Thursday, March 31, 2011

Can children commit mortal sins? A reflection on first confessions

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.


Adoro said...

Oh, my goodness....!

Thank you for this post. I coordinate the Sacraments for the little ones, and when I go to deanery meetings, am often the lone voice arguing FOR obedience to these teachings, against the "conventional 'wisdom'" that reigns in my local area in which the parish does not offer Confession until 4th or 5th grade...yet keeps 1st Holy Communion in 2nd grade.

Their argument: children can't meet the objectives of mortal sin AND they are only required to confess mortal sin.


Children sin...a 3 year old recognizes sin! My gosh, I recall PLANNING certain actions at a very young age, KNOWING full well that what I was doing was very wrong. Mortal..probably not, because I didn't have the intellectual capacity to understand "full knowledge" or the gravity of the act.

Still...I did what I knew to be wrong. Children know these things. They recognize venial sins.

Ugh...the nightmare of those meetings, the poor formation of adults who are forming children, or at least other adults to form the children!

I've had people from those parishes contact me to inquire about the Sacraments, finding that those around us are...confusing, at best. They KNOW the proper order, praise God for that. And they want assurance they aren't crazy, because the "formators" at their home parishes are telling them that they are archaic and things are "updated" now, and children no longer sin until they are teens. Thank God for those parents who are catechized enough to recognize BS when they hear it!

Yet..the harm done can't be quantified.

Our Archbishop wrote an article a couple years ago but unfortunately it was over the summer, obliging me and others in my diocese to print it out for the benefit of those who aren't paying attention...ever, especially in the summer when they are "on vacation". I only wish he was more direct and had also published the PROPER teaching at the beginning of the school year instead..or even in December-Jan when many 1st Confessions occur.

Nick said...

"Still...I did what I knew to be wrong. Children know these things. They recognize venial sins."

Be careful about your memory. It can be influenced by your present knowledge of sin.

Nick said...

Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book, made an interesting comment on salvation - as a theologian, that is.

"The full number of the Gentiles and all Israel: in this formula we see the universalism of the divine salvific will."

Universalism is also found, more or less, amongst some popular Catholic priests.

Father Barron believes we cannot know if anyone is in Hell.

Deacon Greg believes we should pray for Satan and his demons.

This trend of Univeralism disturbs and fascinates me, because I often wonder if the souls in Limbo - if Limbo of the infants does exist - will go to Heaven eventually.

It disturbs me because Jesus teaches the two paths, one to life and one to death. It fascinates me because I wonder if, at the end of the world, the Antichrist and his followers will be saved.

Granted, my wonders could be wrong in light of Christ's divine teachings. What say you?

Nick said...

Here are the quotes on Father Barron and Deacon Greg, lest I be guilty of detraction.

Father Barron:
"But friend, only God knows whether someone has in fact committed that sin! The church has never (and can never) pronounce on such a matter. I'm not denying the existence of Hell as a real possibility; I'm just saying that we can reasonably hope that Christ will bring all people to salvation. But we don't know. How any of this is idolatry you'll have to explain to me."

Deacon Greg:
"All I can go on is today’s gospel: 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' Whether or not Jesus would forgive Lucifer — and, frankly, it’s not for us to know how Christ or His Father would ultimately judge anyone — he almost certainly loves him and prays for him, and all those who fall under his influence."

And here's the article where I got the quote from the Pope: POPE: Don't Evangelize Jews! Really?

Paddy said...

Can a 7-year old sin? Absolutely, if to sin is to deliberately do that which we know to do wrong. Can they commit mortal sin? Harder to know. Generally not, I would opine, but each is an individual so it would be impossible to be absolute. Should a 7-year old receive this sacrament? Without question, yes! Even if they could not commit mortal sin, whoever said that the confessional is reserved solely to such transgressions - by that standard the sacrament would fall into disuse for most of us (or at least I would hope so!). Venal sins are to be confessed also. I never felt 'cleaner' as a child than when I left the confessional knowing that my sins were forgiven.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Levi,
I agree with you that, in the case of a baptized child, it is highly highly unlikely that they will commit a mortal sin before adolescence.

However, in the case of a non-baptized child, I am quite certain that their first rational act will either be a mortal sin or an act of supernatural virtue which brings with it the forgiveness of original sin through an implicit baptism of desire. [for my part, I suppose that most non-baptized children commit a mortal sin as their first rational action...hence the great need for evangelization and infant baptism]

Peace. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Nick, I would rather not continue (here) the discussion of universalism and limbo, as it is not directly related to the topic at hand.

