Babies can receive the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church, why do Catholic children have to wait?

We got an email that said:

Is it true that in the Catholic Church children cannot participate in the Holy Eucharist? In the Orthodox Church, children can be part of the Eucharist as soon as they have been baptized, and even newborn babies can recieve communion (of course, only the Blood of Christ at first). What is the reason/ explanation for this?

Yes, it is true that in the present-day Roman Rite of the Catholic Church reception of the Eucharist is delayed until children reach the age of reason. Now, this was not always the case in the Western Church.  The very ancient Western Church used to administer the Eucharist (and Confirmation --that is, Chrismation) to infants at the time of their Baptism, just as the Eastern Orthodox still do today, and as Eastern Catholics (Uniates) still do today.

So, you are following the older custom.  However, sometime in the early Middle Ages (when we Romans were still in full communion with the East), the Western Church decided that it would be of benefit to delay the Eucharist until children realized Who and What they are receiving.  This came about because the Romans in the West were, at this time (the early Middle Ages) converting the German and Celtic peoples of northern Europe; and in a situation when there were mass conversions like this, the Western Church followed yet another custom of the very early Church, which was to exclude converts from the Eucharist until they were fully catechized --that is, fully acquainted with the Faith. For example, if you read the writings of St. Athanasius the Great or St. Cyril of Jerusalem (both of whom were Eastern fathers), they describe how, when it came time for Holy Communion (the Eucharist), all of the Christian novices (pagan converts preparing for Baptism) were asked to leave the room, so that they could not even watch the Baptized Christians partake of the Eucharist.

This was done because the Eucharistic Mystery is so profound and so sacred, that the Church wanted to make 100% sure that the new converts were fully educated in the Faith so that they would not look at the Eucharist as if it were mere bread or mere wine, but believe with all their hearts that it is the Real Presence of the risen Jesus Christ. And, while it is true that the ancient Church only did this for people who were not yet Baptized, the medieval Western Church decided that it would be beneficial to treat Baptized Christian children like this --that is, to withhold the Eucharist from them until they were old enough to realize what it is and to believe in it.

Now, to the Eastern mind, this may seem to imply that we Western Romans are saying that Baptized children are not in full communion with the rest of us. But, this is not what it means to the Western mind at all. Rather, it is just a Western discipline that developed as part of our Western experience, and the need to make sure that children fully understood Who and What they are receiving in the Eucharist. So, here again, we have a case in which East and West faced different situations, and responded to them differently --according to their different cultural sensibilities. But, we both believe the same thing about the Eucharist. Anyone who is Baptized into Christ and belongs to the true Apostolic Faith may receive the Eucharist, even a baby.  And, in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church (i.e., those Eastern Churches which are already in full communion with us Romans), babies are given the Eucharist (the Precious Blood or a small piece of the consecrated Bread --the Body of Christ) at the time of their Baptisms. In the Roman rite, we merely feel that it works better (in our culture) if we delay giving the Eucharist to children until they are old enough to appreciate it and receive Him in conscious faith.  

We recieved another question as follows:

I wonder if you could cite some sources for your assertion that the church made a conscious decision to delay reception of communion until the child could understand who he is receiving. I have always understood that the theology behind the delayed reception of Communion developed after practical considerations resultedin the withholding of Communion from infants and young children. My source for this is the well respected Fr. Robert Taft, who wrote: “The practice [of communing infants] began to be called into question in the 12th century not because of any argument about the need to have attained the “age of reason” (aetus discretionis) to communicate. Rather, the fear of profanation of the Host if the child could not swallow it led to giving the Precious Blood only. And then the forbidding of the chalice to the laity in the West led automatically to the disappearance of infant Communion, too. This was not the result of any pastoral or theological reasoning. When the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ordered yearly confession and Communion for those who have reached the “age of reason” (annos discretionis), it was not affirming this age as a requirement for reception of the Eucharist....

Nevertheless, the notion eventually took hold that Communion could not be received until the age of reason, even though infant Communion in the Latin rite continued in some parts of the West until the 16th century. Infant Communion, they refused to agree with those who said it was useless and inefficacious — realizing undoubtedly that the exact same arguments used against infant Communion could also be used against infant baptism, because for over ten centuries in the West, the same theology was used to justify both! " This is actually the only explanation I've ever heard, and I'm interested in hearing more about the explanation that you give.

