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.
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?