Are We Using Religious Education and Confirmation As a Stick and Carrot?

Are We Using Religious Education and Confirmation As a Stick and Carrot?

Growing up in a faithful Catholic family, I received the sacraments at the ages regulated within the Dallas diocese – the same ages more or less seen around the country.  Naturally, my baptism occurred about a month into my life and I recall nothing – life changing graces received.  I received my first communion sometime around the age of reason and didn’t like the taste of the host, but it wasn’t a big deal because my CCD teacher worked at the bowling alley and that was cool – life changing graces received.  Confirmation was when I was a sophomore in high school, 8 years after my first communion.  I tried, I tried, to find some sort of meaning in it; though I knew of the importance of a sacrament… I was 15 years old and generally more concerned with keeping oil off my forehead than having a stranger add to it – life changing graces received.

The age of fifteen might have been old and I have since found that confirmation is more common around the 8th grade rather than 10th, but even so, why would the sacrament be received so many years after the other sacraments of initiation?

Bishop Aquila from Fargo, ND has recently been in the Catholic news cycle for the affirmation he received from Pope Benedict in regards to restoring the “proper order” of the sacraments (emphasis mine):

“I was very surprised in what the Pope said to me, in terms of how happy he was that the sacraments of initiation have been restored to their proper order of baptism, confirmation then first Eucharist,” said Bishop Aquila, after meeting Pope Benedict on March 8.

When the sacraments are conferred in this order, he said, it becomes more obvious that “both baptism and confirmation lead to the Eucharist.” This sacramental assistance helps Catholics live “that intimate relationship of being the beloved sons and daughters of the Father in our daily lives,” he added.

The Bishop of Fargo said the changes have also distanced the Sacrament of Confirmation from “some false theologies that see it as being a sacrament of maturity or as a sacrament for ‘me choosing God.

Instead, young people in Fargo now have “the fullness of the spirit and the completion of the gifts of the spirit” to assist them in “living their lives within the world,” especially “in the trials they face in junior high and high school.”

Search as one might, there cannot by found any doctrinal or theological basis for regarding confirmation as “becoming an adult in the Church” or what have you.  Rather, the understanding of confirmation as such probably comes from one (or all) of these sources:

1. Bad education – especially with some analogy involving bar mitzvahs.
2. Justification for using the sacrament of confirmation as a carrot to keep children in the parish religious education program for seven extra years.
2a. Religious education programs trying to motivate 8-10th graders by promising them what they don’t have.
3. Belief that 21st century teenagers are generally better disposed to receiving graces or less likely to be in grievous sin than children at the age of reason.

Obviously, these reasons do not hold water.

The first idea is probably a natural result of the second and third.

The second idea relies on the idea that human RE programs are more efficacious in converting the hearts and minds of young people than divine graces.  Given the endurance of a student through years of RE classes and the pomp and circumstance surrounding confirmation, it’s no wonder many people view it as ‘graduation’ from further religious formation.

The third idea of adolescents having a greater disposition toward receiving the grace of the sacrament does have some basis in truth, but cannot stand.  Would not a holy 14 year-old, fully disposed to the reception of grace at the time of confirmation, be a holier 14 year old had he been confirmed as a child, receiving the graces gradually as he became more disposed?  The character of an adolescent is already largely developed without the assistance of the graces of confirmation – I would wager that a teen in this situation is less likely to be disposed to the graces of the sacrament than a more innocent child with a lesser cognitive ability.

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. St. Thomas reminds us of this:’Age of body does not determine age of soul. Even in childhood man can attain spiritual maturity: as the book of Wisdom says: “For old age is not honored for length of time, or measured by number of years.” Many children, through the strength of the Holy Spirit they have received, have bravely fought for Christ even to the shedding of their blood.’
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1308

Jude Huntz at writes a rather persuasive piece about the analogy between the Lover/Beloved relationship and the role of the sacraments of initiation (numbering mine):

The relationship of God to a person is akin to the relationship between a man and a woman with respect to courtship and marriage… initial meeting, courtship, 1)engagement, 2)marriage, and 3)consummation. The same holds true for the spiritual life. We have an encounter with God, we make a commitment to God in 1)baptism; we renew that commitment in 2)Confirmation; and we consummate the relationship with God in the celebration of the 3)Eucharist.

