No one would have thought that half a century after Pope St. Pius X issued his Decree Quam Singulari on early Confession and Communion, we would be discussing again the appropriate age for the admission of children to the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance. This has happened, however, in the midst of other marvels, and the problem has assumed such relevance that the Holy See has deemed it opportune to examine the issue once again, even if in somewhat nuanced terms, in its recently published General Catechetical Directory.
Perhaps the authors of this new Catechetical Directory have found it necessary to reaffirm the norms of Pope Pius X, while recognizing the possibility of such experimentation as is made legitimate, in Catholic faith and order, by the approval of local hierarchies in consultation with the Holy See. This may partly be due to the fact that many, perhaps most, clergy and laity alike may not remember the luminous pastoral norms provided by St. Pius X.
The present writer was taken aback to discover how little he realized certain aspects of the practical wisdom and pastoral theology which St. Pius X wove into the Decree Quam Singulari (Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments, August 8, 1910).
For example, this writer had supposed that St. Pius X had left to the parish priest of the child the determination of readiness to receive either the sacrament of Penance or that of Holy Communion for the first time, although one had a vague recollection of hearing (and frequently recommending, particularly in the case of retarded children or special cases) that the parents of the youthful candidate should be consulted. In fact, St. Pius had a considerably more “personalist” approach to the question, an approach that must, one strongly feels, have been observed little if at all in the United States, Canada, or, for that matter, elsewhere.
Pope Pius, in defining the “age of discretion,” did so at the same time and in the same terms for both sacraments and largely on the basis of the understanding, the intuitions and even the desires of the child himself. The final decision as to when the “age of discretion” might be present, and therefore the possibility and desirability of receiving both sacraments, was to rest not with the parish priest nor any other random priest, sister, teacher, or special consultant of a professional kind; it was to lie with the confessor of the child — a major acknowledgment of the maturity of a youngster, an assumption that he will have already established a spiritual relationship of a most intimate and faithful kind with his confessor or spiritual director. Moreover, it was indicated that the only other consultation that seemed indicated or appropriate, was with the child’s parents. The recollection of this fact should come as a shock of joy to those who, in recent years, have all by themselves discovered the important role of parents in the spiritual formation of their own children and their right to be heard when the “Juridical Church” — which, one thinks, would probably mean the priest, the bishop, or a committee of a “National” hierarchy, rather than a confessor or a spiritual director-is deciding matters of this kind.
Teaching of Pope Pius X
A brief recollection of the situation in 1910 and the background, as well as content, of the teachings of Pius X is clearly in order.
The Decree Quam Singulari, in treating the age at which children are to be initiated into their post-baptismal sacramental life, had to face (as had a decree on frequent Communion by the Sacred Congregation of the Council, five years before) certain doctrinal and ascetical errors that had become deeply rooted in Catholic life at the opening of the century, at least in some parts of the world. One of these was the pretense that a greater discretion is required for first Communion than for first Confession. This, like most of the other errors, was rooted in Jansenism: for example, one was the idea that to receive first Holy Communion requires a nearly complete knowledge of the Articles of Faith and, therefore, an extraordinary preparation. In effect, this means deferring first Communion for the riper age of 12, 14 or even older. Another error was the pretense that “the Holy Eucharist is a reward (for virtue), not a remedy for human frailty,” a conceit which is contrary to the teaching of the Council of Trent that Holy Communion is “an antidote by which we are freed from our daily faults and preserved from mortal sins.
One remarks, in passing, that a twist on the aforesaid error is not entirely absent from the current contention that “little tots” are so incapable of sin that they do not need sacraments to release them from faults. In the light of the “theology” that is now attempting to replace that of Quam Singulari, it is difficult to see why first Communion, in one way, is not as redundant as first Confession in another, since both are now seen as means largely to preserve from fault “little tots,” as well as adults. In at least one “advanced” parish known to the writer, a “kerygmatic” preacher, theoretically the reverse of a Jansenist, strongly affirmed that, in accord with his theology and psychology, no one in his largely typical parish (10,000 souls) had ever committed a serious sin; that it was “foolish” for anyone in the parish to go to Confession even once a year; and that all should approach Communion at any time without hesitation or scruple. All this in a parish notorious for racism, a fairly serious drug problem among the young, and well-founded reasons for belief that marriage and family morality are about the same as in any other parish, more responsive to the “new morality” than the “old commandments.”
