The most recent controversy concerning punitive denial of sacraments on the basis of political views is this heartbreaking story: the parents of a teenager in Barnesville, MN were told that he would not be confirmed, and that the family could no longer receive communion at their parish, after the pastor learned the teen had posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding a sign he had altered to show his opposition to the Minnesota Marriage Amendment. (The measure would have amended the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. While the amendment was defeated, same-sex marriage is not legally recognized in Minnesota; the defeat of the amendment means Minnesota law remains unchanged.)

There is much that could, and should, be discussed in relation to the denial of sacraments in response to certain political views or theological views, but in this post I’m going to focus solely on the problematic theology of Confirmation that is revealed in many of the responses to this story.

I learned of this story from Jim Martin SJ’s Facebook page, where, at the time of this writing, it has generated 373 comments. Many of those comments argue that denying the teen confirmation was proper, because his opposition to amending the Minnesota state constitution indicates that he is incapable of performing the essential act of Confirmation, namely, affirming the faith of the Catholic Church. To quote from some representative comments,

“It would have been no kindness at all to confirm those children into a faith in which they do not believe – did not apparently even understand.”

“Isn’t this a major problem with moving confirmation earlier and earlier? We are asking children to commit permanently to doctrines they do not yet understand or know fully.”

“Confirmation is an affirmation that we believe what the Church teaches. If you are not ready to accept what the Church teaches on faith (since faith can precede understanding) then you wait til you are.”

I don’t quote these particular commenters with the intention of singling them out or attacking them, but rather to demonstrate a common misunderstanding of the sacrament of Confirmation that has followed from the historical contingency of the Western separation of Baptism and Confirmation.

This Western development—the Eastern Churches still confirm infants when they are baptized—leads many Catholics (including myself, before I began graduate study in theology!) to view Confirmation as the believer’s opportunity to “confirm” that she does, indeed, adhere to the faith into which her parents baptized her as an infant. In the minds of many, it has become a sort of Catholic “baptism of believers,” an opportunity for the believer to show that he chooses the faith that has been chosen for him. But this is an inaccurate theology of confirmation.

The older practice of the Church is to confirm immediately following baptism, whether the one receiving the sacraments is an infant or an adult. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the separation of baptism and confirmation as emerging from the Western practice of reserving the “completion of baptism” to the bishop. Confirmation, unlike baptism, had to await the availability of the bishop; as priests are more readily present than bishops, confirmation became separated in time from baptism. The Western practice of confirming an older child or teen years after he has been baptized should signify Catholics’ communion with our bishops and faith in the apostolic origin of the Church—not, as many seem to believe, demonstrate an individual acceptance or ratification of what a child has been taught.

As the Catechism puts it:

Although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,” we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth, nor forget that the baptismal grace is a grace of free, unmerited election and does not need “ratification” to become effective.

As of 2007, ten US Catholic dioceses had restored the older order of the sacraments of initiation, with young children being confirmed before receiving their first Communion, precisely in order to underscore the gratuitous nature of the sacrament: in a 2011 National Catholic Reporter article, the chancellor of the Fargo diocese explains, “Teaching that the grace received is a ‘gift’ and not something that is ‘earned’ helps the children understand that everything we have is a gift from God.” We do not “earn” Confirmation through anything, particular political stances included. In response to the question “Who can receive the sacrament?,” the Catechism answers, “Every baptized person not yet confirmed can and should receive the sacrament of Confirmation”: a qualification much broader than many seem ready to accept.

Confirmation is a sacrament which gifts and strengthens for apostolic responsibility, and preparation for it is meant to “strive to awaken a sense of belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ, the universal Church as well as the parish community.” One might argue that public opposition to amending a state constitution to define marriage indicates a willful rejection of such belonging; recipients of sacraments (other than reconciliation) ought to be in states of grace, and one might argue that taking a “No on Amendment 1” stance put the teen in a state of mortal sin in which he cannot receive God’s grace. I find these arguments deeply troubling, but they would at least proceed from the Church’s theology of Confirmation. I would argue that they ultimately reflect and inevitably lead to a flawed sacramental theology—a sacramental theology in which sacraments are not efficacious in se. If Confirmation cannot be validly received by someone who differs from the bishop’s stance concerning the state constitution, do we not imply that Confirmation does not give the grace necessary to grow in unity with the Church, but instead only recognizes a unity conditioned by pre-determined boundaries? That’s a different conversation than the one at hand, however.

