involves the fullest dimension of one’s personality; one’s very life.
The late Bishop Bekkers of Holland tried to clarify this question. He asked: Is it possible that a person could be in the state of grace at twelve noon some day, commit a mortal sin at five past twelve and then be in the state of grace at ten past twelve? Such a person would have the certainty that he had not committed mortal sin. When the concrete act is immediately followed by sorrow and real contrition, the necessary conditions for mortal sin cannot be considered present. [51]

Why not? Because, as the new morality defines sin, its essence is uniquely in the intention. It is not, as historic Catholicism teaches, equally in the action (what is done), the circumstances (how it is done) and in the intention (why it is done).

No wonder the same writers (as the one quoted) who so redefine sin also favor contraception, abortion and the dissolubility of Christian marriage. Naturally, since most people who practice contraception, abort, or divorce and remarry could honestly say their motives are good, and certainly their intentions are not openly to defy God or simply reject the Creator.

They could easily excuse themselves, on Bekkers’ terms, not only five minutes after an abortion or adultery, but in the very act itself. Of course, in traditional language, what they were doing is considered a grave sin, but the reason why they were doing it is assuredly noble - like protecting the reputation of an unwed mother or giving consolation to an estranged wife.

If all of this seems far removed from the age for first Confession, it is not. It is the heart of the matter, as anyone who familiarizes himself with current writing on the subject can verify.

Guilt Consciousness Induced.  Consistent with the new approach to sin, the critics play the scale of evil effects sure to be induced in the young if they are told to confess any sins.

For too long, they argue, has the Church been telling people that what they do may be sinful, instead of ignoring the matter and concentrating on the intentions. Until recently, parents and teachers had mistakenly taught the youngsters that certain actions were objectively wrong. They trained the children only too well. See the curious consciences the children have acquired.

What have they done? Pulled the dog’s tail; broken a dish; tracked mud on the floor; scuffled with their brothers or the boy down the street. Since they have nothing else to tell, and since confession is for sins (terrible things that made Jesus die on the cross), they must be led to think that these outbreaks of childishness are sins. Confession at such an early age may lead the child to see in his childish weaknesses real sins and thus insidiously implant the idea of a basic personal unholiness, an abiding difficulty in serving God which milks the joy out of religion. And instead of the joyful, open attitude of a truly free child of God, an Old Testament mentality of breast-beating and soul-scraping could develop. [52]

The writer cautiously observes that a mentality of breast- beating could develop. Indeed, no human practice in which children are trained is without its risks, as every mother knows. But why settle on early Confession as responsible for scrupulosity or soul-scraping in adult life? The reason is that sin is being mis-taught to people, from childhood on. Once you assume that there are objectively bad actions - like stealing, lying and disobedience to parents - you will naturally teach children accordingly.

Wise pedagogy does not stop there. It further insists that children be also taught to distinguish between what they may have done thoughtlessly - like a spontaneous untruth, and what they do because they failed to control their selfish emotions, like anger or resentment. All the while, however, the child is not deprived of access to the ethical wisdom of mankind (not to say of Christianity) which recognizes that habits of virtue are to be cultivated from earliest years, and sinful tendencies restrained from the dawn of reason.

The new pedagogy thinks differently. Even when its advocates do not bluntly deny any moral consciousness in children, they at least charge that “the consciousness of sin . . . went out with making tots accuse themselves as sinners when they were simply being children.” [53] Very true. It all depends on how you define sin and sinner. If sin is not the commission of an objectively forbidden act, then, no doubt, a child that steals or lies or refuses to obey its parents is not committing sin. Logically, though, by this standard not even adults are sinners when they “commit” adultery, abort, or fornicate. They are “simply being human.”

No theologian seriously claims that even the wilful disobedience of a child is to be equated, in terms of guilt, with the cold hatred of a man of forty. But in both cases, though differing vastly in culpability, sin was committed because in both instances the will of God was contravened. This will of God has been taught by the Church as binding on all the faithful, not excluding those whose conscience is just beginning to develop and needs direction in the ways of God.

Where this norm is ignored, children are exposed to the ravages of an amoral culture that surrounds them like an atmosphere. When they finally go to Confession, they are not told to relate sins but rather speak of their “attitudes,” or “want of generosity” or “lack of affection,” since these alone are sinful. Everything else is the vestige of an archaic legalism.

