No First Confessions as the Solution to Clergy Sexual Abuse?

Invoking the sex abuse scandal as a reason to keep children from Confession is an argument that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

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In the wake of sex abuse scandals in the German Archdiocese of Freiburg, a commission has called for children not to be admitted to Confession prior to First Communion. Instead, their report asserts, the sacrament should be delayed until before Confirmation. In Freiburg-im-Breisgau, that usually means age 15-16. 

The “theological experts” say that children prior to First Communion—usually eight to nine years of age—do not have “an appropriate sense of guilt and sin” and so need not be admitted to the sacrament.

I admit to a sense of déjà vu.

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Invoking the sex abuse scandal as a reason to keep children from Confession is an argument that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Are we to understand German clergy as having a particular predilection for prepubescent pederasty? Why wouldn’t teens in the throes of hormones be equally, if not more appealing? And instead of asking these kinds of questions, shouldn’t we really be keeping pervert priests, not penitents, out of the confessional?

Incidentally, there is a reason why confessionals were invented: the fixed grill was intended to ensure the sanctity and propriety of the sacrament or, as the Freiburg Commission phrases it, to ensure “boundaries” are not “violated.” Perhaps our German brothers might dust the old versions off, instead of using “reconciliation rooms.” Fixed times for Confessions in public places—an hour in church as opposed to “appointments”—would also maintain probity.

That said, I really don’t believe this is about warding off sexual advances so much as it is a fig leaf to push a theological agenda. I say déjà vu because many of these ideas are retreads, moldy oldies that didn’t make it the first time around when they were proposed in the 1970s. Ending First Communion confessions is a fig leaf to push a theological agenda.Tweet This

Back then and since, there has been a coterie of “experts” wanting to keep children away from Confession, and they were especially intent on severing First Confession from First Communion. The latter effort even required the Vatican to insist on the order of the sacraments back in 1973 and to reaffirm it in 1977 because “in some parts of the church…dissension and doubts still remain about the ecclesiastical practice.” 

Like in the free-wheeling synodal Church of Germany. (As well, some American dioceses try to split the difference by honoring the principle of First Confession preceding First Communion but then inserting a significant time lag between the two: in my judgment a pastorally irresponsible approach.)

These “experts” insist that children cannot commit mortal sin and so do not strictly need the Sacrament of Penance. The Freiburg theologians opine a child’s sense of “sin and guilt” may not be “appropriate” and thus is not the proper matter for the sacrament.

Our theological “experts” know as little about children as, apparently, the sacrament.

First, as regards children. The Church has long spoken of seven as “the age of reason” (see Canon 97, §2). The “age of reason” does not mean a child has a sophisticated appreciation of theological subtleties. It means a child has some basic understanding of things. It’s a prerequisite to admission to the Eucharist; a child should at least notionally be able to express that the consecrated host is not merely a piece of dry wafer bread. That doesn’t mean he understands the nuances of transubstantiation but that he has some awareness “this is different.” 

Likewise, a child does not need a refined appreciation of what is a mortal and what is a venial sin (and certainly not the experience of the former) to have a basic understanding that some things are right and some things are wrong. An eight-year-old child has that sense. He knows he should obey his mother and father and knows he sometimes doesn’t. He is aware there is something wrong if he’s lied to somebody or if he cheated in a game. In other words, he is aware he’s done things he should not have done and, if raised properly morally, he wants to repent—to “be sorry” for them. 

That—dear German theological “experts”—is all the sacrament of Penance requires.

Spend some time with kids—I know that’s tough in a rich country like Deutschland that has only a 1.6 fertility rate—and discover that children know right from wrong in an age-appropriate manner.

Do their venial sins require “submission” to the Sacrament of Penance? In principle, no. Venial sin—and these are venial sins—can be remitted with sorrow outside the sacrament. 

However, the Church does not teach that the sacrament of Penance exists only to forgive mortal sins.There is an established tradition of “confessions of devotion”—the confession of venial sins, even those previously forgiven—in order to benefit from the grace of the sacrament. And to assume that sacramentally-guaranteed pardon and peace is only essential after the “shipwreck of [mortal] sin” (St. Jerome) is to fundamentally misunderstand both repentance and conversion as permanent features of Catholic spirituality as well as the essential role of the sacraments in that spirituality. 

It is the severance of Confession from Communion that is responsible for the current aberrant phenomenon of frequent Communion and infrequent Confession, as if reconciliation and communion are not two sides of the same spiritual coin presupposed by a balanced spirituality. Developing that balanced spirituality requires practice, inculcated from an early age, not something notionally adopted at some later point in life. Again, our “experts” seem ignorant of a long tradition of Catholic praxis.

By the time one is 15 or 16—the age our German “experts” would admit Catholics to the confessional—the possibility of grave sin, especially in the sexual field, exists. Subjective culpability may be mitigated, but the objective gravity of sins in this area—solitary or mutual—is there. (I know that our German theological “experts” likely disagree, but the “modern German Catholic sexual ethic” is honestly unrecognizable against the ordinary Catholic sexual ethic.) Are we to wait until young people are seriously tempted—or even seriously sin—in order to start introducing them to the salvific and even prophylactic graces of the sacrament of Reconciliation? 

No, this all represents a profound injustice towards young Catholics, ostensibly justified because some German priests apparently can’t keep their pants zipped. Well, 500 years ago, then-Catholic Father Ulrich Zwingli was writing that some Swiss priests were “rioting in fornication.” That didn’t lead the Church to rewrite its morality. Neither should it lead today to withholding from young Catholics their spiritual sacramental heritage and framing it as the “solution” to handling similarly riotous contemporary clergy.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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