My immediate concern is with our readiness to accept an inaccurate sacramental theology in service of an endorsed political approach. When we speak of the challenge of “inadequate catechesis,” are these the sort of stances that come to mind, or do we assume that adequacy of catechesis is solely determined by one’s final stance on ballot measures?

20 thoughts

  1. Bridget,

    Thank you SO MUCH! I want to show this post to every single adult Catholic that I know, ESPECIALLY people who teach in Catholic elementary schools and who teach CCD. The average Catholic’s understanding of Confirmation is not only incorrect, it’s really problematic and this was an understandable, thorough and reasonably concise expose on what Confirmation actually is. THANK YOU!

  2. Bridget, thank you for addressing this and so quickly! It broke my heart that in the article I read, the young man said he didn’t want people to think badly of the Church because of what was done to him.

  3. It would be interesting to explore the relationship between infant baptism and confirmation. But I think there is a more serious issue in the story about the MN family denied the sacrament(s). That for me, is the question of what “faith” means. Does it mean the servile obedience to some bishops who try to dictate on subjects they have no right to impose? The abuse of power, or the attempted abuse of power, is in my opinion, a grave sin.

  4. “If Confirmation cannot be validly received by someone who differs from the bishop’s stance concerning the state constitution, do we not imply that Confirmation does not give the grace necessary to grow in unity with the Church, but instead only recognizes a unity conditioned by pre-determined boundaries?”

    There are two main problems with this:

    1) The young man doesn’t “differ with the bishop’s stance concerning the state constitution.” He differs with the Church’s fundamental teaching on marriage. Putting it the way did is misleading. Of course a minor disagreement over how one interprets the constitution in some area not objectively defined by the Church would be innocent. But that’s not the case here.

    2) Basic Catholic sacramental theology confirms that the sacraments communicate grace at all times. However, their efficacy depends on our ability (or willingness) to receive it. To the extent that one openly rejects the Church or her teaching, he openly rejects Christ, and therefore prevents that grace from flowing into him.

    The bigger problem, of course, is that a person being confirmed is required to affirm all that the Church teaches. He must say “Amen” after the bishop says, “This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    So allowing him to go through Confirmation when he openly disagrees with such a fundamental teaching of the Church is in fact to lead him into sin.

    1. It’s a fundamental but non-dogmatic teaching of the Church and is not part of the affirmation of faith made at confirmation or at baptism. You don’t promise to accept the magisterial teachings on marriage but promise on a point by point breakdown of the creed, agree to reject satan and pray to remain open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

      The only way someone should be denied confirmation is if they explicitly reject dogmas of our faith – not teachings about our lives. Thus if his sign said that he doesn’t believe in the triune God the bishop would be more than right to preclude his confirmation. Rejecting a state amendment to define marriage as between man and woman is entirely different.

      It is a great flaw of Catholics today, both on the left and right, to mistake our own leanings toward social teachings of the church with the fundamental tenants of our baptism that do indeed unite all baptized in the trinity.

      1. Ah, that is why it is called faith. How do we quantify with ease what we believe? And is our faith only about answers and not questions?

        And Brandon, can you honestly say that you agree with every single teaching of the church without reservation? Perhaps you can, but most people can’t.

        As Roman Catholics, we are a pilgrim people on a journey. Sometimes we carry our cross on our own, mostly we do it with help, or through our confusion. We act in faith and in love.

        None of this is to say that teachings can be disregarded Brandon, but rather to say that they must permeate us over time. And sometimes the interpretation of those teachings is not as simple as it seems.

        As for this teaching, for all the hubub, I would love to poll the priests and bishops that struggle with it. Not because of their own sexuality (but perhaps) but more importantly because the of the “5000” before them on any given day, starving people who have come to listen and to follow – but who are learning the way as they go.

        I seem to not remember the parts where Jesus makes them memorize the law before proceeding, but perhaps I am missing something?

        God have mercy on you and others so quick to dispense with this young man. I wish that everyone could come sit with me at my job, it is like being at the beach, I watch it all wash up here at the parish door. God have mercy on us all. I am both privileged and terrified to be here, and my catechism is not what I reach for first.

  5. I just wanted to post here what I had posted on the thread that generated this post.

    Thank you Fr. James Martin, SJ and Cody for bringing that article to my attention. While I do not necessarily think this settles the matter as to whether the child can rightfully receive confirmation, (see Brandon Vogt’s comment,) and while I do think her comparison of what I and others pushed for and credobaptism isn’t necessarily accurate, it does certainly show that many of the arguments I used were doctrinally flawed.