It is, of course, not being argued that the children in this or like parishes who have not yet made their first Communion are racists. None of them, one expects, is addicted to drugs, alcoholism or anything else save, perhaps having his own way in the maximum possible degree. The infants are not themselves contraceptionists or abortionists, although euthanasia may understandably have passed through their minds as a solution of some of their problems. All that is being argued is this: the mood and moral atmosphere is in favor of their becoming all these things, and more too, in due course, and it is suggested that the positive role of Confession, including spiritual direction of a intensely personal kind, might prevent this by the development of solid preferences for virtue as against vice and the bringing to maturity of moral potential latent in every child. Alas, it is not enough to counter that the Eucharist, by Itself, is a sufficient food for virtue in the absence of a contrite and humble heart; the proof of this melancholy fact might possibly be seen in the fact that, although confessions are fewer than ever in the parish, the number of communions has boomed enormously, to the intense joy of the somewhat myopic priest.
Some grave abuses
All this is, as anyone familiar with the religious history of the Western world well knows, an old story. It was certainly the case by the time of St. Pius X. The errors pinpointed by him had inevitably led to grave abuses. One was depriving children, early in their lives, of the right of livingin Christ through Holy Communion, a right given by Baptism. Another no less serious abuse touched on both first Communion and first Confession, undoubtedly causing the loss of angelic first innocence in many youngsters by concealing (and burying in the subconscious) the probability, perhaps the beginnings, at least, of faults, major or minor, which orient the child self-ward, rather than God-ward, towards love of self rather than love of neighbor, let alone of God. Such an orientation, once well under way, is as difficult to remedy as is the recovery of an over-shot turn-off from a motorway, with a consequent steadily progressive journey further and further from one’s goal.
A third abuse, common in the days of Pius X, and renewed today, is the causing of children, by ill-conceived pastoral practice or by worldly social controls, to live in a dimly felt (cleanse me from my known faults!) or even conscious state of sin by not allowing them to go to Confession until the age determined for first Communion. Pius X found priests even denying children absolution when they did confess (on the grounds often heard today: “He may think he has sinned, but you and I know he cannot!”), a singularly perverse abuse destructive of the child’s discretion, sense of responsibility and spiritual rights. Other “utterly detestable” abuses along the same line were denounced by Pius X.
Particularly astonishing is the confusion of the moment concerning rational norms for first Confession and first Communion in the light of the fact that the cogent and clear norms of St. Pius X were proclaimed within the lifetime of living man, in fact within the lifetime of grandparents, at least, and priests now seemingly completely at sea on the matter. The conditions for first Confession and first Communion were interrelated in the mind of St. Pius X. The age that he chose as the “age of discretion,” for initiation into both these sacraments, conforms roughly with the age that is still acknowledged as the time when the “discretion” of the boy or the girl is deemed adequate to begin an initiation into the influence of television, the absorption of comic-book philosophy, the personal and community aspects of schooling, cinema attendance, and the initial forms, at least, of a considerably developed social and formal education program.
The writer three years ago had the fascinating experience of arbitrating a fight (it had passed the debating stage) between two groups of suburbanite mothers who differed as to the age at which a country club dance, complete with expensive orchestra, should be planned for their primary school boys and girls so that they might come to know one another and be rid of sexual, social and related “awkwardness.” One of the spokeswomen mounted the bastion defending eight years of age. Although in subsequent conversations she revealed her conviction that “fuddy-duddys” were responsible for Pius X’s norms for first Confession and Communion, she felt that, for at least chaperoned dances, eight years as an “age of discretion” in the particular township where she lived. The township was later the subject of a feature article in a national magazine as a sample of a good town to avoid for bringing up children or saving one’s soul.
Pius X, as we have recalled, saw the “age of discretion” as applying equally to both sacraments as it does to going to school. He saw this norm as suggested by the first indications a child gives that he is using reasoning powers and, therefore, making decisions and choosing sides not only within the family but on the battle field of life. He thought that a child by that age could know the difference between ordinary bread and bread somehow identified with the bread of angels, sacred bread containing a divine mystery. He also declared it his opinion that the same child knows what is right or wrong, whether it be a matter of torturing a cat (in due course a prisoner of war), being caught with one’s hand in the marmalade jar (in due course, the public treasury), or defying the authority of one’s parents (in due course, of God Himself). No absolute age is placed as a condition by Pius X; the age of seven is mentioned for the broad reasons indicated above and because the majority of children arrive at a certain responsible discretion at about this period, some even sooner, some later.
