Thursday, April 11, 2013

Infant Communion

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.    


  1. A similar analysis of adult communion for the developmentally disabled might be useful in this area. Take adults with Down Syndrome. Or adults later in life with some form of dementia or other neurological disease. Those who either never had full reason or lost their reason. Should they commune? And if they commune, how is their communion different than a child's?

    A discussion of possibly relevant portions of the NT might also be useful. For example, Christ's words about children at Mark 9: 33-37, Matt 18: 1-5, & Luke 9: 46-48.

    The Eastern Church ordinarily celebrates infant baptism, confirmation, and first communion at the same time.

    When discussing the RCC and the Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed Churches, one would first have to compare their respective views on the sacraments in general. Then compare their divergent views on the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. Any analysis of these sacraments has to be done in light of the Reformational foundation of justification by faith. The RCC-LWF Joint Declaration on Justification points out a significant area of divergence in regard to the interaction of justification and the "sacraments". The RCC mandates auricular confession (RCC), a sacrament for them, and thus the concept of justification by faith is inherently different.

    In light of the gratuitious, unmerited nature of justification (Reformation Churches), which is often used as one ground to explain infant baptism, and the Reformational "meaning" and "value" of the eucharist in light of this unmerited justification, I've always had trouble understanding the issues tied to both infant bapstism and infant communion. (But then I'm EO.) I tend to agree with Melanchthon, to know Christ is to know His benefits. This includes both adults and non-adults.

    1. Forgot...When assessing the underlying theology of both baptism and the eucharist in OT/NT, seems like there really are only two reasonable, yet polar opposite, choices. Children are baptized and receive communion. Only true adults are baptized and receieve communion.

      The theological justification for infant baptism and adult communion seems tenuous. And it is even worse for the attempt to move the age for communion from rational adulthood to childhood (ages 7-14).

      Either one is a full member of Christ's Church as an infant or as an adult. Everything else is an odd mixture of partial member. Can someone be just a partial member of Christ? Isn't that more like a catechumen?

  2. I look at it from the same vantage point I do my own natural family. My son is a full member of our family, and my flesh and blood, but he does not have certain rights due to his age. This in no way makes him less a member of the family.

    The baptized are indeed full members of the church, but in my opinion they should be required to have a reached an age of reason to understand the basics of the Gospel and what is happening when we celebrate the Holy Communion.

    That said, I think we should be open to having kids confirmed while pretty young, and even as young as possible, and that the requirements for confirmation should be kept as basic as possible, specifically as outlined in the BCP: memorize the Creed, Lord's Prayer, and Ten Commandments. And go over and over the Catechism and Offices of Instruction. I have found that most young kids can handle that and grasp the concepts pretty well.

    1. J.G.A., When you wrote--"what is happening when we celebrate the Holy Communion"--in light of a discussion of catechesis, I wasn't sure whether to laugh, cry, or do both. Have Anglicans ever completely agreed on this since say about 1549? The eternal ambiguity of the Anglican eucharist theology. Is it RC, Lutheran, or Reformed? :)

      What makes this overall discussion so interesting and difficult in the real world is that it involves the confluence of so many events, either simultaneously or over time. So we end up talking about: baptism, communion, confirmation, catechesis for children and adults, church discipline, the age of reason, the acceptance & acknowledgement of doctrine, and more.

      I think we all agree that both children and adults must be properly catechized. But to me that means an increase in the knowledge and understanding of doctrine as one gets older. I doubt we want a 50-yr-old communicant to have stopped his catechesis as a late child or teenager? So ongoing adult catechesis is a must. We must grow in our faith as we get older!

      And I think churches should work to have a mechanism to make sure that their adult members demonstrate that catechesis. For example, here I think of all the RCs I've known who still think their doctrine of the immaculate conception involves Jesus' incarnation!

      I think the 18th-19th century Scandanavian Lutherans were on to something when they had pastors meet with adults periodically and discuss their knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the faith, usually in conjunction with their form of auricular confession (with an emphasis on "confessing" their faith) and receiving the eucharist.

      I noticed last year that the RC Diocese in my local area raised the age of confirmation to late High School, usually junion or senior (17-18). While that is likely a step in the right direction for them, I don't think it goes far enough in regard to the necessity for adults to really and truly demonstrate that they know, understand, and accept the doctrine of their Church. One and done in regard to real catechesis isn't sufficient. And their must be real church discipline, esp. when it comes to the eucharist, marriage, and funerals.

  3. You raise some good points about ongoing formation and catechesis. I think that we (in the Anglican tradition) err when we try to cram everything about the Christian faith into a confirmation class so as to prepare kids to make their communion. It ends up being too much information, and the kids become intent on mastering the information without ever grasping the most basic meaning of the rite.

    Really, the Holy Eucharist is a polyvalent mystery that one can never quite grasp the entire meaning or significance of. So I believe it is best to simply introduce kids to the basic meaning of it as described in the Catechism and once they grasp that, and fulfill the other basic requirements in the Prayer Book, admit them to be confirmed so they can receive the Lord's Supper. Confirmation is then followed by a period of mystagogy... a deeper exploration of the faith... which I lead the kids in personally each Sunday. The kids also serve in the liturgy on a regular basis in various ways (choir, altar service, ushers, alar guild, etc.).