    I apologize to anyone who may have been confused by the erroneous elements of my posts. I do see the error of my ways.


    1) par. 1285 of the CCC states “Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.”

    And it seems that one who knowingly campaigns against the Church could not spread and defend the faith. However, if there is genuine and demonstrated remorse for his actions the restriction should be lifted.

    2) Further, if as the author claims

    “The Western practice of confirming an older child or teen years after he has been baptized should signify Catholics’ communion with our bishops and faith in the apostolic origin of the Church”

    And if the family has been prevented from receiving communion, then it must be believed by the priest that they either in mortal sin, (and confirmation must be received in a state of grace, unless mitigating factors come into play) or that they are not in communion with the Church and thus the bishops, therefore confirmation could not be received for the reason the author states.

    I will note however that an argument can be made that since the effects of confirmation listed in par. 1303 include strengthening one’s bond with the Church and with Christ, that perhaps confirmation is exactly what he needs.

    Although a response might be made that the effects of confirmation are dependent upon that which is cited below, and therefore if the confirmand has not rejected his earlier stance, confirmation would not be efficacious.

    (1319 A candidate for Confirmation who has attained the age of reason must profess the faith, be in the state of grace, have the intention of receiving the sacrament, and be prepared to assume the role of disciple and witness to Christ, both within the ecclesial community and in temporal affairs.)

    But again, thank you for posting the theological correction. I greatly appreciate it.

  6. If I may add to what you have so eloquently explained, I would just like to point out that in Eastern Christianity, what we Westerners call ‘confirmation’ is called ‘Chrismation’ … an annointing with Chrism, signifying the newly baptized’s membership in the Priesthood of All Believers. The Eastern Church — both Catholic and Orthodox — understands that there are three Sacraments celebrated when someone is ‘initiated’ into the Community: Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharst. Our Western separation of these Sacraments of Initiation, in my opinion, does not reflect the practice of the earliest Christians nor does it serve us well.

  7. Very interesting article. I am now very curious about your references. Might I trouble you for a short list? Thank you in advance.

  8. Reblogged this on Michael's Musings and commented:
    I’ve committed the mistake of misunderstanding the Catholic practice of confirmation, assuming that it was analogous to the Protestant credo-baptism (ie, “believer’s baptism”). I thought that catechumens were affirming an *understanding* of the faith that they were too young to affirm when baptized (as an infant). Turns out, perhaps you’ll be surprised to discover this, too, that is not what confirmation was historically about. Read on to see what the historical practice of confirmation meant to capture, and why that matters practically today.

  9. A light reply, then a more serious one. Of my six adult children, all raised according to the teachings of the church and having received all the timely sacraments, only one is a practicing Catholic. He’s the one who was baptized by a Ukranian Rite Catholic priest, thus Baptized, Chrismated and “Eucharist-ed”. Just saying.
    In regard to the discussion, I am a cradle Catholic with Catholic school training. I agree with all the responders who feel the Parish in question has acted out of bounds. I have less of the theological background but agree with most of what’s been offered here. I would suggest the family may want to look for another parish. I don’t think one’s faith should be determined by the humanity of the parish staff. The fact is there are “Authentic Catholics” with a wide spectrum of beliefs. Discussing the situation with another Pastor may bring much different responses. Hint: Ask a Jesuit.

  10. I’m confused as to why a political stance would be a necessary doctrine of the Catholic faith. Even if one accepts a sacramental view of marriage, the Catholic Church makes a distinction between civil marriages and sacramental marriages. Can’t one maintain that homosexual marriages should be legal (according to civil rights extensions of our laws) while at the same that cannot be valid sacramentally?

    Whether the Catholic Church likes it or not, marriage has been separated into from the Church since the Protestant reformation. Consequently, the state recognizes marriages that the Church does not — remarriages after divorce, marriage without the intent of children, etc.

    In other words, can’t this kid accept the view on CATHOLIC marriages while maintaining that the same standards do not apply for non-Catholics, since there are other legal, property, and monetary benefits of civil marriages? I simply have difficulty seeing how simply supporting homosexual marriages in the civil sphere constitutes an act of heresy.

