Anna Nussbaum Keating suggests that it’s time we reconsider the Latin Catholic tradition of withholding communion until age 7. I couldn’t agree more. Here are three little historical facts about “age seven communion” you might not know:
1. The Roman Catholic Church communed infants for over a thousand years. Gradually the laity stopped receiving communion except in rare cases or in imminent danger of death. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century we restored regular communion to the laity — except for children under seven, who are still, somewhat oddly, governed by the “only in danger of death” custom.
2. Before 1910, first communion happened between age 12 and 20, right after confirmation. Pope Pius X’s Quam singulari reduced the age of first communion to 7, separating it from confirmation. This change was codified for the first time in the 1917 canon law.
3. St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 have sometimes been used to argue that communicants must be able to articulate clearly their faith in real presence: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” However, from the context, he clearly meant that those who divide the Body of Christ, the Church, especially by favoring the rich over the poor, “eat and drink judgment.” Moreover, this was the meaning the early Church interpreters gave the statement as well, since infants receiving communion was normal for them. The cognitive interpretation (“without understanding what the body is”) is a much later development.