Also, I would be interested in your take on the fact that the Western Church currently (and for the last 100 years or so) administers the sacraments of initiation out of order.

Mark Bonocore responds:

Thanks for writing.  I’ll of course be happy to address your question. However, before I do, I must address the apparent, overall context of your concern:   

You say that you are a Byzantine Catholic “with [Eastern] Orthodox leanings,” and you are “constantly looking for affirmation in [your] decision to stay with Rome.”   Fair enough. However, this being the case, it should be pointed out that any incidental differences (or the motivations for those differences) in the administration of the Sacraments between the Byzantine Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church are merely pastoral matters, not doctrinal ones.  …and certainly not dogmatic ones. In other words, if Byzantine Catholics and Roman Catholics administer a Sacrament differently (according to different pastoral practices), this is most certainly not a Church-dividing issue. For, needless to say, the unity between Byzantine Catholics and Roman Catholics is not based on common pastoral practice, or even on a common Liturgical Rite, but rather on a unity of substantial Apostolic doctrine, and most especially of substantial dogma. This is the nature of our unity. Aside from this unity of substantial / dogmatic doctrine (i.e., a substantial unity of Faith), we are two, entirely different (regional) Churches, originating from, and reflecting the cultural concerns and preoccupations of, two very different civilizations –the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire vs. the remnants of the Western Roman Empire. It is only the substance of the Apostolic Faith (our common heritage) that unifies us. And we of course express this common substance differently, through the medium of our two different civilizations –Byzantine vs. Roman. And so, because of this dynamic, it simply should not matter to you (as a Byzantine) how we Romans administer the Eucharist, or why we do it in the manner that we do it. As long as we do not violate the essential, Apostolic nature of the Holy Eucharist, you (as a Byzantine) should be able to remain in full communion with us and to accept our (outwardly different but substantially consistent) pastoral practices. This is how it has always been in the universal Church.  …not only when it comes to East vs. West, but also (as I’ll illustrate below) among individual city-churches within our respective regions (e.g. different Eastern city-churches tolerating each other’s pastoral or Liturgical differences).. 

Now, with this established, I will address the development of the current Roman Catholic practice of withholding the Eucharist from infants and very young children –a practice which obviously differs from the current Byzantine practice, where a tiny morsel of the Eucharist is given to infants when they are Baptized. But, in doing so, I must dispute several claims made by Fr. Taft, who unfortunately has bought into some modernist-liberal historical revisionism, and who paints with entirely too broad a brush. Indeed, Fr. Taft is apparently under the impression that this issue can be classified as a “Western” practice differing from an “Eastern” practice –as if the entire West chose to administer the Eucharist in one way, whereas the entire East chose to do it in another way. Yet, this is not the case. The historical reality is far more complicated and diverse. And the best way to explore this is to begin with the current Byzantine practice, in which (as I said) the Eucharist is first given to infants at the time of their Baptisms

Now, as a Byzantine, you are most likely under the impression that the current Byzantine practice of giving the Eucharist to infants is the original practice of the universal Church (dating back …universally …to the time of the Apostles). This is the (mistaken) impression of many Eastern Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, and Monophysite), who share the current Byzantine practice today. However, even a quick glimpse of Church history will show that this has not always been the universal practice, not even in the East  For, in the ancient Church, both in the East and in the West, such Liturgical practices (which were rooted in local, pastoral concerns) often differed, not only from region to region (e.g. the patriarchate of Antioch vs. the patriarchate of Alexandria), but even between individual city-churches withinthese regions!   And, again, this was true in both the East and in the West, neither of which had “monolithic” Liturgical practices until much later in history. 

And, we know with great certainty that the ancient Eastern Church did not universally administer the Eucharist to infants (i.e., the current Byzantine practice) because we know that the ancient Eastern Church did not universally Baptize infants!   Indeed, in both the ancient East and in the ancient West, there was strong disagreement among bishops as to whether or not Baptism should be delayed until adulthood, or at least until the child could decide for himself to enter into the Christian Covenant. Now, please understand:  I am NOT saying that any ancient bishop denied the validity of infant Baptism. On the contrary, even in those city-churches where Baptism was customarily delayed until adulthood, if an unBaptized child became sick (because infant mortality was of course very high in the ancient world), the bishop would Baptize this child immediately. So, as with our modern Roman view of giving the Eucharist to infants, it was not a matter of validity (infant Baptism was always and universally recognized to be valid), but a matter of appropriateness.   Some ancient bishops (especially in the East) believed that it was not appropriate or helpful (under normal conditions) to Baptize a person while still an infant, but that Baptism would be taken more seriously if delayed until adulthood. And one of these bishops was of course the father of the great Eastern father St. Gregory of Nazianzus!    For, even though his own father was the bishop of his native city, St. Gregory was not Baptized until he was an adult. And this was true of several Eastern Church fathers and other saints of the ancient Eastern Church. 

