What is the “age of discretion”?

A question for those of you who might know more than I do about these things.

In a recent conversation with a Catholic academic, I questioned why his course on sacraments dealt with the seven mysteries in this order: baptism, penance, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, anointing. Shouldn’t confirmation follow baptism and precede the Eucharist in the proper theological order? He responded that his ordering of the subjects was the practical pastoral order for reception of these sacraments in our schools and parishes and cited Thomas Aquinas in support of this order as “the proper theological order” as well.

A conversation ensued, which led to some enlightenment on my part. I took a close look at the Decree “Quam Singulari” issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments with the approval of (and presumably at the request of) Pope Pius X in 1910. This is the document usually cited as the basis of our current pastoral practice, by which first confession and first communion usually precede confirmation.

Surprisingly, I discovered that this document – replete with citations of the history of liturgical practice in the West and Thomas Aquinas – says absolutely nothing about Confirmation. It doesn’t even mention it in relation to the whole discussion. What it does focus on is the appropriate age for the reception of the sacraments of penance and communion. This is variously referred to as “the age of reason” or “the age of discretion”. Thus:

Therefore, the age of discretion for Confession is the time when one can distinguish between right and wrong, that is, when one arrives at a certain use of reason, and so similarly, for Holy Communion is required the age when one can distinguish between the Bread of the Holy Eucharist and ordinary bread-again the age at which a child attains the use of reason.

Nothing is said about the age for Confirmation in “Quam Singlulari”.

Further although the document refers to the historical practice in the West regarding the age of first communion, it does so without discussing the question of whether confirmation (or as the Eastern rites would call it “chrismation” – we will get to the Eastern practice in a minute) was administered beforehand. Thus:

The Catholic Church, bearing this in mind, took care even from the beginning to bring the little ones to Christ through Eucharistic Communion, which was administered even to nursing infants. This, as was prescribed in almost all ancient Ritual books, was done at Baptism until the thirteenth century, and this custom prevailed in some places even later. It is still found in the Greek and Oriental Churches. But to remove the danger that infants might eject the Consecrated Host, the custom obtained from the beginning of administering the Eucharist to them under the species of wine only.

Infants, however, not only at the time of Baptism, but also frequently thereafter were admitted to the sacred repast. In some churches it was the custom to give the Eucharist to the children immediately after the clergy; in others, the small fragments which remained after the Communion of the adults were given to the children.

This practice later died out in the Latin Church, and children were not permitted to approach the Holy Table until they had come to the use of reason and had some knowledge of this august Sacrament.

How are we to interpret this? We know that in the West priests did not administer confirmation, but only bishops. But do the “ancient Ritual books” to which “Quam Singulari” refers envision baptism by a bishop, who then chrismated the child, and then gave first communion? OR did these ancient rituals envisage baptism and first communion by a priest and only later confirmation by a bishop? The lack of discussion of Confirmation in this regard is not really helpful.

Two major considerations here:

First the Eastern Churches, both our own Eastern Catholic rites and the Orthodox Churches, are quite critical of what they call an abandonment of the ancient order whereby baptism must be completed by chrismation/confirmation before communion.

Secondly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church seems quite certain that we are to regard Confirmation as the completion of baptism, and as the second of the three stages of Christian initiation, the conclusion of which is reception of first communion. It also gives “the age of discretion” as the age for confirmation (1307) and says that “although Confirmation is sometimes called the “sacrament of Christian maturity,” we must not confuse adult faith with the adult age of natural growth” (1308).

So now we come back to the question: What is the “age of discretion”. My academic interlocutor claims that in “English law” the “age of discretion” is 14 years, and that this is how the Australian bishops understand it. Does anyone have any references for this interpretation? Some years ago, Fr Flader had an article in the Catholic Weekly in which he wrote:

At the same time the Code of Canon Law establishes that Episcopal Conferences can decide on a different age than the age of discretion. (cf Can. 891) The age of discretion is the age at which a person acquires the use of reason, and this is presumed in the Code of Canon Law at the age of seven. (Can. 97 §2)

This is the same age at which children can also make their First Reconciliation and First Communion.

In recent years some dioceses have adopted the practice of children receiving the sacrament of Confirmation before they make their First Communion. The reason for this is that the children then receive the three Sacraments of Christian Initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist – in the proper order. This is a perfectly acceptable practice.