      1. I can give an LGBT, non-Catholic perspective. The view from inside would be good to hear, too.

        That is that the traditional Catholic view that gay sex is always sinful is evil. It arises from a desire to dominate and control, rather than to speak truth, and a co-relative desire to be dominated, inherent in the existence of the hierarchy. For centuries, secular “morality” has been close to Catholic “morality” on this point, but now the moral truth, that disgust for other people simply for who they are is wrong, is becoming more prevalent in secular morality, and “knowing that his time is short” the priest wrathfully seeks to impose his evil lies. The system prevents him from following the Moral imperative to relinquish his Control.

        I appreciate that I could have expressed this differently, but I have no desire to be “fair” here. I want you to be aware of how I feel about it.

  11. Though I am always happy to see reminders that confirmation is not some kind of graduation into adult Catholicism, I do think the priest in question (Fr. LaMoine) acted properly:

    Can. 889 §1. Every baptized person not yet confirmed and only such a person is capable of receiving confirmation.

    §2. To receive confirmation licitly outside the danger of death requires that a person who has the use of reason be suitably instructed, properly disposed, and able to renew the baptismal promises. [emphasis added]

    It wasn’t like this young man was merely saying (as some respectable Catholics have) that he saw a separation between sacramental and civil marriage, and no valid justification for the present civil law on marriage. The sign he vandalized made clear that he sees no valid distinction between homosexual and heterosexual unions under any color. Presumably Fr. LaMoine confirmed this (and found out where he stole the sign from!) before making this weighty decision. It seems to me that this would render the young man incapable of renewing his baptismal promises, especially the bit about believing in the Catholic Church.

    If he’d been confirmed at Age 7, this wouldn’t have been a problem. One more reason for younger confirmations!

  12. I endorse the views expressed in this article and would add only this:
    Dear Pastor,
    When exactly, (and I do mean the exact moment in time) did you become the One True and Divine Lord of All? I could be mistaken, but maybe not, when I wonder if you have some miraculous power to discern saint from sinner. The statistical probability is that you, in fact, don’t have any more discerning ability, (charisma, if you will) than I do or than the young person on FB with the sign you don’t like
    Please, good pastor, don’t confuse yourself or even your bishop with the One True God or His only Son, Jesus Christ.
    The actions of this “pastor” are, in this instance, truly appalling.

  13. For the historical record …

    From at least Cyprian (mid 3rd century) onwards, the one baptismal event consisted of three actions: the washing with water, the laying on of hands, and chrismation. In the eastern church, a priest could do the lot. In the western church, the latter two actions were reserved to the bishop, so when bishops no longered ministered to local churches on a regular basis, the hands/oil part of the rite becamse separated from the water part of the rite, and one ceremony became two. So what is now, in the west, called “confirmation” arose as a historical contigency; it has always been a rite in search of a theology.

    In the 6th century, Faustus of Riez referred to the second ceremony as a being “confirmed for combat”, and in the 13th century, Richard the Poor, Bishop of Sarum, wrote of this “sacrament for combatants”, i.e., for spiritual strenghtening. At first the practice was to confirm as soon as possible after baptism, but gradually confirmation became associated with the “years of discretion”, and Trent speaks of the ages 7 to 12 as appropriate. Still, the idea is not that one is “confirming one’s faith”, nor that the parents’ baptismal promises are being confirmed, nor that the baptism itself is being confirmed, but that the person is being confirmed/strengthened for spiritual combat by the Holy Spirit (via the bishop).

    Luther was an outspoken critic of the medieval practice of confirmation, and Calvin called it “this abortive mask of a sacrament”. On the other hand, Luther and Calvin, and the Reformed tradition (I’m a minister in the United Reformed Church, UK; cf. the UCC in the USA) has historically recognised the importance of a public profession of faith/commitment, and in some Reformed churches this public profession has been called confirmation (and it may be accompanied by the laying on of hands [by minister and elders], as a symbolic liturgical action accompanying prayer for the canditate [cf. Augustine: “What is the laying on of hands but prayer over the person?”]). But again, as in the catholic and orthodox churches, the term confirmation is understood in the passive sense, i.e., as a being confirmed (stregthened) by the Holy Spirit.

    Finally, it became the general practice in the Reformed tradition that one must be confirmed before being admitted to the Lord’s Supper. Since the 70s-ish (at least in the UK), however, the relationship betwen baptism, confirmation, and the Lord’s Supper has been a red button theological/liturgical issue, with more and more churches now seeing baptism, as the complete rite of initiation, as also the sufficient rite of entry to the Table, leaving confirmation to stand on its own as a rite of commitment/ commissioning/ strengthening (and some churches going the whole hog and practicing a completely open table).

    I hope that’s helpful as a Prot’s comment from across the pond.

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