The analogy to the marriage relationship helps to explain why we receive Baptism and Confirmation only once, and that both sacraments confer an indelible mark upon the soul who receives these sacraments.

The reception of Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist is the greatest intimacy a person can have with God. Since it is analogous to the consummation of the marriage between a man and woman, the Eucharist can be received many times as a celebration of the intimate love between God and the person.

Hopefully, Bishop Aquila’s decision to properly order the sacraments of initiation and Pope Benedict’s public approval will spearhead a move within the United States to reconsider the various motivations that have prompted the delay of the spiritually-formative sacrament of confirmation.




  1. In the Eastern Churches, both in and not in communion with Rome, not only Baptism, but Confirmation (usually called Chrismation) and First Communion are given to infants.

    The usual praxis of the Latin Church is out of step with the other pre-reformation Apostolic Churches.

    • I think one reason the Catholic Church does Confirmation and First Eucharist later is so that the bishop can be present (namely for Confirmation). Of course, with the bishop’s permission, a priest can confirm, but when the bishop personally does the confirmations, the connection to the apostles is made more obvious. Of course the bishop doesn’t have time to attend every baptism, so confirmations are done in large groups. The way we Catholics do confirmations is our normal *practice*, which could change someday but doesn’t look likely to change soon. Viva Cristo Rey!

      • Nevertheless, Confirmation could be done in large groups at an earlier age.

    • \\I think one reason the Catholic Church does Confirmation and First Eucharist later is so that the bishop can be present (namely for Confirmation). \\

      As I said, the Latin Church is NOT the totality of the Catholic Church.

      Eastern Catholic Churches Confirm and Commune infants immediately after their baptism.

      • Yes, I guess I was mixing up my terms–catholic, latin. As far as having bishops come around the diocese and confirm at an earlier age, I am all for that. I’m from Fargo and I am very happy with what our bishop has done. What I meant was that I don’t think the Latin Church will start dong confirmations before the age of reason any time soon, although as far as I know it *could* change someday.

        People have commented that our third-graders who have been confirmed seem more mature in their faith than third graders used to be. That’s the grace of the sacrament, and it is a different grace from Baptism. As I understand it, Confirmation provides the grace specifically for witness and defense of the faith.

  2. Restored order is being applied in my parish for the last 10 years. It is a mixed review. In this post Christian world the families are not properly prepared to pass on Catholic teachings and traditions to their children. Having said that proper training of adults in our faith is needed. However; how do you bring adults to faith formation when they do not perceive a problem with their understanding? A sad as it may be the carrot and the stick might be the best way. It gives them a reason to attend faith formation while their children are being prepared for Confirmation.

    In our parish it has been observed that once the children have received all of the Sacraments of Initiation they begin to disappear from Church life. As they grow into higher grades in school they are lest frequently seen at Church let alone the CCD classes offered for their benefit.

    Restored order is an ideal not a practical solution to falling away Catholics. If the Catholic Church wants restored order they should Confirm at Baptism and offer First Communion at age of reason with the Bishop presiding.

    • What does it matter if they disappear sooner? Why not let them disappear sooner rather than later? If they’re still going to disappear in the end, keeping them around for a few more years of lukewarm going through the motions doesn’t seem the ‘best’ thing to do. It simply doesn’t address the problem, so it’s not a good reason to perpetuate the kind of theological confusion associated with having the sacraments in the ‘wrong’ order.

    • What’s missing in Catholic religious formation is enough catechesis in the sacraments of vocation, marriage and holy orders.

      I’m pleased to see the era of dumbing down finally end. It’s time to raise the bar.

  3. I read with much interest of the bishop’s encounter with the pope in regards to the “reordering” of the sacraments in his diocese. Personally, I agree and like it. I received Confirmation and First Holy Communion at the age of eight from a bishop. However, my parents ensured that my faith formation journey didn’t end. We weren’t “forced” to continue but through their example, faith was lived at home, always. And, mine continues to grow still!