Quam Singulari held in high esteem the knowledge which a child, just beginning to reason, can have about God, not merely as one who rewards the good and punishes the wicked, but also as one who dwells in unutterable mystery, including the triune God and certainly the God of the Incarnation. He nowhere suggested that it was necessary that the child should commit to memory and repeat by rote accurate but superficial theological definitions which convey no idea to the budding intellect. He simply recognized that at this age a child, in fact, usually so develops intellectually as to reveal frequent and astonishing intuitions not merely into human situations but also divine realities. He indicated that the child must be able to distinguish the eucharistic from common bread, to recognize not less so, that what looks like bread is, in this case, not bread but somehow nourishes us with the very life and love of Christ who is God. He spoke of other matters, too, but most of these have not turned to the realm of controversy.
Inner sanctuary of conscience
Most moving, in a day which thinks of itself as having discovered the rights of parents and the wholesome claims of personalism, is the contention of the 1910 decree that the formal admission of the child to first Communion rests with its parents, or the one taking their place, and with its confessor or spiritual director. The decree presupposes that these will act together and, when they agree on the matter, no one may interfere. Where the parents are negligent or indifferent, or opposed to their child’s first Communion, the father-confessor (note carefully that he is assumed to be already the child’s confidant) can take on the entire responsibility. Even more, should the confessor oppose the admission of a child whose parents know that he has already begun to reason and make at least incipiently mature decisions, the prudent course, in practice, is to introduce the child to another confessor, perhaps one less Jansenistic, perhaps one more inclined to take him seriously as a “little man,” rather than lightly as a “little tot,” for every confessor has a right to admit a child to private first Communion. Let it be recalled that it is as confessor that he has this right, not as a friend of the family, nor as a psychological consultant, nor as the local accredited representative of a national liturgical commission or director of the catechetical bureaucracy.
Since the days of Pius X, a considerably larger number of characters have been brought into the act as a result of behavioral sciences, testings and measurement programs, and a developed pedagogy that surrounds everything that a little man or a little woman must undergo in order to meet the complex requirements that stand between a simple soul and taking one’s place in our so well-planned society, civil or religious. One reads the straightforward, common sense decree of St. Pius X, so deferential to the confidential life and personal dignity of the child, so insistent on the responsibilities and requisite reserve of those few who have the slightest right to approach, even at a respectful distance, the inner sanctuary of conscience in a child, of which Pope Pius XII spoke so passionately; then one wonders how far the elaborate norms proposed nowadays are intended to serve the person of the child, and how far they may be a pedagogical and religious development of Parkinson’s Law.
A desacralized generation
The General Catechetical Directory, published in Rome this past spring, does not deal in depth with these problems. As a matter of fact, the question is dealt with in the Addendum and chiefly in order to present the question in fresh terms and to integrate anew some basic norms while raising the question for appropriate discussion and action in an authentic Catholic fashion, i.e., consistent with Catholic faith and order, rather than social fads or a spirit of naturalism.
As a consequence of post-conciliar reforms and a fresh eagerness to explore the full part in Christian life of all the sacramental rites, we have witnessed a revival and renewal of catechetics, which, in turn, has led to a rediscovery of the power of evangelization and formation which is present in the sacramental actions, especially those which, as Penance and Eucharist, mark for most Christians the first salvific encounters with Christ.
As Bishop Tonini argues in his comments on the directory for the Osservatore Romano, it has thus emerged more clearly that, in a Christian community inserted in a Christless and decadent world, the Eucharist and Penance, since they are received in childhood, could assume the role that Baptism had for the Christians living in the ancient pagan context: they can become the sacraments of Christian initiation; they can determine the first experience with God which, as we all know, when it is authentic, leaves a mark in the depths of the ego, or, better yet, in the total personality of the child.
And since, together with the individual youngster, we are dealing with an increasingly desacralized generation — a generation that, in a few years, will be harder to evangelize — we have come to realize that this is a most decisive moment for the Church, because it is exactly in Christian initiation that one generation evangelizes another and the Church of today generates the Church of tomorrow.
In the light of this connection between the sacraments of Christian initiation and the problem of the evangelization of the contemporary world, it is absolutely necessary that the time of the first encounter of the child with Penance and the Eucharist be an ecclesial event of primary importanceand that, therefore, the care of the priests, the study of the theologians, the researches of the psychologists and the attention of the whole Christian community should be centered around that moment.