Sacrament Taken for Magic.  From another angle, early Confession is opposed because it encourages the childish penchant for seeing magic where natural forces exist and, conversely, it discourages personal initiative in the development of character. Generally the two objections are put together, since they do have a close connection with each other. Anyone who relies on magic will not exert himself in a given enterprise, here in the cultivation of good habits.

This practice of early confession can develop into a lazy substitute for real personal effort at a virtuous life and sorrow for sin. It can easily lead to a kind of “impersonal” practice of religion. Instead of a personal sorrow for sin, there can be substituted a mechanical chanting of unintelligible words. [54]

“Mechanical chanting” is rooted in the nature of childhood, since “the mentality of little children (before puberty) is magical rather than causal. In their world of make-believe certain words or actions produce magic effects.” Hence the need for postponing absolution to later years.

The danger of transferring this attitude to Confession is obvious. Not only does it produce a false ‘objectivism’, dispensing the sinner from genuine sorrow and efforts to amend his life and repair the damage he has caused; it also produces disillusionment and despair when no real change of life is visible despite very frequent Confessions. [55]

This criticism has a familiar ring to it. Jansenists in the time of Arnauld argued much the same way when they discouraged people from going to Confession unless they were ready to perform the extraordinary penances of the early Church. Anyone who was not willing to undergo such penances was, they claimed, clearly abusing the sacrament and relying on divine grace for what he was personally to expiate.

Moreover, the fear of false objectivism is exactly the criticism which the sixteenth century Reformers made against priestly absolution when they reduced the Catholic sacramental system from seven to two rites. The Papists, it was stated, substitute Confession for personal sorrow, and, as Calvin noted, later find themselves no better (and often worse) after so many absolutions.

As Catholicism reads the Gospels, Christ instituted the sacraments actually to confer the grace they signify. In the sacrament of Penance, this grace is not only the remission of confessed moral faults but also the light and strength needed to cope with passion and human weakness, temptations of the devil and the seduction of bad example.

So far from fearing that a child may learn false objectivism, Catholic parents and teachers wish to teach children the true objectivism inherent in the sacraments. They are confident that all (including children) who use Confession as the Church directs will experience the benefits which Christ promised those who receive It.

Neglect of Human Forgiveness.  Some who discourage early Confession argue against the practice because it creates a one- sided view of reconciliation. When a person does wrong, they object, he has first of all (and mainly?) injured other people. He should, therefore, be trained from childhood to seek pardon from those he has offended - his parents and friends - and not be hindered in the development of this habit by being saddled before adolescence with preoccupation with pardon from God.

According to the “Higher Institute of Catechetics of Nijmegen (Holland),” a radical change of outlook is demanded.

There are many other means to obtain forgiveness that, until now, have been too much neglected. As a result, confession has often been looked upon as the only means to forgiveness and even led to the neglect of the duty to ask and receive forgiveness from men. Children can obtain direct forgiveness from their parents and other educators and from one another. These are true possibilities of pardon within the Church, they do not take place outside of Christ. Moreover, they are well adapted to the life of children because they are firmly situated within the child’s own possible experiences. [56]

Assuredly, children should be taught to ask pardon of others, and few teachers of religion have overlooked this wise pedagogy.

But why exclude, on principle, the sacramental form of begging forgiveness in favor of the purely human kind “within the child’s own possible experiences”? Why not give the child both kinds of “possible experiences”?

As one reads beyond the bare catechetical manuals some remarkable discoveries are made. Not unlike the redefinition of sin previously seen, there is also a gradual redefining of forgiveness or, what is implied, a new concept of guilt.

Judaeo-Christianity has always understood sin as fundamentally an offense against God. Filled with mystery, it is a keystone of the faith that God is offended by our misdeeds and that He wants us to beg for His mercy. On these premises, guilt is first and mainly a state of soul, a changed relationship between creature and the Creator - quite apart from the feeling of regret or shame, or even a sense of estrangement, that I may (or may not) have about the sin which I committed.

All other forms of guilt are secondary to this one, as all other kinds of forgiveness take their meaning from the paradigm of mercy, which in God’s loving acceptance of those who repent for what they have done contrary to His will.

This is not to say that we should not learn about divine mercy from human experience, nor that children may not profitably be trained to ask pardon of people whom they have wronged. More than one parable of the Gospels builds around this analogy.

But what cannot be said - and yet some are implying - is that asking forgiveness of others is more important for children than having them learn, long before adolescence, of God’s forgiveness in His own sacrament of mercy.

There is a curious imbalance in this matter, among the authors who strongly appose early Confession: On the one side, what looks like calculated reticence concerning guilt as an objective offense against God; on the other side, great concern with guilt as a subjective experience, to which children should be sensitized by seeking prompt reconciliation with people.