    It was Pope Pius X who decreed on August 8, 1910 regarding the age of reason – It was also Pope Pius X who introduced CCD into our faith “culture”.

    The children will only follow what the adults in their life would do. If parents aren’t practicing the faith even to attending Mass on Sunday, then the children will be right behind.


  4. The best hope for retaining Catholic youth is Confirmation during high school. The 8th grade Confirmation approach means that 90% or more teens leave CCD permanently at 14. There are many creative, dynamic approaches to youth ministry that can be offered to teenagers that keep them Catholic, things that are not appropriate for 7th and 8th graders, like retreats, a focus on authentic Catholic social teaching, pro-life work, etc.

    In my opinion, every diocese should mandate 10th grade Confirmation. Grace is grace. If children and their parents do not cooperate with the grace received from Baptism, Confession, and Communion, then returning Confirmation to young children will change little in that regard. However, there is an opportunity to reach teens but there has to be a reason for them to stay in CCD / Youth Minstry into the high school years. High school Confirmation does just that and hopefully gives parents the means so desperately needed to keep kids active in the Church. Many parents are as lost as their children and have little, if any, credible support in their parishes. A larger problem for many parishes is a DRE who does not lead by example, or is liberal, or indifferent to the problem that our families deal with at the parish level. It is astonishing how much incompetency exists in our DREs. Moreover, most families who have an option to send to Catholic high schools do so, further draining the committed families away from parish life and youth ministry. It’s a tough issue, and the stick and carrot idea seems to be the only way to handle it in the culture of death in which our youth are saturated in, in spite of the best efforts and ferverent prayers of their good Catholic parents.

    • Well, if you want to make the sacraments into a game of stick and carrot, why not reserve baptism for death-beds, and insist that you’ll only be baptized if you stay involved with the parish and keep coming to mass? Clearly that is an inappropriate way to approach the sacraments.

      And what about marriage? Isn’t that another possible carrot/stick? We could just as well say, “if you don’t toe the line (say, come to mass faithfully for five years, no cohabitation, etc.), no marriage in the Church.” But our Lord surely never intended the sacraments to be used in this way. A sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace instituted by Christ for our sanctification. A sacrament is neither a carrot nor a stick and should not be used as such.

      Anyway, if confirmed kids (who have received the grace of confirmation) aren’t going to care about the faith (a very defeatist attitude!), why would unconfirmed kids care about it? It sounds like you really don’t believe in the actual working of the Holy Spirit as what matters – in which case, why bother with the sacraments at all? If the only reason kids/parents look forward to confirmation is so that they can stop coming to mass, the situation isn’t improved by prolonging their wait as long as possible. It must be approved by evangelization and catechesis.

  5. We need new, improved sticks and carrots.

    The sacrament confers grace and then we cooperate. To “reward” good behavior by awarding a sacrament is terrible theology. God’s gifts are free. When they’re purchased by hours logged, good deeds checked off, or Faith Formation lessons attended, it’s a kind of simony, isn’t it? And then we have developed a sort-of works salvation mindset that’s hard to shake and, since it contradicts our catechism, even harder to defend.

    Meanwhile, you have parents pleading with their 8th graders to finish their requirements so they can get confirmed. 13-year-olds are being forced to go through the motions of a sacrament that has been reduced to a mere Rite of Graduation from Faith Formation. If they had had that grace earlier, maybe it wouldn’t be as much a struggle?

    I’ll follow the teaching of my bishop, but I’ll advocate for grace earlier rather than later.

  6. I think they drag confirmation out too long & I do not approve of the video they showed my son for anti abortion I troubled him for quite a while. It was way too graphic. The church should also not be involved in sex education. I also think that the more they ‘demand’ that the kids be at the physical church the less likely they will be to continue going to church. The church needs to focus more on welcoming them & including them in the service. Before I could be confirmed we had to teach or help teach sunday school.


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