The question of age
It is in this context that the question of age has reappeared. In this search for better methods to make the Eucharist and Penance more relevant to the young Christian of the future, some have thought it best to separate the two moments, anticipating the first Communion in childhood and deferring the sacrament of Confession until adolescence. The separation-it is said-would give the possibility to receive Communion in early years; it would avoid psychical anxieties deriving from talking, sometimes awkwardly, about sin (always an embarrassing subject!); it would eliminate the repetitions by rote resulting from the habit of going immaturely, perhaps, to Confession; finally, it would foster a more profound education to the penitential spirit and, at the same time, a more valid and efficacious catechesis in preparation for the eventual Confession. The time interval would, in any case, be legitimate since-this opinion is, of course, highly disputable-before adolescence and even afterwards, man is, in the sanguine view of some, not really capable of deliberate serious sin.
As we can see, we would thus experience the fact of generations who, during their whole childhood or most of it, would go to Communion without Confession, a custom which sometimes seems already to be returning for post-adolescents-precisely the situation which sound spirituality and Pope Pius X sought to avoid. Hence the new questions, grave questions fraught with promise or menace for the future. Hence the cry for further experiments, though, since we are dealing with children, we find it difficult to believe that serious men, especially pastors of souls, would use children as spiritual “guinea pigs” or their consciences for areas of uncontrolled or unauthorized pedagogical “experimentation.” An error in children’s first experience of God, even under the experimentation of the most expert liturgists and moralists, could lead to incalculable consequences for the People of God, because it is precisely in these first mysterious experiences, in what happens in the virginal souls of children, that the mystery of salvation realizes itself; it is there that the Church is built, there that we witness the nuptials between the Church and God, and sense the progress of that kingdom that “comes not with observation.”
What, then, is really to be thought of the hypothesis, proposed by some and already realized here and there, which suggests the admission of children to first Communion without Confession, deferring the latter to a later date, even several years, even until adolescence?
We have to admit that going to Confession for the first time in childhood involves difficulties, especially because of the delicate psychological structure of an age when inadequate education can provoke serious upsettings at the psychical as well as at the religious level. In this sense, a delay of a few years in the practice of Confession might imply fewer risks.
Coupling Confession and Communion
Furthermore, the coupling of Confession with Communion, if on one hand it impresses and confirms in the conscience the central position of the Eucharist — which is one of the most beneficial truths for the Christian life — on the other hand presents disadvantages, because it could determine the beginning of the habit of not going to Confession except when Communion is to be received.
The greatest disadvantage, though, lies in the danger that the child might not appreciate fully the value of the sacrament of Penance since his attention would be absorbed by the first Communion. This difficulty, however, does not necessarily imply a delay of Confession; it can be overcome by anticipating Confession, thus separating it from Communion at least for a month or so and making it the beginning of the preparatory phase of first Communion.
In any case, the emphasis should be placed more on the way of preparing the children for the two sacraments, and, in general, on the initiation of the child to Christian life. Such preparation for the two sacraments should be faced in modern terms, keeping always in mind the confrontation of the Christian with today’s world sharing responsibility with the whole Christian community.
Merely moving the years does not help, unless we invite into action the whole Church, especially the families and, in a very special way, the parents.
As far as age is concerned, the most suitable age seems to be still seven to eight years, as we have it today, and this for many reasons.
Pastoral experience tells us that the so-called “second infancy,” due to the development of the moral self, has the same decisive importance that the “first infancy” had for the unconscious ego, since it can determine those conditionings, anxieties and impulses whose influence will remain during the whole future life of the person.
This is the age at which the child, if helped, can pass from the instinctive phase (tied to the stimulus of the binomial pleasure-sorrow) to the ethical phase, in which emerges, together and sometimes in contrast with the instinctive law, the attraction to good and disgust for evil.
It is a very delicate and precise moment, an opportunity which cannot be missed without serious consequences for the future. The awakening of ethical and moral life is not automatically linked to physiological and psychical growth; alas, as history proves in chapters writ with blood, moral sense does not necessarily develop with intelligence, least of all with mere knowledge. Without solicitous care from parents, priests and teachers, the instinctive life is prolonged through the “second infancy” and beyond, with disastrous consequences on the spiritual destiny of the individual.
To act in time to awaken the moral sense at the beginning of the age of discernment is to save the person at his roots, is to give him moral being, namely, full eventual personality. To do this, not only through the best available human means but through the pedagogy of the liturgy and the sacraments, in particular through the sacrament of Penance (which has exactly the conscience as its object, and the purification, liberation, formation, elevation and perfecting of the conscience as its proper contribution), constitutes-Bishop Tonini emphasizes-a very dramatic moment of “operation salvation” whose advantages we cannot renounce without serious danger.