In fact, the very idea is rejected that a child should be taught that God is offended by its misconduct. Unequivocally this would mean that God is “used as a crutch to reinforce a shaky discipline. Phrases like ‘God sees you,’ ‘that displeases God,’ or, even worse, ‘that hurts God’ can convey a distorted notion of God as the great policeman.” [57] Yet, while excluding this, a child should be taught to respect the rights of others and not displease or hurt them.

Why the discrimination? Men like Feuerbach and Freud made the discrimination. They spoke of using God as a crutch to bolster moral conduct because they considered God the fanciful projection of man’s desires and fears. But for those who believe that God is real, the very basis of morality is loving respect for God’s will, in obedience to His laws. To call this a “crutch” is to do a grave injustice to God. It also gives small credit to the faith of a child, whom Christ on one dramatic occasion offered as a pattern of docility for us to imitate. It is not easy, however, for men who have a low estimate of children to see this. To say, as some do, that a child before adolescence “can be trained to obey, and to feel guilty for disobedience, but so can a young puppy” [58] - is to speak a language that is foreign to Christian parents and educators who know children from experience and not from the pages of psychology books.

Basic Problems with Auricular Confession.  Not satisfied with the objections raised so far, the Dutch critics of early Confession face the issue squarely. Their problem is with the practice of Confession as such, and they make no secret of what they find objectionable.

The auricular confession, as it is practiced in the Church, brings with it particular difficulties for the child:
    1. Reflection upon the past generally lies beyond the mental ability of the child. The child finds it very difficult to relive again its guilt-feelings of the past.

    2. Children cannot understand why they must still ask pardon from God for something that was clearly forgiven by others.

    3. Even if the child were conscious of guilt at the time of confession, it experiences difficulty in giving verbal expression to this.

    4. The child learns by doing things with others, by imitation. This is true also of religious acts. But in auricular confession this possibility is excluded since the child is alone in the confessional. [59]

In the light of what the authors of this Dutch manual wrote elsewhere, they could have replaced the words “child” and “children” in context by “Catholic” and “Catholics.” Each of the four criticisms is part of a centuries-old heritage, since Reformation times, leveled against auricular Confession for anyone, children or adults.

Among the objections, the most serious is the second: why anyone should still ask pardon from God for something already forgiven by others. This can mean one of two things. Either God is not offended by our sins, but only other people. Or He is offended but why go through a confessional ritual to obtain His forgiveness. The first interpretation is stock in trade among those who no longer believe that sins are an objective rejection of God’s grace and offensive to the Divine Majesty. The second approach is commonplace in Protestantism, which denies that auricular Confession was instituted by Christ.

We shall come back to this again, from another angle. But it deserves some mention here. The modern beginnings of opposition to auricular Confession - and not only for children - are traceable to the Netherlands.

It was in the Netherlands that Jansenists in the seventeenth century opposed the frequentation of the sacraments, Confession and Communion, on the grounds that great penance should precede absolution and that the Eucharist is the reward, not a means, of sanctity.

The picture has not substantially changed. In the Dutch Catechism, published at Utrecht in 1966, the rigorist arguments propounded by the followers of Jansenius are repeated almost verbatim.

There is a strange silence in the Dutch Catechism about frequent Communion, which is all the more ominous when joined with the curious warning that “we are too much inclined to regard the Eucharist as a magical device.” [60]

So, too, Confession is described in the early Church as having been

envisaged only for three offenses: apostasy or idolatry, murder and adultery (to which three theft was later added), if they were publicly known and hence gave great scandal.…The sacrament was administered only once in a lifetime. [61]

Such rigorism, we know historically, was prevalent in some places, and the Jansenists made a great deal of it. But there is no proof that this was the common practice ever approved by the universal Church. On the contrary, Pope Callistus I (died c. 223 A.D.) published a famous edict that took sharp issue with the extremists. Without qualification, he decreed that even “the crimes of adultery and fornication” are remissible to those who repent and confess. The Montanist Tertullian was scandalized by such leniency, while grudgingly admitting that it came from the bishop of bishops, which means the Pontifex Maximus. [62]

In the same way, another Roman Pontiff, Leo I, in 459 warned against the severity of those who demanded public confession of all sins. He appealed to “the apostolic rule” which made secret confession to a priest sufficient without the necessity of a public declaration. [63]

So universal was the early practice of Confession to those who wanted it, and not “only once in a lifetime,” that Lactantius (died c. 330 A.D.) pointed to the regular reception of the sacrament as a characteristic of the true Church: “That is the true Church in which there is Confession and Penance, which supplies a wholesome remedy to the sins and wounds to which the weakness of the flesh is subject.” [64]

As the practice of more frequent Confession developed, still in the patristic age, it was assumed that people would approach the sacrament, in Lactantius’ words, not only to obtain remission of grave sins, but to receive “a wholesome remedy” for the consequences of sin and for the weakness of fallen human nature.