And so, needless to say, if a certain city-church did not even Baptize infants, it obviously did not give these infants the Eucharist either!   This goes without saying; and it illustrates the obvious historical fact that the current Byzantine practice was not the universal practice of the ancient Church.  …Nor could it become common practice in the East until the practice of actually Baptizing infants became universally accepted. And, again, this was true in both the East and in the West. 

Now, as with the East, the West also underwent a development of its own.  In many places in the West (not all) the Eucharist was administered to infants. And, as Fr. Taft says, there was a common practice of giving only the Precious Blood to the infants, for fear that they would spit out the Eucharistic Bread. However, this Western practice developed very early; even proceeding the time of Constantine. For, in the A.D. 250’s, we have St. Cyprian of Carthage (in [western] North Africa) relating a story that depicts the practice in the church of Carthage in his day. He writes:

"Listen to what happened in my presence, before my very eyes. There was a baby girl, whose parents had fled (i.e., during the persecutions) and had, in their fear, rather improvidently left it in the charge of its nurse. The nurse took the helpless child to the magistrates. There, before the idol where the crowds were flocking, as it was too young to eat the flesh, they gave it some bread dipped in what was left of the wine offered by those who had already doomed themselves. Later, the mother recovered her child. But the girl could not reveal or tell the wicked thing that had been done, any more than she had been able to understand or ward it off before. Thus, when the mother brought her in with her while we were offering the Sacrifice, it was through ignorance that this mischance occurred.  But the infant, in the midst of the faithful, resenting the prayer and the offering we were making, began to cry convulsively, struggling and tossing in a veritable brain-storm, and for all its tender age and simplicity of soul, was confessing, as if under torture, in every way it could, its consciousness of the misdeed.  Moreover, when the Sacred Rites were completed and the deacon began ministering to those present, when its turn came to receive, it turned its little head away as if sensing the Divine Presence, it closed its mouth, held its lips tight, and refused to drink from the chalice. The deacon persisted and, in spite of its opposition, poured in some of the Consecrated Chalice. There followed choking and vomiting. The Eucharist could not remain in a body or mouth that was defiled; the Drink which had been sanctified by Our Lord's Blood returned from the polluted stomach. So great is the power of the Lord, and so great His majesty!" ---St. Cyrian, The Lapsed" Ch. 25, circa 249-258 A.D.

Now, of special note in this account by St. Cyprian is the fact that the pagans gave this Christian infant some bread (from their pagan sacrifice) soaked in wine (from their pagan sacrifice). This is, needless to say, similar in form to the current Byzantine practice. Yet, the Carthaginian Christians at this time did not use a similar form, but gave only the Eucharistic Wine to the infant. So, as can be seen in this account, as early as the 250’s, the pastoral practice in the North African church of Carthage was to administer the Eucharist to infants from the Chalice only. The Eucharistic Bread was not given to them.

But, as I said, this was still not a universal practice in the West, nor even in North Africa itself!   For, along with this account from St. Cyprian, we have statements from his historical contemporaries showing that other areas of North Africa (Cyprian’s own providence, over which he himself was Metropolitan) were still delaying Baptism until adulthood!  …and so were obviously not giving the Eucharist to unBaptized infants!    For example, Cyprian’s contemporary Tertullian writes …

"And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of Baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of children."  (Tertullian, On Baptism A.D. 212). 