The sacrament of Penance, if well prepared for, works wonders in this sense. A most beautiful experience comes to children when, receiving first Communion, they discover the existence of a Father who loves them, and begin to examine their actions in answer to that love. They then become aware that they not only possess an interior treasure, namely an upright conscience, but are themselves beings who are the objects of God’s satisfaction, His faithful children, His friends, as was Adam before the Fall. This is the beginning of the discovery of moral greatness and of the consciousness of the eternal value of their actions. Such an experience is a delicate one which can be disastrous if not guided in a proper way; but which, well guided, gives the whole future life an authentically supernatural tone, thus providing the one and only antidote to both religious formalism and religious apathy.
It may well be asked, however, whether the practice of delaying Penance until after Communion and towards the last years of “second infancy” carries with it serious risks; one such would be the prolonging of the instinctive phase, the settling of habits more difficult to correct than to prevent. These are habits that Communion without previous Confession will hardly help the child to discover and discontinue, since there will then be lacking the personal consultation with the priest which helps bring to the surface personal conflicts that the child does not confide even to his parents.
One suspects therefore that Communion without Confession does not allow that work of personalization of the moral conscience which experience sees achieved through the practice of the sacrament of Penance.
The beginning of the “second infancy” not only presents the conditions sufficient for the valid reception of the sacrament of Penance, but offers also the best dispositions needed for its integration into a harmonious and fruitful plan of Christian initiation.
Rightly, then, contemporary Catholic teachers underline the necessity of a wider participation and personal consciousness of the child in the liturgy and insist that admission to the sacraments be not an isolated action, but, while respecting the fact that every person, however young, is a “moral universe” in himself, should provide for the communitarian dimensions of Christian spiritual life. The most suitable age for such a program appears, again, to be, for various reasons, the age of seven to eight years identified by Pius X.
All this necessarily brings the child to confront himself, namely to examine his conscience on his actions and consequently to feel sorry for whatever offense he has done to God or neighbor. It is the sense of sin that is awakening, in proportion and together with the sense of filial and fraternal love; so radical is the concomitance of the two-reverential fear and holy love-that “aut simul stabunt, aut simul cadent”.
How can we then deny the sacrament of Penance to the child-since he possesses the ideal conditions-without ourselves sinning against his needs and spiritual rights?
Moreover, the proper effect of Penance is not only liberation from guilt, but also stimulus to the perfection of the soul, namely a passing not only from death to life, or-in the child-from spiritual infirmity to greater strength, but also from a lower to a higher degree of love. Now, there is no doubt that children seven to eight years of age — precisely because they are sensitive to the love of God — easily tend to interpret everything good that they receive as a sign of God’s love, and thus become capable of a sensitivity from which they derive the purest joys, joys whose remembrance in the years that follow will be an element of defense against temptation, and, even after a long period of time, motive for going back to God.
Spiritual potential of Confession
A further observation: It has been said that for children seven to eight years old, Confession is superfluous for the reason that they are incapable of serious sin. On the contrary, experience teaches that, aside from the subjective consciousness of evil, we frequently find, among children at that age, habits acquired through the example and instigation of other people. Such habits, if not corrected, could jeopardize forever the recuperating capacity of the child, placing him in radical conflict with the law of God, a law which will be very hard for him to observe when he comes to know it more fully.
It seems proper to conclude that the practice of Confession at the beginning of the “second infancy” is something to be kept in the Church. It seems, moreover, something to be perfected. If, in fact, Confession remains-as it often is a mass operation, performed as a mechanical routine and without full personal participation on the part of the child or the part of the priest, the vitality of tomorrow’s Church will be seriously jeopardized.
Postponing Confession to a later age might easily increase rather than solve difficulties. The chief remedy would be that the whole Catholic community gather around these sublime moments all its best energies, in particular the attention of the family and the spiritual care of the priests. Priests, free from so many occupations not precisely sacerdotal, will find here ample possibilities for a full use of their time and wonderful occasions for appreciating, with joy and gratitude, what it is to be a priest-full time and fully available, even to the least of Christ’s brethren.