Now back to the Dutch Catechism. Instead of clarifying the matter, it leaves the overt impression that the Church’s original tradition unequivocally favored infrequent Confession, only for grave crimes, and indeed, only once in a lifetime.

Then the authors of the Catechism concede that “the custom grew up, about A.D. 600, under the influence of eastern and Irish monasticism, of also confessing secret sins.” [65] This is a direct contradiction to the well-known teaching of Leo I, two centuries earlier, who spoke of confessing secret sins as of apostolic origin. It also fails to explain that Confession of venial (and not just secret) sins grew in the early Church; but the date given for the introduction of this practice is several centuries late.

The clue to the mind of the Dutch writers, and the key to much of the present turmoil about Confession, comes in a few sentences.

The sacrament could now be received several times in a life-time. This “modern” form of the sacrament of penance is a re-statement of the primal Christian truth that we are all sinners, not just the murderers or adulterers. Progress has been made here, it would appear. This is the form in which we still receive this paschal gift of Christ from the Church. [66]

Thus there has been only apparent progress in the Church, which now allows people to confess and be absolved several times during life, and not only once. It is still the custom in the Church, but (hopefully) the faithful will some day return to the ancient ideal.

Infrequent Confession implies delayed Confession. If the Dutch have their way, both practices will be “restored” to the Catholic Church.

An Evaluation

It all seems to have happened so suddenly. As late as 1960, few would have dreamed that such complete reversal of policy on the age for first Confessions could take place in so short a time.

What makes the situation still less intelligible is that nothing in the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council gave warning of what to expect.

One passage in the Constitution on the Liturgy is regularly quoted, and another referred to by critics of early Confession. The citation reads that, “The rite and formulas for the sacrament of Penance are to be revised so that they give more luminous expression to both the nature and effect of the sacrament.” [67] Immediately after this reference, advocates of late Confession paraphrase, without quoting, the salutary statement on age in the conciliar document by saying, “Elsewhere it speaks of adapting the liturgy to the age of the people.” [68] The actual statement of the Constitution is quite different.

With zeal and patience, pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful, and also their active participation in the liturgy both internally and externally. The age and condition of their people, their way of life, and degree of religious culture should be taken into account. By so doing, pastors will be fulfilling one of the chief duties of a faithful dispenser of the mysteries of God; and in this matter they must lead their flock not only in word but also by example. [69]

What the Constitution urges is liturgical instruction and active participation adjusted to the different mental, cultural and age levels of the faithful. It is just the opposite of not giving instruction or depriving the faithful of sacramental grace because of some preconceived theory: which the Church in its highest authority has explicitly declared is invalid and not to be put into practice.

We have seen at some length to what theory, or cluster of theories, those hostile to children’s Confessions appeal. Yet theory alone would never explain the unprecedented decline in Confessions, of children and adults, that we have been witnessing since about 1965. Someone must have started a movement which others imitated, and rationalization followed.

All who write on the subject credit the Dutch Bishop Petrus Moors with first giving episcopal backing to the idea in 1962. His consultants decided that “satiety and disgust are produced by dragging the children to God instead of letting them come”? [70] Coercion must stop.

So the Confession of young children was stopped. Until a child showed that he was no longer “authority-dominated and determined by the norms of his environment,” he was debarred from Confession. [71] Since then the practice has spread through Holland to England and Belgium and the United States. Why the rising tide? Always the reasons are the same, to such an extent that in most cases the identical wording and sequence of arguments first given by the Dutch innovators are retained. It is assumed that “this is the thing to do” in an era of conformity and change. All other considerations are set aside, including the Church’s long history of defending the people’s freedom to receive sacramental grace.

The situation is critical, not because of the ideology behind the inversion of the Church’s desire for an early reception of the sacraments. Essentially the same ideology has been active for centuries. It is the support which the theory is receiving among bishops and priests who, this writer believes, are unaware of the real issues involved.