And this respectful disagreement among local bishops in North Africa over the appropriateness of infant Baptism continued under Cyprian, who likewise allowed each African bishop to maintain his own position on a variety of other pastoral concerns, such as the supposed need to re-Baptize heretics who sought communion with the Catholic Church.  In Cyprian’s own words, “None of us [meaning: ‘none of we Africans’] makes himself a bishop of bishops.”   And so, even though he (as Bishop of Carthage) was the Metropolitan Archbishop over all Africa, Numidia, and Mauriatania (a vast amount of territory in the Roman Empire), Cyprian did not impose his own (Carthaginian) pastoral practices on the other African bishops. This would obviously have included the local decisions to Baptize infants and to administer the Eucharist to them.  It would also include whether infants were to be given the Eucharist under both Species (Bread and Wine), or just the Wine. 

Indeed, elsewhere in the West (and even in Italy), local pastoral practices continued to differ from church to church, and from region to region. This was especially the case given that the ancient and medieval Western Church did not subscribe to a single, Roman Rite (as is predominately the case today), but was rather divided into those churches which subscribed to the Roman Rite and those churches which subscribed to the various forms of the Gallican Rite (i.e.. its sub-rites:  e.g. the Ambrosian Rite of Northern Italy; the Isidorian and Mozabrian Rites of Spain; the Celtic Rite in Ireland and Britain, etc.). All of these Liturgical spheres of Western Christendom expressed themselves differently, and treated the reception of the Eucharist differently.  Some mirrored the developing Byzantine Rite and gave the Eucharist to infants at the time of their Baptism and thereafter. Others delayed the Eucharist, either to another time, or until the child was older. And, again, this diversity came into being very early on (mirroring the diversity that existed regarding the appropriate age for Baptism), and it could very well manifest itself among different churches within the same districts, if not within the same cities or towns!    Indeed, within a given parish, there might even be a situation in which one priest subscribed to one pastoral custom (giving the Eucharist to infants) while another priest favored a different custom (and so excluded children until they were older).  And this was all part of the natural, historical development of an evolving Western Christian society. As in the East, solutions came into being over time and in accord with approved or rejected practice. 

So, Fr. Taft is simply incorrect (or, at best, overly simplistic) when he says “The practice [of communing infants] began to be called into question in the 12th Century.”   It was most certainly an issue long before that. However, Fr. Taft is correct when he says that the current Roman practice did not originally (or entirely) stem from a concern that the child attain the “age of reason.”   Such a “psychological” concern would not be at the forefront of medieval thought. Rather, in both the medieval and the ancient mind, the concern was not one of proper “psychological development” for the child, but rather of mature experience and cultural awareness. As with the ancients and their concern about the appropriateness of infant Baptism, the issue was not whether or not the child was “psychologically ready” to be Baptized, or whether or not Baptism would be able to “take effect” for an infant, but rather the bishops’ desire to maximize the recipient’s cultural appreciation of Baptism by delaying it until adulthood. In the same way (and most likely, in many places, in direct historical relation to the desire to delay Baptism), the delay in administering the Eucharist was designed to maximize the recipient’s cultural appreciation of the Real Presence. For, just as it was feared that someone who was Baptized as an infant might “take their Baptism for granted” and (when they became an adult in a totally Christian secular society) not appreciate the serious Covenantal commitment that they entered into when they were Baptized (as an infant), so it was feared that someone who received the Eucharist from earliest childhood may likewise “take the Real Presence for granted” and (when they became an adult in a totally Christian secular society) not appreciate or manifest the proper awe and reverence with which the Eucharist should be treated. So, in neither case, it was not a matter of some concern for proper psychological development on the part of the recipient of Baptism or the Eucharist, but rather a concern that these holy Mysteries might not become too “familiar” or “matter of fact” for a person raised in a Christian family and belonging to a totally Christian secular society. In this, it was rather like the present Byzantine practice of withdrawing oneself from the Eucharist for a time, so that you might develop a proper ‘spiritual hunger’ for the Eucharistic Lord, and so a deeper and truer appreciation for the Holy Mystery. This was the understanding.

And, as I touched on above, the delay of giving the Eucharist to infants or children may likely have originally developed (in various places) as a kind of “compromise” with those bishops who were originally opposed to the normality of infant Baptism. In other words, once infant Baptism became universally accepted as the norm, various places began to delay the Eucharist (to separate the giving of First Communion from the time of Baptism) so as to protect the Eucharist from being under-appreciated or “taken for granted.”    Sadly, I cannot provide direct historical testimony to account for this development. It would of course be very helpful to have one or two Church fathers directly commenting on this development. Yet, given the historical dynamics, the notion that such a development must have taken place is quite commonsensical (at least to my own mind).    