Father John Hugo, for many years a seeker after means of realizing the fullest possible potential for the sanctification of the faithful lay and clerical, finds in chapter V of the “Constitution on the Church” a truly integral perspective of the sacrament of Penance in the life of all called to sanctity, which means called to salvation. Father Hugo argues that the spiritual direction potentials of this great sacrament have been universally neglected, with a consequent emphasis, in the sacrament of Penance, on Confession, seen merely as a remission of sins, a negative thing, mechanical and, in terms of growth unto sanctity, as something too often impotent, unproductive and irrelevant. All this, according to Father Hugo, has been to the great hurt of priests and penitents, penitents of every age and category; the sacrament of Penance, an important means not merely of ridding one’s self of the guilt of daily failures, great or small, is or should be the means of accomplishing Christian maturity, of “divinizing” through grace and bringing to supernatural maturity all the desires, gifts, and positive qualities which the individual under spiritual direction who turns to the sacrament of Penance, adequately considered, can bring to the consecration of the secular and the promotion of the kingdom of God.
Father Hugo observes: “If laymen are to consecrate the secular, bringing it into the kingdom of God, this will mean, besides human competence in carrying out their work, a consecration of this work to God and hence a continual self-purification that this consecration may be realized in fact.” This self-purification Father Hugo would agree, must include, above all, a continual purification of motives, information and enlightenment of personal conscience, discovery of new and positive elements in progress toward personal perfection. The “Constitution on the Church,” with its historic universal call to sanctity among all classes and conditions of men, gives the sacrament of Penance a greater role in Christian life and growth than it has had, perhaps ever, in the centuries of Christian sacramental development.
Not a spiritual launderette
This is why Father Hugo argues that clearly the quest for holiness should begin as soon as possible and that children should be early introduced to the sacrament of Penance. Childhood, with its relative innocence and receptiveness, is a most valuable time, a one and only time, he agrees, for developing the life of faith and charity which is at the heart of holiness. As Newman suggests, commenting on “the better part” and the “one thing necessary,” childhood is providentially intended to provide for an accumulation of resources that will be needed when the person, no longer a child, takes up, in increasing stages best accomplished gradually and without sudden innovations and changes, the responsibilities of adult life. Moreover, it would be a mistake to delay putting into the child’s hands the weapons he needs in the struggle against evil, until evil has already established a beachhead in his soul. The school of thought that sees the confession of children only as a bore to the priest and a burden to the “little tot” who has no “mortal sins” with which to worry himself or the bored confessor makes no provision for the fact that the sacrament of Penance, as both priest and penitent should understand it in terms of spiritual direction and growth in sanctity, is not merely a spiritual launderette, but a means to spiritual refreshment, encouragement and growth.
Hence Father Hugo’s conclusion: “The policy that would deprive children of the sacrament of Penance in the name of a positive psychology approach is itself negative in supposing the Christian life to be only a warfare against rudimentary evil and in failing to realize the unity of this life as a development in holiness. No doubt it would be a waste of time, to say the least, to enlarge upon mortal sin for primary school children-and in this respect past methods of instruction have been practically ill-advised as well as theologically unsound.” (But is it a waste of time for shepherds of souls to teach children personally and privately how to respond to God’s grace in their daily lives and grow in love of God and of their neighbor?)
“No doubt the faults of children (from the standpoint of adults) are trivial. But they are faults, which from the beginning hinder the grace-filled soul from responding to the Spirit of God. Moreover, they are, or can be, beginnings: the first sly but potentially dangerous appearance, or reappearance, of the ‘old man’: the initial movements of that ‘law of the members’ which, as St. Paul warns, unless countered by the ‘law of the Spirit,’ will captivate in the ‘law of sin.’ As the Christian life on its positive side must be viewed as a development, and therefore subject to the laws of life and growth, so on the negative side the force that threatens this life must be seen from the start as incipient disease that will increase unless treated and removed.”
Modern parents understand all this most protectively in terms of the bodily life of their “little tots”; hence the universal activity of pediatricians, the prevalence, sometimes almost compulsive, of “shots,” “booster shots,” “inoculations” for specific and multiple purposes, and physical hygiene courses, laudably designed not to fill teeth or cure the diseases of childhood but to anticipate cavities and prevent, so far as possible, the first beginnings of malady. The opposite number to scrupulosity on the level of the spirit and the conscience is, of course, hypochondria on the level of physical health and preoccupation with disease. For every priest or spiritual director whom I have met who seemed likely to induce morbid preoccupation with sin or scrupulosity, I have seen the advertisements of a hundred drug companies, infant panacea manufacturers and toothpaste distributors clearly bent on turning children into hypochondriacs. One wonders if parents (is it ungracious to suggest particularly mothers?) who are terrified that their children have a crooked tooth or an unsocial adenoid, but avoid any word that might give them a scruple about incipient antisocial attitudes or a downright defect in their moral health may possibly have forgotten the healthy as well as the holy counsel of Jesus: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).