It is incorrect to say that children of this age cannot understand the full meaning of Confirmation.

And then we have the rather enigmatic comment of our own Holy Father in Sacramentum Caritatis:

17. If the Eucharist is truly the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission, it follows that the process of Christian initiation must constantly be directed to the reception of this sacrament. As the Synod Fathers said, we need to ask ourselves whether in our Christian communities the close link between Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist is sufficiently recognized. (46) It must never be forgotten that our reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist. Accordingly, our pastoral practice should reflect a more unitary understanding of the process of Christian initiation. …

18. In this regard, attention needs to be paid to the order of the sacraments of initiation. Different traditions exist within the Church. There is a clear variation between, on the one hand, the ecclesial customs of the East (50) and the practice of the West regarding the initiation of adults, (51) and, on the other hand, the procedure adopted for children. (52) Yet these variations are not properly of the dogmatic order, but are pastoral in character. Concretely, it needs to be seen which practice better enables the faithful to put the sacrament of the Eucharist at the centre, as the goal of the whole process of initiation. In close collaboration with the competent offices of the Roman Curia, Bishops’ Conferences should examine the effectiveness of current approaches to Christian initiation, so that the faithful can be helped both to mature through the formation received in our communities and to give their lives an authentically eucharistic direction, so that they can offer a reason for the hope within them in a way suited to our times (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

All of which adds up to…what?

I must make it clear that I am not rebelling against local policy. I can understand (as Fr Flader points out in his article) the argument for the “more traditional age for Confirmation of around 12” on the basis of the fact that “children…benefit greatly from the grace of the sacrament in the years of adolescence.”

But my original question to my academic friend is whether there is “a proper theological order for teaching about the sacraments”, and is that order not “baptism, confirmation, Eucharist” rather than “baptism, Eucharist, confirmation”? Do arguments about “the age of discretion” enter into this discussion or not? What IS “the age of discretion”? Does it differ from “the age of reason”? And is this a pastoral or theological issue? (After all, the Church has no argument with the Eastern Rites’ practice of chrismating infants). And is confirmation or reception of the Eucharist the completion of Christian initiation?

Any help you can give me in this discussion would be most appreciated. (nb. I have in the past found Fr Paul Turner’s writings on this subject useful, but his website -www.paulturner.org – seems to be down at the moment).

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10 responses to “What is the “age of discretion”?

  1. Well, I can’t help you much from the Catholic side, David, but as you may remember Lutherans have difficulties with the suggestion that the grace of Holy Baptism needs some sort of completion or augmentation.
    I deeply appreciate the CCC’s connection of to the call to public witness and confirmation, but I think it is mistaken about confirmation being the completion of initiation.
    As for the age of discretion, I think today it is going to vary from child to child more so than in the past, and so an ad hoc approach is called for.

    • Not a very helpful comment, Mark. The big difference between Lutherans and Catholics is, of course, that Lutherans have rejected confirmation as a sacrament. Now that is relevant to this discussion because:

      1) Part of the reason Lutherans rejected confirmation as a sacrament is that by the time of the 16th Century, there had been some centuries of decline in the understanding and practice of confirmation. IOW, the reformers didn’t know what to do with confirmation, because the Church at the time didn’t really have a clue what confirmation was. The Church was still doing it because it knew it should be done.
      2) The Reformers at first rejected confirmation, but then their successors revived it because they saw a pastoral catechetical opportunity. This fitted right in with “the Age of Reason” (I mean the historical epoch not the psychological state) and the general intellectualisation of faith during the Englightenment. Thus the age of confirmation among protestants on the Continent steadily rose to early adolescence, then later to 18 years or older.
      3) Nevertheless, the Protestants (both on the continent and in England) retained the Catholic practice of giving first communion on the day of confirmation, thus keeping the ancient order. Over time, new theologies of confirmation rose among the protestants, some returning to a stronger connection to the theology of the gift of the spirit and a full sacramental understanding.
      4) in the mean time, this intellectualising of the sacrament of confirmation and the delay to later adolescence affected the Catholic practice also, so that by 1910, the practice among Catholics and Protestants re Confirmation and First Communion was basically identical.
      5) then over the years the new Catholic practice of earlier first communion separated from the time of confirmation took hold among protestants too, so that now both Catholics and Lutherans in this country and other have first communion before confirmaiton.

