6th Sunday of Easter, Acts of the Apostles 8:5-8,14-17
They sent them Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
After having been baptized by St. Philip (the deacon, not the apostle), the Christians of Samaria still had need of the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit which is given through the sacrament of confirmation. To this end, it was fitting that the apostles in Jerusalem sent Sts. Peter and John (apostles) to bestow the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands.
In this event, we see both that confirmation is a sacrament distinct from baptism and that it is most necessary in the life of the Church and of the individual believer. It will be fitting for us to reflect upon this sacrament, since this liturgical season is the time most commonly set aside for the administration of confirmation in dioceses throughout the Latin Church.
Recognizing that St. Luke tells us that the Samarian disciples had not yet fully received the Holy Spirit, since they had only been baptized and had not been confirmed; we are led to the following question: How necessary is the sacrament of confirmation?
The necessity of the sacraments
Before considering in what way confirmation may be said to be necessary, it will be helpful to briefly present the manner in which the sacraments in general are necessary to salvation. In this regard, we will look to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, who did so much to advance the Church’s understanding of the sacraments (truly, sacramental theology is one of the most important and helpful areas of the Thomistic synthesis).
In Summa Theologica III, q.65, a.3, the Angel of the Schools discusses, Are all the sacraments necessary for salvation? The Angelic Doctor makes a distinction, for “necessity” can be understood in two ways: “First, a thing may be necessary so that without it the end cannot be attained; thus food is necessary for human life. And this is simple necessity of end. Secondly, a thing is said to be necessary, if, without it, the end cannot be attained so becomingly: thus a horse is necessary for a journey. But this is not simple necessity of end.”
In the first way, according to a simple necessity, three sacraments are said to be necessary for salvation: Baptism (which is “simply and absolutely” necessary) and penance (which is needed only for those who have sinned mortally after baptism). In addition to these two which are necessary to the individual, St. Thomas explains that the sacrament of holy order (i.e., the priesthood) is necessary to the Church as a whole.
Regarding the sense in which baptism can be said to be “simply and absolutely” necessary for salvation, we point our readers to previous articles in which we discussed the relation of baptism of desire and of blood to the sacramental baptism of water. Suffice it to say that St. Thomas considers baptism of blood (i.e. martyrdom) to be the most excellent form of baptism – hence, we are far from the error of Fr. Leonard Feeney (who claimed that sacramental baptism of water was strictly necessary for salvation and that none who were not visibly united to the Church could be saved).
Turning now to the second type of necessity – that which accrues to those things without which we cannot so fittingly come to the attainment of salvation – all the other sacraments are necessary. It is in this sense that confirmation is said to be necessary for salvation; not that salvation cannot be attained without confirmation, but that it is the most becoming means to attaining eternal life. Specifically, confirmation is necessary as a completion or perfection of the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is simply and absolutely necessary, and confirmation is necessary insofar as it “perfects baptism”.
The necessity of confirmation
“First, it is necessary to teach that this Sacrament is not so necessary as to be utterly essential to salvation. Although not essential, however, it ought to be omitted by no one, but rather, on the contrary, in a matter so full of holiness through which the divine gifts are so liberally bestowed, the greater care should be taken to avoid all neglect. What God has proposed in common unto all for their sanctification, all should likewise most earnestly desire.
“This may also be easily inferred from the nature of the Sacrament itself. For they ought to be confirmed with the sacred chrism who have need of spiritual increase, and who are to be led to the perfection of the Christian religion. But this is, without exception, suited to all; because as nature intends that all her children should grow up and attain full maturity, although she does not always realise her wishes; so the Catholic Church, the common mother of all, earnestly desires that, in those whom she has regenerated by Baptism, the perfection of Christian manhood be completed. Now as this is accomplished through the Sacrament of mystic Unction, it is clear that Confirmation belongs alike to all the faithful.” (from The Catechism of the Council of Trent)
So speaks the Roman Catechism, released for the instruction of pastors after the Council of Trent. The Catechism of Vatican II, directed more specifically to bishops, speaks even more directly of the need for this sacrament: “Baptism, the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Confirmation together constitute the ‘sacraments of Christian initiation,’ whose unity must be safeguarded. It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace (cf. Roman Ritual, Rite of Confirmation). For ‘by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed’ (Lumen Gentium 11).” (CCC 1285)
While it is certainly true, as has been taught through the ages, that confirmation is not so necessary as baptism; still, the Church earnestly desires that all be confirmed since it is “necessary for the completion of baptismal grace” and that which “God has proposed in common unto all for their sanctification, all should likewise most earnestly desire.”
St. Thomas has written well on this point: “All the sacraments are in some way necessary for salvation: but some, so that there is no salvation without them; some as conducing to the perfection of salvation; and thus it is that Confirmation is necessary for salvation: although salvation is possible without it, provided it be not omitted out of contempt.” (ST III, q.72, a.1, ad 3) The sacrament of confirmation is necessary for salvation in the sense that it is necessary as the most fitting means of attaining to the perfection of salvation. For this reason, all should both be confirmed themselves and strive to have others confirmed.
It is on account of the great importance of this sacrament (which is still not so necessary as baptism), that the Church directs priests in the Latin Rite not only to baptize infants who are in danger of death, but also to administer the sacrament of confirmation. Moreover, it is likely that the relative necessity of the sacrament is one reason why it has become more common to administer confirmation at an earlier age (near seven) rather than in the time of early adulthood (as was previously the norm in the United States and, I believe, also in Europe).
What does confirmation give that baptism does not give?
This is a very difficult question. Granting that confirmation perfects and completes baptism, and that it is necessary as the most fitting means to the reception of the fullness of the Holy Spirit; what does confirmation give that baptism does not give?
It is not uncommon to hear many in the Church (and even catechists and priests) state that, while baptism procures the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it is only in confirmation that an individual receives the seven Gifts. This, upon reflection, is absurd: How could it be that the Holy Spirit would dwell in a man and yet not provide the Gifts? Can the Spirit of God be separated from his Gifts? It is the common teaching of theologians (since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas) that the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are necessary for salvation and are so united to the indwelling of the Trinity that a man cannot have charity while lacking the Gifts nor can he have any of the Gifts while laking charity. In other words, so long as a man is in the state of grace, he necessarily has the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are certain that the seven Gifts are bestowed in baptism along with the Spirit himself.
What then did St. Luke mean when he said that the Holy Spirit was not as yet come upon any of them (i.e. upon any of those Christians in Samaria baptized by St. Philip the deacon but not yet confirmed)? If the Holy Spirit is given in baptism, together with his seven Gifts, how can it be that he was not as yet come upon any of them?
We must say that it is not that the Holy Spirit was not as yet come upon any of them in any respect whatsoever, rather we maintain that the Holy Spirit had not yet come in his fullness and perfection. This is what confirmation gives that is not given in baptism: The perfection of the Christian life. The relation between baptism and confirmation can most easily be grasped through the following analogy: As in birth a man is born and is truly a man, yet still needs to grow to adulthood and become perfect in his humanity; so too, we may say that, in baptism, a man is born in Christ and truly receives the Holy Spirit, yet it is necessary for him to grow to full maturity in the Lord and to come to perfection in the graces which were bestowed in baptism. This coming to full spiritual maturity is accomplished through the sacrament of confirmation – this is that which confirmation gives and which baptism only begins.