No one should minimize the problem of making the faith intelligible and acceptable in the modern world. Children are part of this world and subject to all of its secularist pressures. If teaching them moral values has never been simple, it is becoming very difficult today.

When the faith calls for ethical norms to be followed, as in preparing a child for Confession, this demands such wisdom and ingenuity from parents and teachers as only they can fully appreciate.

Add to this the double standard to which children are exposed long before the age of puberty. A child who asks his mother to buy a gadget advertised on television and who quotes its supposed qualities may be told that you cannot believe what television says. When he repeats to his parents what a classmate said about a product, they let him know you cannot believe what people say. The child sees pretty much the same thing when it comes to more serious matters. He is surrounded by repeated statements about the beauty of family life - and all around him are the shambles of broken homes, about fifty per cent in many large urban areas. In school our country is held up to him as a model of equal rights before the law. He also receives reports over and over again how hard it is for parents to raise a normal size family on today’s wages, and that Blacks in our culture do not receive equal rights.

If he is taking religious instruction, he learns a lot of phrases about God and stories from the Bible. But he is not too old before he also learns that one should not let religion interfere with making money, and his own parents may be the prime example. He is told to honor his father and mother, but this is hard for a child who seldom sees his father, or whose mother spends most of her days (or nights) at work.

We could go on with more of such conflicts, but enough have been given to indicate that the child’s world is a confused one. It must not be easy to grow up in a society characterized by so many conflicts.

Specialists in child psychology who view the picture from the long range of history wonder if, perhaps, the human personality is radically different now than it was even two generations ago. They do not think so, but assign other causes that seem more reasonable.

Does this suggest that human beings are more inconsistent now than ever before in the history of mankind? Probably not. What it does suggest is that with the development of all these new means of mass communication, with the increased travel, with the increased moving around of people more children are exposed to more of these inconsistencies.
This means that it is probably increasingly difficult for the growing child to develop clear values of his own. There is so much confusion surrounding him and so little attention paid to the child’s dilemma, so few persons with the time and patience to listen to him and to help him untangle some of the confusion, that he simply remains without sufficient clarity of beliefs or purpose. [72]

What this means for Catholic educators must be obvious. They cannot expect the catechetics of a former age to meet the desperate needs of children today. What it also means is that there are no simplistic solutions. You do not solve the chaotic complexities of modern existence by running away from them.

Suppose a number of statistical studies show that children betray confusion of judgment on moral questions. A bit of realism should protect us from jumping to the conclusion that, until now, we have been mistaken about their age of discretion. Years before adolescence, children reach the age of discretion, all right. But they need - not later but earlier than ever - persons with the time and patience to help them “untangle some of the confusion” that envelops the modern child.

On a supernatural plane, the Church’s judgment should also be trusted: that a child of seven, in many ways more precocious than its counterpart in 1910, needs the inflow of divine grace which Christ bestows on all who receive His sacrament of peace. We do not consider it coercion to suggest and, if need be, insist that a child get a balanced diet of food or adequate sleep and clothing. No parent believes he is unduly tampering with a child’s liberty by sending it (perhaps reluctantly) to school. A Catholic cannot afford to follow a double standard where the spiritual needs of God’s children are concerned. After all, they belong to Him.

John A. Hardon, S.J.
Bellarmine School of Theology,
Chicago, Illinois.

[1] Joannes Dominicus Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio…Venise, A. Zatta, vol. XIV, 1769, c. 91.

[2] Mansi, vol. XXII, 1778, c. 1007-1010 (Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, ed. 31 [Karl Rahner, Ed.] Freiburg/B, Herder, 1957, no. 437).

[3] Martin Luther, Sermo de Poenitentia (1518): Martin Luthers Werke, Weimar, Hermann Böhlau, vol. I, 1883, p. 322 (cf. Denzinger 748).

[4] St. Cyprian De Lapsis 28 (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Vienna, vol. III/I, 1868, pp. 257-258); Tertullian, De Pudicitia, 18 sq. (CSEL XX, 1890, p. 258 ss.); St. Basil, Regula, 26 (J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. XXXI, c. 985. 988); cf. St. Augustine, In Psalmum 88.

[5] Antoine Arnauld, CEuvres…, Paris, Sigismond d’Arnay, vol. XXVIII, 1779, p. 618.

[6] Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes, London, Kegan Paul, 1938, vol. XXIX, pp. 142-143.

[7] Letters of St. Vincent de Paul, letter to John Dehorgny, sent from Paris, June 25, 1648, London, 1937, p. 239; S. Vincent De Paul, Correspondance, entretiens, documents. I, Correspondance (Pierre Coste, Ed.), vol. III, Paris, J. Gabalda, 1921, pp. 322-323.