      What goes around comes around. But your comment has more in common with the original reformers: no understanding of the place of confirmation in Christian initiation, and a concentration on the pscyhological maturity of the recipient rather than the sacramental value of the rite.

  2. William Tighe

    I wonder what Lutherans did about “first communion” in the absence of any form of confirmation for 200 years after the Reformation.

    That book on “The Norwegian Rite” of which I sent you photocopied excerpts makes it clear that in the Dano-Norwegian kingdom “confirmation” was introduced only in 1736, there having been no such thing in the preceding two centuries.

  3. Paul

    I have a memory of a comment made in a class on Reformation History to the effect that Luther claimed that confirmation existed for the sake of giving bishops something to do! It seems to me that the ancient order of the sacraments of initiation – B-C-E – make perfect theological and liturgical sense with adults and, dare I say, with children. The big IF that has to be inserted is, “if” the children are raised within a supporting and nurturing family and community environment where they see the living out of the commitments undertaken at baptism.

    I remember my confirmation – I got a new name and the sisters were in a flap lest we somehow mess things up in front of the bishop. It took a few years of theological education to convince me there was something of value in this oddly placed (in the Western Church at least) sacrament.

  4. William Tighe

    People interested in this topic might find a little pamphlet by Dom Gregory Dix:

    http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=dix&bi=0&bx=off&ds=30&recentlyadded=all&sortby=2&sts=t&tn=theology+of+confirmation&x=74&y=5

    *The Theology of Confirmation in Relation to Baptism* (1946) of interest; it stirred up a great storm at the time of its appearance, with Evangelical Anglicans and “standard” Roman Catholics each taking strong exception to its conclusions.

  5. Schultz, in NZ, we’ve moved to the practice of giving the three sacraments – first reconciliation and eucharist, and confirmation, at around 8. This has changed since I prepared my own children for first reconciliation and eucharist in their late primary years (around 9 or 10), and for confirmation at about 13.

    Like you, we were told that this was to bring the sacraments of initiation together.

    I’ve recently prepared two grandchildren for these sacraments, which were given in successive school terms, so about ten weeks apart – the one in 2008 had reconciliation then confirmation then eucharist; the one in 2009 had reconciliation then eucharist then confirmation. The reason for the difference was the schedule of the bishop.

    Not much help with your question about order!

    But re age, when I questioned the change at the time it first came in, a dear friend who is a priest reminded me that the sacraments are about God’s grace, not about our worthiness. Hence, giving the children access to a channel of that grace as soon as they are old enough to understand the basics is sensible.

  6. An Liaig

    The current practice of most of the western church (where Confirmation comes after Eucharist) came about entirely by accident and then some priests and Bishops developed a “pastoral” theology to justify the practice. Confirmation was seperated from Baptism orginaly simply because, in a time of rapid church expansion, the bishop could not get to all the churches often enough to keep them together. The East got around this by allowing the priest to chrismate using the chrism blessed by the bishop. The west seperated the sacraments. Even then, communion was recieved after confirmation up until the 19th century when the time of reception of first Communion was brought forward to seven – the traditional age of reason. This was done for valid reasons to do this eucharistic theology but it is regrettable that Confirmation was not considered at the same time. The order was thus changed. There was no real theology behind the change in order.

    I should also say that some Catholics, includeing priests and even some bishops, have developed a protestant understanding of the sacrament. This is where the adolesent connection comes from. In this understanding at Confirmation we, as adults, confirm the promises and commitments made for us as children. This has nothing whatever to do with a proper catholic understanding of Confirmation – east or west. Confirmation isthe action of the Spirit who confirms (strengthens, enables, commissions) the new Christian to face the challanges of living an adult Christian life. This was reemphasised in the RCIA and many Latin Rite Catholic dioceses (eg Sandhurst) are now implementing the proper order for children as well. Melbourne risks being left out.

  7. Peregrinus

    Canonically, at least, I think there is a distinction between the age of reason and the age of discretion.

    I say this because references to having or not having the use of reason abound in canon law, while there are only two references to the age of discretion. It’s a general principal for legal drafting that if you use two different words or phrases you mean two different things – if you mean the same thing, use the same words – and this is especially strong when one term is used regularly and the other only occasionally. Since the “use of reason” language is well-entrenched in the Code of Canon Law, it’s the phrase which would naturally come to the mind of the writers and, if the use a different phrase, the inference that they mean something different is very strong indeed.

