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The Problem of First Confession

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

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.

There are many theories to explain it. 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.” 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. 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.

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 25 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 Intervention of St. Pius X

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.

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 Singular 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.

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.” (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1910)

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. Enter authors Robert P. O’Neil and Michael A. Donovan, with The Question of Pre-adolescent Sin, Insight, Spring 1966.

Having bridged the gap between preadolescent 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.”

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.” (Ibid.)

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.” 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.” They only serve to frighten people without making them any better, so Modernists said.

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.

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.” (Fr. John E. Corrigan, Growing up Christian)

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.” 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.”

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.

The Meaning of Sin

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 he 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 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 he 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 us one thing for Karl Rahner to theorize about the “supernatural existential,” and something else to build a case against children’s Confessions as 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.

No wonder the same writers (as the ones 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.

One 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 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.” 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.” (Ronald Rank, The Priest)

Influence of Freud

There is a curious imbalance among the authors who strongly oppose 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.” 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” — 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.

Nor 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,

Among the objections, the most serious is this: 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. This 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.

Vol. 16 - #10, September 1990, pp. 3-5

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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