[8] Letters… ib.; Correspondance… vol. III, p. 323.

[9] Ib.

[10] letters… (letter sent from Orsigny and dated Sept. 10, 1648), p. 246; Correspondance… III, p. 363.

[11] Ib.

[12] Letters… p. 247; Correspondance… III, p. 364.

[13] Ib.

[14] Letters… p. 248; Correspondance… III, pp. 365-366.

[15] Carolus du Plessis d’Argentré, Collectio Judiciorum de Novis Erroribus, vol. III/II. Paris, A. Cailleau, 1736, p. 372 (cf. Denzinger 1306, 1307, 1308, 1312).

[16] CEuvres, vol. III, 1775, p. 733, letter of January 26, 1694.

[17] Mansi, vol. XXXVIII (J. B. Martin; L. Petit, Ed.), Paris, 1807, c. 1261-1282.

[18] Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 2 (1910), pp. 582-583.

[19] Ib., p. 581.

[20] Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, London, Sheed and Ward, 1935, vol. III, p. 294.

[21] Ib.

[22] Ib., p. 295.

[23] Ib.

[24] Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, 88 (AAS 35 [1943], p. 235).

[25] Ib.

[26] Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 177 (AAS 39 [1947], p. 585).

[27] Robert P. O’Neil and Michael A. Donovan, The Question of Preadolescent Sin, Insight, vol. 4, no. 4: Spring 1966, p. 1.

[28] Ib., p. 5.

[29] Ib.

[30] Ib., p. 6.

[31] St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 89, art. 6.

[32] O’Neil and Donovan, art. cit., p. 2.

[33] Ib., p. 8.

[34] Ib., p. 9.

[35] Ib., p. 2.

[36] Ib., p. 9.

[37] John E. Corrigan, Growing Up Christian: Penance and the Moral Development of Children, Dayton, Ohio Pflaum, 1968, pp. 18, 20.

[38] Ib., p. 16.

[39] Ib., pp. 22-23.

[40] Ib., pp. 30-31.

[41] Ib., p. 68.

[42] Ib., p. 79.

[43] Ib., p. 86.

[44] Francis J. Buckley, What Age for First Confession?, The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 107 (Jan. - Apr. 1967), p. 238.

[45] Christ’s Life in Us, New York, Sadlier, 1965.

[46] Buckley, art. cit., pp. 240-242.

[47] O’Neil and Donovan, Insight, Spring 1966, p. 3.

[48] Buckley, IER 107 (1967), p. 228.

[49] Ib., pp. 232-233.

[50] Ib., p. 233.

[51] Corrigan, Growing Up Christian… pp. 78-79.

[52] Ronald Rank, ‘Bless My Sins, God’, The Priest, 19 (1963), p. 1019.

[53] Ib.

[54] Rank, The Priest, 19 (1963), p. 1019.

[55] Buckley, IER 107 (1967), p. 243.

[56] Making All Things New, Fundamentals and Programs of a New Catechesis, Techny., Ill., Divine Word Publications, 1966, p. 189.

[57] Corrigan, Growing Up Christian… p. 68.

[58] Buckley, IER 107 (1967), p. 245.

[59] Making All Things New… pp. 189-190.

[60] A New Catechism. Catholic Faith for Adults, New York, Herder and Herder, 1969, p. 344.

[61] A New Catechism… p. 458.

[62] Quoted by Callistus’ opponent Tertullian, De Pudicitia, I (CSEL XX, 220).

[63] Leo I, Epistula Magna Indignatione (Migne, Patrologia Latina, LIV, 1210); cf. Denzinger 145.

[64] Lactantius, De Divinis Institutionibus, IV, 30 (CSEL XIX, 396).

[65] A New Catechism… p. 459.

[66] Ib. The italics are mine.

[67] Constitution on the Liturgy, III, 72.

[68] Buckley, IER 107 (1967), p. 221; Corrigan, Growing Up Christian… p. 75.

[69] Constitution on the Liturgy, I, 19.

[70] Buckley, IER 107 (1967), p. 243.

[71] Ib., pp. 243-244.

[72] L. E. Raths, et al., The Difficulty of Developing Values, in Values and Teaching, Columbus, Ohio Charles E. Merill Books, Inc., 1966, pp. 21-22.

Eglise et Theologie

Vol. 3 - #1, January 1972, pp.69-110

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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