    But what copperfastens this is that, at one point, both phrases are used. To receive the sacrament of Confirmation you must (barring danger of death) have the use of reason (Canon 889 s. 2). The sacrament is to be conferred on the faithful “at about the age of discretion”, unless the Episcopal conference determines another age (or there is danger of death, or “other grave cause”) (canon 889 s. 4).

    (The one other reference in the Code of Canon Law to the “age of discretion” arises in Canon 889, in relation to sacramental reconciliation; those who have reached the “age of discretion” are obliged to confess at least once a year.)

    Going back to confirmation, what this suggests to me is that (a) attaining the use of reason is something different from reaching the age of discretion, and (b) attaining the use of reason generally comes first.

    Furthermore, Canon 97 provides that a child is presumed to reach the use of reason at age 7 (this presumption can of course be overcome by evidence in any particular case), but it provides no such presumption about the age of discretion.

    It’s interesting to note that canon 891 indicates that, if confirmation is not to be conferred at about the age of discretion, this requires a decision at the level of the national episcopal conference. If, as seems to be the case, decisions are being taken diocese by diocese to celebrate confirmation at the time of first communion (Year 4 in school) or at a later age (typically Year 8, I think), it must be that both of these are taken to be “about the age of discretion” for the purposes of the Code of Canon Law.

    The overall impression is that reaching the use of reason is reasonably clear-cut, and can be made the subject of a simple presumption which can cover most cases, but that the age of discretion is a lot more nebulous.

    And this makes sense. Just going on the language alone, I’d understand the “age of reason” to be the age at which we become capable of reasoning; of drawing inferences and deductions; of generalising from the particular, and so on. This is process rather than an instantaneous event, of course. Still, it’s a good deal more clear-cut than the “age of discretion”, which I’d understand to mean the age at which we achieve the capacity to make sound and valid judgments (in this context, about how to act in a given situation). This requires a degree of experience, and a degree of common sense, and a degree of insight into others and of empathy with them, which I would have thought normally arrives rather later than the ability to engage in simple reasoning.

    • Thanks for this, Perry. Very helpful – at least in showing what isn’t in the Code of Canon law, ie. a clear indication of what the “age of discretion” is. That the “age of discretion” is also mentioned in relation to the sacrament of penance (which is usually the first post-baptismal sacrament children receive) is interesting, because this puts it bang in the middle of what Quam Singulari was all about. And Quam Singulari didn’t mention confirmation. Which brings us all back to where we started: how come the discussion in the West has been about the right “age” to receive this sacrament (which isn’t an issue in any sense in the East, even in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church) and why isn’t it ever discussed in relation to first Communion?

      • Peregrinus

        . . . That the “age of discretion” is also mentioned in relation to the sacrament of penance (which is usually the first post-baptismal sacrament children receive) is interesting, because this puts it bang in the middle of what Quam Singulari was all about . . .

        Interestingly, the Code doesn’t mention the “age of discretion” in connection with making one’s first confession, but only in connection with an obligation to confess grave sins at least once a year. The Code doesn’t say anything about when it is appropriate to make one’s first confession, or to prepare young people for the sacrament. In fact canon 991 provides that “every member of the Christian faithful” is free to approach the sacrament, suggesting that there is no age below which the sacrament is inappropriate.

        I suppose it could be argued that the mere desire for the sacrament is itself indication of having reached, at least to some extent, the age of discretion. You could also argue that until you have (again, to some extent) reached the age of discretion – i.e. acquired the capacity to make judgments, and so to be accountable for the judgments you make) you are not capable of actual sin, so the sacrament is invalidly celebrated for such a person.

        But the pastoral reality is that we prepare children for confession in Year 3 because it is the year before first Communion, more than because of any discernment about maturity and discretion. I suggest that they can’t really be said to have reached the “age of discretion” (the age “about which” they are to be confirmed, remember) in Year 3, and that despite having made their first confession they are not required to make an annual confession until some later stage in life.

        . . . How come the discussion in the West has been about the right “age” to receive this sacrament . . . and why isn’t it ever discussed in relation to first Communion?

        Well, as An Liaig points out, it is discussed in relation to first Communion, and some dioceses have in fact changed their pastoral practice so that Confirmation is celebrated with, or before, first Eucharist. But the focus in this discussion is not on the “right age” for confirmation, but on its appropriate relationship to the Eucharist.