  4. J.G.A., Yes, just as with the Trinity, Incarnation, or dual natures of Christ, "the Holy Eucharist is a polyvalent mystery that one can never quite grasp the entire meaning or significance of." If we can never quite grasp the full meaning even as catechized adults, then why deny the sacrament to infants & children?

    However, I do think that what your write is a clear reason why the only two logical, reasonable choices that one could argue are congruent with scripture are either: (1) allowing infants & children to commune, or (2)restricting communion to those believing, confessing adults demonstrated after a serious confirmation process (say at least age 21) who accept the church's discipline. Any middle ground means being inherently inconsistent since those in the ages of say 7-17 are extremely limited in the faith as really lived, both in knowledge (scripture & theology) and experience (how the Church and its life impacts them and their life).

  5. What I find curious about your whole line of questioning about infant communion as it relates to Anglicanism is that earlier you suggested that no one can even agree on what Anglican eucharistic theology is, or what it means. So if to you Anglican eucharistic theology is completely subjective then you really can't worry about any (alleged) inconsistency in practice with regard to who is admitted to communion. I'm just sayin'...

  6. J.G.A., I'm looking at the issue in light of the entirety of Christian thought and tradition. The East continues to practice infant communion. There was a time in the West when it did, too. I'm thinking many royals, including maybe even Queen Elizabeth I, received communion as children.

    And being EO, our Eucharistic theology is more mystical and apophatic, so a lot of ambiguity when compared to some Western theology (e.g., RCs and Lutherans). I have a lot of respect for a variety of Eucharistic theology (e.g., Melanchthon).

    I'm reading a book that translates many of the works of Martin Bucer (who mentored Calvin and extensively commented on Cranmer's 1549 BCP). Bucer argued that scripture didn't either require or prohibit infant baptism, though he was a proponent of infant baptism in his church. Using that as a reference point, I'd argue that any group that allows for infant baptism would seem to be most congruent with their interpretation of the relationship of a child with Christ and His Church by practicing infant communion. And vice versa if they only allow adult, believers baptisms.

  7. I'm a Continuing Anglican (ACA), and, as such, am very willing to accept and practice the discipline of my church. However, that doesn't prevent me from thinking there could be a better way.

    My questioning here begins with asking, "Just what is the Age of Discretion"? Is there indeed such a thing? If there is, how do we identify it? How young does it begin? How can we know what the faith oi an unspeaking infant is? Or of a toddler? or of a 5 year old? Jesus spoke very highly of the faith of little children, obviously considering it, at least in some respects, as superior to what he saw in most adults. I can think of one particular barely-five-year-old who taught me much of spiritual import. When I was a nonpedobaptist pastor, I baptized her and gave her the Lord's Supper.. What authority did I truly have to refuse? What does an infant know about physical food, about the nutritive values of milk? One thing only, that he/she needs it. In truth, what do I really know, as an adult, about the Eucharist - not much more than that. I need it. Just how much head knowledge do we have to have to receive Sacramental blessings?

    As I said, I am content to be obedient to the practice of my church, and I do not believe I have the authority to change it on my own, but I am troubled by such questions, and would tend to answer them as has the Christian East. None of us, in the final analysis, know enough to be worthy, nor can we, but we can know Jesus, our own sinfulness, and the forgiveness He offers. He makes us worthy on that basis, not on how much theology we understand.

    1. ed, Well said.

      I finally found what I was looking for about infant communion and English royalty. From Senn's Christian Liturgy (1997):

      "The Council of Lambeth in 1281 decreed that an unconfirmed person could not receive communion. The shore up confirmation by imposing a penalty of great magnitude if it were neglected. Of course, it was still possible for a bishop to preside at baptism, perform the anointing at that time, and administer coommunion to the infant immediately. In England this was done for royal children as late as the time of the birth of King Henry VIII's children, Elizabeth in 1533 and Edward in 1537. But most children, by this time, were not communed until later when they made their first confession or were confirmed." [footnote 38 then cites Fisher's Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West, pgs. 101-108] (pgs. 226-227)

      A week ago I went to my cousin's daughter's 1st communion at their local RCC. About 100 kids at this growing suburban parish. But I have complete metaphysical certainty that nary a single one had any real idea as to the meaning of their reception. They were just 7-8 year olds dressed up nices, running around the place, proud to have their families watch them go get communion.

  8. "What does an infant know about physical food, about the nutritive values of milk? One thing only, that he/she needs it. In truth, what do I really know, as an adult, about the Eucharist - not much more than that. I need it. Just how much head knowledge do we have to have to receive Sacramental blessings?"
    -ed pacht

    Exactly. Our prayer book tells us God acts in baptism to forgive infants, make them members of Christ's Body and regenerate them, presumably without benefit of the child's intellectual grasp of the Sacrament's efficacy, its mysteries and the theology which often over explains and defines it. Does it make sense to refuse the child Christ's flesh and Christ's blood because he or she only understands the Eucharist with the faith of a child and lacks an adult's intellectual framework.?