In addition to this, there is also the development of profound, medieval Western piety in regard to the Eucharist, which led many Christians (often correctly and appropriately) to believe that they were not worthy to receive the Eucharist. And this created a dynamic in Western Christendom in which reception of the Eucharist (or even making one’s First Holy Communion) became a rare and neglected thing. And while the reception of the Eucharist should of course not be rare or neglected for Christians, one needs to appreciate how such an attitude developed (with considerable validity) in the Western Church. For, unlike in the East, where Roman (Byzantine) civilization and urban life continued without much interruption, Western Europe experienced a literal collapse of civilization with the fall of the Western Empire. And, for the next 1,000 years or so, Western civilization became highly militarized, engaging in near-constant wars, raids, and other acts of (arguably) very “non-Christian” behavior. The “Christian” aristocracy of this society was a warrior elite, and it routinely had copious amounts of blood on its hands.  And, because of this, the aristocrats of Western Europe who were paradoxically both viciously warlike and sincerely pious at the same time, typically felt that they were unworthy to receive the Eucharist …at least until later in their lives (when there military careers were over, and when they could spend their old age repenting for their sinful lives). And this was, by no means, a new phenomenon. Constantine the Great exhibited a similar sensibly, even delaying his own Baptism until his deathbed!    And so, the military aristocracy of medieval Europe (who were, nevertheless, Baptized) followed Constantine’s implicit example and considered themselves to be unworthy of fully participating in the Sacramental life of the Church. And the common people simply followed their example; the result being that reception of the Eucharist at the Western Liturgies became infrequent for the vast majority of laity. And this situation (which began with some validity, based on sincere piety) was not corrected until the time of Pope St. Pius X, who initiated an earlier age for First Holy Communion, and encouraged the more frequent reception of the Eucharist for the laity. And this is of course the present practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Some (such as myself) would of course argue that this present practice needs to be amended, given that it has gone too far, allowing for wide-spread abuse of the Sacrament, with many people receiving the Eucharist unworthily at ever Mass. Pope St. Pius (in the 19th Century) did not of course foresee such a thing. 

As for the decision of Trent that it is not essential that infants receive Communion, this was and is understood in the sense of the corporate (communal) dynamic of the Church as the Body of Christ. In other words, what Trent is saying is that, even though the infant himself does not physically receive the Eucharist, the grace of the Eucharist is imparted to the Baptized infant via the infant’s one-Flesh unity with the entire Church, into which the infant is Baptized and with which the infant is one-Flesh, one-Body. This is why (even in the Byzantine Rite) those who abstain from the Eucharist for a time (for the sake of “oikonomia”) STILL REMAIN part of the one Body of the Church, and so still part of the Eucharistic Mystery of the Church (and in the Liturgy), even though they have no physically partaken of the Sacrament. A Western parallel would be our practice and theological understanding that it is not necessary for each member of the congregation to partake of the Precious Blood of Christ at the Liturgy, but that the priest on the altar receives the Chalice (the Chalice of the New Covenant”) on behalf of the congregation …and because he (acting “in the Person of Christ”) acts as the Sacramental Head to the Sacramental Body of the assembled Church. So, the merits and graces associated with the Eucharist likewise reach the infant who, as yet, is not considered properly disposed to receive the Eucharist physically. Since, by virtue of his Baptism, he is part of the Eucharistic Body (the Church), the infant is not deprived or excluded. This is our Roman theological understanding. 

Also, ..., you claim that we Romans apparently “administer the Sacraments of initiation out of order.”   By this, I assume you mean the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation (Chrismation), correct?    If so, then you misunderstand our Liturgical Rite of Baptism.  We do not administer them out of order. The oil that is placed on a baby’s head at the time of Baptism is not the Sacrament of Confirmation / Chrismation, but rather a kind of “foretaste” of it. In our Rite of Baptism, we are proclaiming that the new Christian is taking on the character of Jesus Christ, and so we anoint the new Christian as “a Priest, a Prophet, and a King.”   This is something different from the Anointing that is given in Confirmation / Chrismation. And to appreciate it properly, you must study how our two rites developed. 

Hope this helps. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to write me directly. 

God bless you

Mark Bonocore

Mark Bonocore
Edited by Hugh

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.