My only comment: Universal divine salvific will? Absolutely, as a matter of faith -- God truly does desire the salvation of all people (men and angels).

Universalism per say (that all people, men and angels will go to heaven)? Directly contrary to the faith -- a manifest heresy...this cannot be held by any Catholic. Satan and his angels are in hell and will be there for all eternity (there is no room for debate on this point). Deacon Greg is in grave error on this point: Christ Jesus does not pray for Lucifer's salvation -- he does love him, but he does not pray for him, since forgiveness is now impossible.

Universalism for all human beings? Theoretically possible, but not at all likely. I will say that people who hold such views (including Fr. Barron) are allowing themselves to be influenced far more by modernism than by the Bible.
Christ does not deal in empty categories, and he regularly speaks of those who will be condemned to hell at the end of time.

With this, I end any further discussion of the topic of universalism on this post.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Briefly, regarding Limbo: If it exists, it is part of hell (though there is no punishment). Limbo would be the state of perfect natural happiness, and no supernatural happiness [but the souls there would not know that they are missing out on anything, so they would be very very happy and perfectly fulfilled (naturally)].

If Limbo does exists, those in Limbo will remain there for all eternity -- it is part of hell. Thus, Limbo would continue to exist forever in hell and none of the souls there would ever go to heaven.
[in this respect, Limbo is very different from Purgatory]

I hope this helps clarify the matter. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for the kind reply! Persevere in your good work, the Lord will bring us all back! Do not be the least bit discouraged.

On small point...a 3 year old really cannot recognize sin in the sense we mean it... Only at the age of discretion (around 7, though occasionally even earlier, perhaps as young as 5) do children really understand personal sin. This is why confession is not done at the age of 3 (the kids cannot be truly sorry, for they cannot yet commit sins)...on the other hand, by 7 nearly every child will have reason and will have committed at least some small venial sin.
[I mean this comment as a response also to Nick's at 6:47am]

You mention, "Thank God for those parents who are catechized enough to recognize BS when they hear it!" ... while I won't use the term "BS", I will say to you: "Thank God for the work you are doing in your parish to help catechize so that parents and others will come to know the truth through your faithful witness!" :)

Nick said...

Thank you Reg. for your comments. I hope they inspire more people to pray for the salvation of babes, born and unborn, and their parents.

Kathy said...

Read the words of Don Bosco:

"If what I have written is read by someone who is destined by divine providence to hear the confessions of the young I would like, among countless other things, humbly and respectfully to suggest the following:

1. Lovingly receive every class of penitents but especially the young. Help them to open their hearts and insist that they come to confession frequently. This is the most secure means of keeping them away from sin. Make use of every means to see that they put into practice the advice given them to avoid sin in the future. Correct them with kindness; never scold them because if you shout at them today they will not come to confession tomorrow or, if they do, they will not speak of those matters which upset you.

2.When you have gained their confidence, prudently find out whether all their confessions in the past were well made. I say this because famous, experienced authors in both the field of morals and ascetics, and especially a famous author who warrants belief, agree in stating that the first confessions are often null or, at least, defective because of the lack of instruction or the wilful omission of matters for confession. Invite the penitent to ponder the state of his conscience well from when he was seven up until he was ten or twelve. At this age he is already aware of certain serious sins but makes little of them or does not know how to confess them. The confessor whilst he must be most prudent and reserved must not avoid asking questions in the area of the holy virtue of modesty."
(quoted from The Life of Michael Magone, found on

So, did Don Bosco think children could commit mortal sin? It would seem he certainly did. At the very least, he seemed to believe they ought to confess grave matter even if it might not have the weight of mortal sin due to lack of full consent.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for these beautiful words from Don Bosco! I am especially inspired by the second point -- regarding the need for the priests to help the children (now 10 years old) review their past confessions which may well have been defective on account of not having confessed all their grave or serious sins...

Indeed, the kind and loving confessor, is also the one who gently leads the children to understand sin and confession!

Peace. +

Ben said...

Father, could you say more (maybe in another post) about what "at least generally" means in terms of the manner in which venial sins ought to be confessed?