Cardinal Newman’s views
Throughout his reflection on years of profound scholarly study and incessant pastoral activity, Father Hugo reveals (in fact, invokes) the wisdom of Cardinal Newman. That wisdom, with respect to the faults, even the sins, of children, was most cogently expressed in one of the “Parochial and Plain Sermons” which Newman delivered as an Anglican. It is not, therefore, open to the charge of reflecting a “Roman Position or “Italianate” or otherwise “European” and recessive point of view based on post-Tridentine excess, on magical concepts or other-worldly theories of nature and grace.
Newman is preaching on the moral consequences of single sins. In something of the spirit of the Psalmist, who wishes to be delivered from even those sins of which he is no longer aware, Newman is warning on the manner in which single sins, past or present, slight or even negligible, may have devastating effects on our eventual moral character in God’s sight. He begins his reflections with the probable influence upon us of faults committed in our childhood, and even infancy, which we never realized or have altogether forgotten. His approach to this delicate problem, the problem at the heart of contemporary discussion about the age of first Confession, is without morbidity, pessimism or legalism; these do not happen to be Newmanian defects. It is realistic, perceptive, affectionately sympathetic but, above all, positive. It is, indeed, a tract for the times.
He meets the issue head-on: “Ignorant as we may be when children begin to be responsible beings, yet we are ignorant also when they are not so; nor can we assign a date ever so early at which they certainly are not. And even the latest assignable date is very early; and thence-forward whatever they do exerts, we cannot doubt, a most momentous influence on their character. We know that two lines, starting at a small angle, diverge to greater and greater distances the further they are produced; and surely in like manner a soul living on into eternity may be infinitely changed for the better or the worse by very slight influences exerted on it in the beginning of its course. A very slight deviation at setting out may be the measure of the difference between tending to hell and tending to heaven.”
Newman goes on to indicate, with what many of us will still see as psychological accuracy despite all the talk of “little tots” and the curious angelism in the discussion of children by people otherwise undistinguished for interest in or convictions concerning angels, that children’s minds are impressible in a very singular way, such as is not common afterwards. “The passing occurrences which meet them, these, whether from their novelty or other cause, rest upon their imagination, as if they had duration; and days or hours, having to them the semblance, may do the work of years. Anyone, on casting his thoughts back on his first years, may convince himself of this; the character which his childhood bears in his memory as a whole, being traceable to a few external circumstances, which lasted through a very small portion of it: a certain abode, or a visit to some particular place, or the presence of certain persons, or some one spring or summer-circumstances which he at first cannot believe to have been so transitory as on examination he finds they certainly were.”
Here Newman makes a parable, more urbane, perhaps, than the one we ventured above, between the physical defects of childhood and the indisputable theological and spiritual realities of the life of the child as a person, a psycho-physical unity, whose soul, in fact, dominates his body, or he is a candidate for hell. This possible eventuality any priest, not merely a priest of pastoral bent but even (and especially) a “professional theologian” or “liturgist,” would wish to prevent, however tedious he might find conversation with a child as opposed to a symposium of scholars. So, if the issue be fairly faced, would the most apprehensive parent or pedagogue, fearful about a child’s discussing prematurely his personal problems, including the possibility that, just as he may be precocious in his vocabulary, so he may be precocious in response to the fascination of evil or in rejection of or indifference to potential virtue, love of God and love of neighbor.
Cardinal Newman presents this pertinent and impressive line of thought: “On the other hand, let it be observed that we are certainly ignorant of a great deal that goes on in us in infancy and childhood; I mean our illnesses and sufferings as children, which we are either not conscious of at the time, or at any rate forget soon afterwards; which yet are of a very serious nature, and while they must have a moral cause, known or unknown, must, one would think, have a moral effect also; and while they suggest by their occurrence the possibility of other serious things going on in us also, have moreover a natural tendency to affect us in some way or other. Mysterious as it is that infants and children should suffer pain, surely it is not less so that, when they come to years of reason, they should so forget it, as hardly to be able to believe, when told of it, that they themselves were the very sufferers; yet as sicknesses and accidents then happening permanently affect their body, though they recollect nothing of them, there is no extravagance in the idea that passing sins then contracted and forgotten forever afterwards, should so affect the soul as to cause those moral differences between man and man which, however originating, are too clear to be denied. And with this fearful thought before us of the responsibility attaching to the first years of our life, how miserable it is to reflect on the other hand that children are commonly treated as if they were not responsible, as if it did not matter what they did or were! They are indulged, humored, spoiled, or at best neglected. Bad examples are set them; things are done or said before them, which they understand and catch up, when others least think it, and store in their minds, or act upon; and thus the indelible hues of sin and error are imprinted on their souls, and become as really part of their nature as that original sin in which they were born.”
