During the season of Lent, many Catholic grade school children will be making their first confession. We are most certainly in the midst of a great season of grace – there is cause for much rejoicing here! At the same time, there exists a certain degree of frivolity with which many people think of first confessions for children – “After all,” they say, “what sins can a seven year old commit?” Thus, first confession is often presented merely as a moral lesson in growing up, or perhaps merely as a hoop to jump through on the way to first communion.
However, if first confession is not really about forgiving sin, and if these children do not really need to be reconciled to God; then we ought to say (in the style of Flannery O’Connor), “The heck with it.” Thus, it will be good to consider not merely whether a child of the age of reason can sin, but even whether such a child can commit a mortal sin. Do such children really have the ability to direct their heart and mind either for or against God?
The un-baptized child, upon reaching the age of reason
St. Thomas Aquinas held that, if a child were not baptized, immediately upon entering the age of reason he would either turn his heart and mind to the Lord or he would turn away from God. If the child turned to the Lord, by a divine influx of grace, original sin would be forgiven and the child would receive even sanctifying grace (including, the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit). If, on the other hand, the child turned away from God, this would not merely be a venial sin, but would in fact be a mortal sin – such that, in addition to original sin, the child would also now have mortal sin on his soul.
Why would the Angelic Doctor hold this opinion? He gives two reasons for this doctrine. First, in the body of the article (ST I-II, q.89, a.6), St. Thomas points out that before reaching the age of discretion, a child cannot sin either mortally or venially; but, after coming into reason, “the first thing that occurs to a man to think about then is to deliberate about himself. And if he then direct himself to the due end [which is God], he will, by means of grace, receive the remission of original sin: whereas if he does not then direct himself to the due end, and as far as he is capable of discretion at that particular age, he will sin mortally, through not doing that which is in his power to do.” In other words, the child’s first rational thought is of his identity – “Who am I?” – but if he directs himself at that moment to his Creator, he will be forgiven even of original sin. If, on the other hand, the child turns inward and makes himself his own last end, then this sin will be a grave sin of omission – for he will fail to love God. Yet, as this is the first rational act of the child, if he fail to love God, he sets himself wholly intent upon self-love; and this is to sin mortally.
The Angel of the Schools gives another reason for his opinion in the sed contra: “Man is punished for original sin in the children’s limbo, where there is no pain of sense as we shall state further on (II-II, q.69, a.6): whereas men are punished in hell for no other than mortal sin. Therefore, there will be no place where a man can be punished for venial sin with no other than original sin.” First, we must note that, even if one were to deny the existence of limbo (which Catholics are indeed quite free to do), the argument stands. St. Thomas’ point is very simple: One goes to Hell for mortal sins, and no one can go to Heaven with original sin (since, by nature, original sin necessitates the lack of charity). Therefore, if even an un-baptized child dies immediately after reaching the age of discretion, he must either be in the state of mortal sin or he must be in the state of grace. Hence, by the first rational act of a child, he will either commit a mortal sin, or he will turn to God and be filled with grace and forgiven original sin.
The principal point here is that there is no reason to think that a child of seven cannot commit a mortal sin, especially if he be un-baptized. Indeed, that first rational act will either be one of implicit faith or a mortal sin.
Confession is about sin
When we come to children who have been baptized, it is entirely possible that their first act could be a venial sin (rather than, necessarily, a mortal sin). On account of the fact that they are already in grace, oriented toward the Lord, it is possible for them to slip in a small way (just as it is possible for any of us to commit venial sins). Certainly, it is also theoretically possible that they could commit a mortal sin as their first sin – but this seems highly unlikely. Indeed, St. Thomas (and the whole Catholic Tradition) teaches that venial sins ordinarily precede mortal sin: Hence, the baptized child of seven years will almost certainly not commit a mortal sin in his youth, but will more likely commit venial sins. If the child continues in the habit of venial sin, it is very likely (if not absolutely certain) that he will commit some mortal sin in his adolescence.
When we come to the question of first confession, we must point out that it is strictly necessary for the sacrament that the children making their confession have committed at least some venial sin. Confession is about sin, and without sin there can be no confession. St. Thomas discusses the nature of the sins confessed in ST Supplement, q.2 – they are: Every actual sin (including venial sins), at least generally; each and every mortal sin, specifically; NOT original sin; NOT future sins; NOT the sins of others. It is also good to note that even sins which have already been forgiven can be confessed again – though forgiven, we are still sorry for them; hence, we may express contrition over them. Thus, although venial sins are forgiven simply through making a sincere act of contrition, they are able to be confessed in the sacrament as well.
In order for the sacrament of confession to be valid, the penitent must have true contrition (not necessarily perfect contrition, but true). However, in order for the penitent make an act of contrition, he must have committed some sin (since, we cannot be contrite for original sin, as we took no part in contracting it). Therefore, if a child has not committed some sin (at least some venial sin), he cannot validly receive the sacrament of confession. If children don’t really sin, they are not really making their first confession!
Children of the age of discretion ought to confess their sins every year
The Church requires, as a matter of precept, that all persons of the age of discretion (including children from around seven years and older) confess their sins to a priest at least once a year (CCC 2042). The Code of Canon Law specifies that only grave sins need be confessed specifically, according to kind and number (Canon 989).
Pope St. Pius X, in Quam singulari, gives the clearest teaching with regard to children’s confession and communion:
I. The age of discretion for both Confession and Communion is the time when a child begins to exercise his reason. This is normally around the seventh year, more or less. From this time also begins the duty of keeping the precept of Confession and Communion.
II. For first Confession and first Communion it is not necessary to have a fully complete knowledge of Christian doctrine. Afterwards, however, the child should gradually learn the whole catechism according to his mental capacity.
III. The religious knowledge required of a child for suitable preparation before first Communion is the following. He should understand, according to his ability, the mysteries of faith necessary for salvation, and be sufficiently able to distinguish the Eucharistic from ordinary corporeal bread, to approach the most holy Eucharist with such devotion as can be expected at his age.
IV. The preceptive duty, affecting the child, to receive Confession and Communion, mainly falls on those responsible for his care. This means the parents, the confessor, teachers and the pastor. It is the father’s right, or of those who take his place, and the confessor’s - according to the Roman Catechism - to admit a child to first Communion.
VI. Those who have charge of children are most urgently to insure that, after their first Communion, these children often approach the Holy Table. If possible, they should receive even daily, as Christ Jesus and mother Church desire; and that they do so with such devotion of spirit as corresponds to their age.
VII. The custom of not admitting children to Confession or of never absolving them, once they have reached the age of reason, is absolutely condemned (omnino reprobanda). Consequently local ordinaries are to make sure, even using juridical means, that this abuse is completely rooted out.
As confession and communion are intimately bound together, it will be most beneficial for the soul if children who are regularly receiving communion (say, once a week) are also able to regularly receive confession (hopefully at least once every other month). Indeed, if children are not in the habit of confessing when they are younger, what is the likelihood that they will confess as they grow into adulthood? If they are not taught to confess their venial sins, how will they ever learn to confess the mortal sins which are so common to adolescents?
How many graces are lost to our children and youths, simply because their parents do not take them to confession frequently! And, as the children are left in their habits of venial sins (and without any opportunity for the mildest form of spiritual direction), is it any surprise that many of our youths, by the time they reach high school, are on the verge of losing their faith? Moreover, if, during the years of secondary schooling, the young adults do not learn to make a good confession, it is almost certain that, when they go to college, they will fail to maintain even the minimum spirit of prayer and moral effort in love for God and neighbor.
How many souls are lost when confession is neglected! And it all starts with those “sweet” and “cute” ceremonies of first confession.