My understanding is that it's one thing to say that a valid confession requires contrition, and contrition is of sin, and therefore
one must have sinned at least venially in order to make a valid confession. But it's another thing entirely to say that one is obliged to confess venial sins (which you have not said, although a hasty reader like myself might initially think that you had).

And my further understanding is that there is no obligation whatever to confess venial sins sacramentally. In other words, the sacramental confession of venial sins is a salutary practice that can open up wide avenues of spiritual growth for us -- BUT we must never approach the confession of venial sin with a sense of anxiety or fuss, lest we cut ourselves off by self-absorption from the very grace we seek.

In "Pardon and Peace", which I found to be a magnificent practical primer on the basics of approaching this sacrament, Fr. Alfred Wilson writes rather caustically of the practice of going into the confessional with a laundry list of venial sins.

More specifically, he calls out (quoting Quadrupani, I believe) an unfortunate habit that many of us fall into when examining our consciences before confession -- namely, we spend far more time restlessly probing our memory for every last venial sin, than we spend making concrete, practical purposes of amendment aimed at rooting out those sins from our daily life. I.e., "I'm going to change my life now, in such-and-such a way, so as to avoid that sin in the future".

Whereas in Fr. Wilson's view, a practical purpose of amendment is vastly more important to the effective use of Confession (for spiritual growth; he's not talking about mortal sin here) than exhaustively cataloging our venial sins. IIRC, he thinks that it's precisely this exhaustive-catalog approach that prevents many people from really growing spiritually, not to mention contributing to an unhealthy attitude of one sort or another toward this most wonderful sacrament.

But unfortunately many of us learned nothing else as children than that we ought to work up a laundry list. (Perhaps we weren't even taught that, but it just occurred to us somewhat naturally.)

At any rate if you wouldn't mind writing a little more about the intersection of confession and venial sin, it might be very helpful for many. And if I've presented any errors above, please correct me.

(and after this my purpose is to avoid posting on old threads; just discovered this blog and love it!)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You make very good points. And I would very much like to write a post about how to make a good confession ... perhaps I will get around to it sometime ... maybe for the feast of St. John Vianney this summer.

In the meantime ... the point about confessing venial sins is that we MUST confess AT LEAST ONE sin (and all mortal sins) in order to make a valid confession. Thus, if there are no mortal sins, at least one venial sin must be confessed -- moreover, for validity, we may even confess a sin which has already been forgiven (some specific past sin).

Thus, simply saying "Father, I want to be more charitable" doesn't cut it ... it is not a valid confession.
On the other hand, "Father, I have been uncharitable in speech" suffices for the confession of a particular venial sin (though it is "general" and not "specific").
Finally, if the failure in speech is mortal, we must specify: "Father, I have lied about another under oath and have thereby committed the sin of perjury one time." (this is a "specific" confession of sin, which is necessary for sins which are mortal)

I hope that helps!
Also, feel free to ask questions on any posts (even if they are older) ... moreover, you may find the "Ask Reginaldus" page to be a good place for more questions! +

El Eremita said...

Dear Father,

One question: If every unbaptized child commits a mortal sin upon entering age of reason, can it be said to be a truly a free act? If it is indeed free, then there must be an actual possibility of avoiding it.

I also have problems with the opinion that if an unbaptized child turns to God as his first rational act, he will merit the remission of original sin. What is the theological foundation of this opinion? I thought that only Baptism, the desire of it or martyrdom could do this.

Thanks in advance for your time and for this excellent blog.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

El Eremita,
Great question! If you don't mind, I'm going to copy it over to the more recent post "Reconsiderations" - - and I will answer it more fully there.

Briefly, I will state that it is almost certainly NOT the case that EVERY non-baptized child commits a mortal sin as his first rational act ... I do think (personally) that most do, but almost certainly not all.

Regarding the infusion of grace, the point is that there is a "baptism of desire" which tends toward the Sacrament of Baptism (either explicitly or implicitly). The Catholic Tradition has always maintained that it is possible for those who have not been baptized to be forgiven original sin and elevated in sanctifying grace through the baptism of blood/desire.
[most theologians agree that those who, through no fault of their own, no nothing at all about the Faith (e.g. little unbaptized children who have just reached reason) can make an implicit act of faith through a desire for God (even though they no nothing at all about the Trinity or the Incarnation).

I hope this helps!
Peace and blessings to you! +

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