A somewhat appalling amount of recent writing runs counter to the wisdom, if not the knowledge, of the profound Anglican preacher and the immemorial insights of the Church, notably those of St. Pius X, with which we began the present paper. There is less tendency to pay the normal child the tribute of seeing in him a “little man,” the child who is the father of the man, a tribute which was not merely sympathetic but affectionate, to the point of tears in some of us more affectionate than the more sentimental but not particularly complimentary disposition to see him as a “little tot.”
“Little tot” approach
A recent writer on this general subject, in a series of opinions syndicated under the rubric “Know Your Faith,” suggests that the problem of early confession of children was finally solved for him when he found himself confronted with the task of hearing the routine confessions of “little tots” whom he suggests might well have been better occupied elsewhere, while he, too, was elsewhere, perhaps (in his own truly priestly and admirable case) in study, social action or the intellectual work for which he happens to be richly equipped.
This does not exclude the recognition that the joys, sorrows, performances and irresponsibilities of children are real; it recognizes that they are small joys, small sorrows, small achievements and small responsibilities, all proportionate to the age and capacity of the child. It remembers, with deep feeling, the wisdom of Francis Thompson’s perception with respect to the “little hurts,” “little joys,” “little victories” and “little treacheries” of children, but their proportionate reality all the same. It also remembers that the child is father to the man that, also within his limits, he is sensitive to what shapes or deforms a personality in the process of coming to maturity, as he is also aware of the seriousness, not only to him but to the person that he knows himself to be, of the little faults, little perfections, and little disasters of which he is acutely aware and which he himself tends to take with great seriousness, as his resentment or satisfaction, when these are ignored or praised, abundantly indicates.
One wonders if we would not have more mature men if we talked with keen interest to the “little men” who come to us in confession, rather than seeing them as “little tots,” whose confidences in confession, so real to them, are, perhaps, so boring to some of us who have more important fish to fry or more exciting interests to pursue. It is worth asking, one thinks, in a civilization and a Church which laments its lack of fully developed, mature men, whether their coming to maturity would be better guaranteed if those we now think of as “little tots” were encouraged to be “little men” at the first dawn of their awareness that they stand in the presence of God and are capable of being intimately united with Him sacramentally or being alienated from Him, however passingly, by sin. This moment is when, no longer infants, they are budding personalities already subject to the influences which will eventually make for either immature, morally and psychologically underdeveloped citizens (priests included) or full, responsible persons.
We are told that we must face the fact that we are now called to catechize with basic Christian truths and norms of morality an entirely new generation, filled with a new “knowledge-explosion,” new kinds of moral concepts and motivations. We are told that this new “order” constitutes a profound challenge to those who would seek to make Jesus Christ known to and loved by our coming generation.
Loss of sense of sin
The facts are all too evident. Pope Pius XII, twenty years ago, spoke of the decline and loss of the sense of sin; there is surely no room, let alone need, for further evidence of the effects of this personal and social, cultural and religious disaster in the 1970’s, a disaster with virtual universality and under every moral or ethical heading. That there is any sign, even possibility, of an early recovery of a recognizable idealism is highly debatable. Surely it is doubtful if, as the publishers and critics tell us, and readers and film producers confirm, the most powerful, persuasive (and profitable) Love Story of our times is the account of a foul-mouthed little Radcliffe grad, the “sweetest heroine of modern love stories” — who, dying, obliges her father by agreeing to a “Catholic funeral service” — and the consummate boor, with moral limitations vastly more destructive, who, as her paramour, blasphemes his way through their Love Story (already gone through fifteen printings), reaching millions of children, adolescents and adults all over the world as a “refreshing” tale of what “love” really means, then we are in trouble.
The Christian response to this is not love — and do what you will, ripped out of every context of spiritual sense and moral meaning. It is the restoration of God and His Christ to the hierarchy of human loves — and the development of a healthy, saving sense precisely of what it is to pervert love. The initiation into this life of faith and this level of love cannot possibly begin too early — no matter how busy with less important things or bored with God knows what we priests may be — or tell the sociologists we think we are.