One of the hotly debated topics in today’s congregations is that of paedocommunion. The issue is coming up throughout the Church, regardless of denomination. It extends beyond whether one believes Confirmation or Chrismation to be a sacrament and an integral part of the Rites of Initiation. The more conservatively-minded feel that some category of “age of reason” must be defined. The early Western Church seems to have been confirming all those who had been baptized since the last visitation of the bishop. This would then mean that those who were between zero and three years old (assuming the bishop were visiting at least every three years) would have been confirmed and ready for communion according to the view that the full Rite of Initiation needs to be completed first. Even this is not an obstacle to communion according to the Roman Catholic Church as they have begun the practice of “First Communion” several years before Confirmation is received. For those within the Reformed tradition, views of covenant theology and the fact that a child participates in Old Testament covenant meals, such as the Passover, seems to be the battling ground. Whether Reformed or Catholic, those advocating having children receive communion still emphasize the “family meal” aspect and that such things depend upon what God has done in Baptism and not on what we understand. Much has been written and many minds have been stretched.
In this debate, one thing which might be helpful is the medical concept of “Free and Informed Consent.” As the Eucharist, in Patristic terms, is the “Medicine of Life,” a similarity between this concept in medicine and sacramental theology is not incongruous. Basically, informed consent refers to the doctor making clear to you all aspects of the medical treatment you are to undergo. One point in favor of paedocommunion, in my mind, has been the fact that the mother when pregnant receives communion for both herself and her unborn. I have felt it strange that we would “excommunicate” a child for three to seven years for simply being born. This would seem to confirm the harshest criticisms of St. Augustine’s theology.
I have likewise thought some aspects of Confirmation inconsistent. I was told that once I was confirmed I would be an “adult” member of the congregation, but the laws of non-profit organizations still restricted me from voting at meetings or holding office until eighteen. So inconsistencies abound naturally. Such inconsistencies stick in the craw of many young people and parents. One can easily say that “whoever sits at my table; eats my food” and then it becomes an issue of which father of which family takes the paedocommunion view or which pastor of which congregation. Arguably, however, the child has rarely been “given” permission to receive confirmation or not, and, likewise, communion. We have usually agreed in the Western Church that leading (or directing) the child to receive Confirmation (and thus Communion) is the last noticeable spiritual obligation on the part of those parents and godparents who have brought their child to the font. Thus it is typical that the child sees Confirmation as “graduation” and it corresponds often with graduation from parochial middle school in Roman Catholic parishes.
Yet “informed consent” provides an interesting category that Augustine might think would unify his warring spiritual progeny. A doctor can never withhold information, but what doctor can provide all information associated with a prescription or procedure? No doctor can. Nevertheless, the child under a certain age is not endued with a developed reason to decide for himself. There is no “proxy consent” associated with children under a certain age. A child’s guardian always decides. The spiritual danger associated with receiving the Medicine of Life incorrectly is nothing less than death, a “side-effect” of not discerning the Lord’s Body and Blood correctly. Many say that none of us can understand the mystery completely. So are we always in danger of discerning the Lord’s Body and Blood incorrectly? Will we put the child in such peril? Or does this make the paedocommunion-advocating parent or denomination responsible for a child’s possible lack of discernment? You see, we do not think that a person can ever be completely informed about a medical procedure. But a child under the “Age of Reason” is never able to be culpably informed at all. We can certainly say, “Whoever eats at my table, takes my medications,” to mix metaphors. However, to say that a minimal explanation of that Sacrament’s perilous side-effects which can be given to a child under the Age of Reason is sufficient is irresponsible. One does not learn about a medication’s side-effects simply by growing up and partaking when a parent takes it, especially if taking it wrongly leads to death. Eventually, some information needs to be related and total free and informed consent needs to be accepted by our children.
With these thoughts in mind, it is easier to see that a pregnant mother is obliged to take medications safely for the sake of her unborn and to take Holy Communion seriously for the same reason. Those wishing to push the reception of communion to a lower age seem to want to say that children are eligible based upon membership. They are concerned with over-rationalizing. But the issue isn’t rationalism or mystery. It is rather about the child’s culpability. A parent may be able to say, “take the medication now” but only the child, after a certain age, is able to discern whether or not he is spiritually clean or unclean and can participate in the New Covenant meal. We are uncertain when the “Age of Reason” arrives and, arguably, some parents may feel it has arrived sooner for their children. Therefore, becoming culpable may arrive sooner than a spiritual guardian realizes. We don’t know when the child is culpable, but we can determine, through catechesis and the ability for self-examination and confession, that the Age of Reason has arrived (even if the child was spiritually culpable several years beforehand). We can determine when our children are able to culpably answer for themselves (while not yet eighteen and fully autonomous). We can determine when they are receiving in a free and informed way, but only through rational dialogue and questions which reveal whether the child has an informed conscience.