The End of the Confirmation Debate?

by Tim Gabrielli

Back in 2013, as my Confirmation book was coming to press, I was privileged to have a conversation with a scholar well-established in the field of sacramental theology who had also written about Confirmation. As I was new to this stuff, this scholar offered greetings they had also given to others before me whose work took them to Confirmation: “Welcome to Hell.” I laughed. And then wondered if I should be laughing.

One of the reasons this eschatological greeting seemed apropos, I assume, is that the history of Confirmation is so muddy. Sorting out the ways in which the tradition might inform our contemporary practice, while parsing also the ways in which our contemporary practice is so varied and unsettled, can leave a scholar with the feeling of working in the utter absence of Divine Love.

More recently, though, it feels like Hell might have emptied out. Perhaps we’ve figured out what C.S. Lewis asserts in The Problem of Pain, that the doors are locked from the inside. Few books and articles on Confirmation have appeared over the past decade or so. Even fewer in scholarly outlets. And those who have written do not take a keen interest in the question of the age of confirmation or the order of celebrating the sacraments of initiation, but rather offer approaches for navigating formation and preparation around the sacrament. This is true even as a diocese, here or there, gets attention for “restoring the order” (i.e. celebrating Confirmation ahead of First Eucharist, typically with both at age 7), an initiative that began in the 1990s but hasn’t enjoyed sustained momentum. There’s an ambivalence about the “restored order” even as it finds supporters from across some typical ecclesial divides, evidenced by the fact that a number of dioceses who have done it, subsequently returned confirmation to adolescence. Surely, the preferences of bishops who make these decisions matter – the changes almost always occur after the appointment of a new ordinary – but there is also resentment of parishioners fueled by their own memories of Confirmation and by pastoral workers’ hopes for more engaged religious education.

Have we lost interest in the Confirmation question? Has it been solved?

Back in 1978, John Roberto wrote a resource paper for the National Conference of Diocesan Directors of Religious Education, which identified two schools of thinking about Confirmation at the time: 1) the liturgical-initiation school and 2) the theological-maturity school. The latter emphasized Confirmation as a rite of passage, the completion of Baptism’s gift of the Spirit, and adult commitment to the faith. The former strongly situated Confirmation between the other initiation sacraments of Baptism and First Eucharist. Thus, if Confirmation is the completion of the gift of the Spirit at Baptism, then it does so in an initiative way to prepare a person for reception of the Eucharist. The issue, in Roberto’s analysis, is primarily about order, not age. That is to say, the main difference he identified among members of these schools was whether Confirmation should come before or after First Eucharist. Roberto placed the great liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanagh, for example, in the liturgical-initiation school, even as Kavanagh argued for relevance of the adult-initiation paradigm in our secular society.

It strikes me that most writing about sacraments today is liturgically inclined. It comes from scholars trained in programs of liturgical studies or those who have come to sacramental theology through an understanding of sacraments as firmly situated in the liturgical rites. The structures of formation supporting Roberto’s theological-maturity school are mostly gone. Among those who offered theological support to the primarily pastoral position that Confirmation was about maturity or commitment were theologians like Ray Noll, Joseph Martos, or Bernard Cooke, all of whom have retired or have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.

For a number of years, I was on the faculty at Seton Hill University in the diocese of Greensburg, PA, where in 1987 Bishop Anthony Bosco moved Confirmation to age 7. Bosco, I learned from interviews with a number of diocesan priests involved with the change, got the idea from a pitch made to then Pittsburgh bishop Anthony Bevilacqua by two priests, Frs. Frank Almade and Eric Diskin in 1985 or 1986, when Bosco was auxiliary bishop. Because the 1983 Code of Canon Law left the age of Confirmation to the consideration of bishops’ conferences, Bevilacqua, a canon lawyer, wanted to know the best course of action for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Tasked by Bevilacqua to initiate a study of the question, Almade enlisted Diskin to develop a theological approach and present it to the priests’ council. In Almade’s estimation, Bevilacqua knew he wasn’t long for Pittsburgh and, as an outsider, wasn’t particularly tied to the diocese’s previous practice, which at the time had been to confirm around age 12 or 13. In their research, Almade and Diskin found in the literature exactly what Roberto described. Almade’s research was eventually published in the collection When Should We Confirm? (Liturgy Training Publications, 1989).

So in fall 1986, they laid out the liturgical-initiation and theological-maturity options for the council and bishops, along with an argument emerging from the liturgical-initiation paradigm and the RCIA as the primordial model of initiation, that they should move Confirmation to age 7 or 8, in the same year as First Eucharist. Bevilacqua did not follow the proposal. In fact, before he offered a formal response, he left to serve as ordinary of Philadelphia. Almade, in a 2017 interview, speculates that Bevilacqua knew he was on his way out in a month or two and didn’t want the upheaval.

But Auxiliary Bishop Bosco was listening. After his appointment as Bishop of Greensburg in April 1987, Bosco moved Confirmation to the earlier age. While they never had a direct conversation, Almade suspects that Bosco’s commitment to lifelong learning immunized him from the argument that earlier Confirmation would undercut religious education. According to many involved, priests and other parish staff never bought into Bosco’s initiative, whether because of their inherent skepticism or because they didn’t feel well-supported in explaining it. And many parishioners were dissatisfied with the upheaval.

When Bishop Lawrence Brandt arrived in Greensburg in 2004, he found a program that caused some distress for his flock, one in which he had no investment. In a 2017 interview, Brandt emphasized the formative influence of secular culture in describing his complete satisfaction with Confirmation as the carrot on a stick that would keep young people in religious education.

This is merely the outline of one story, but it demonstrates both how changes in Confirmation practice can be driven by bishops’ initiatives and also how pastoral response or implementation plays a key role. A few bishops are still inclined toward Confirmation celebrated at a younger age. There are also a number of folks in pastoral work who tend tothink – like Bishop Brandt – that there are advantages to keeping Confirmation later. In other words, my impression is that the driving considerations against earlier celebration are not really theological as Roberto called them in 1978, but rather practical, “it’s too heavy of a lift to change,” and pastoral, “it gives us a shot at keeping kids in religious education.” In that case, the divide is not really between liturgists and theologians (as Roberto mapped it in the 70s), but mostly between theologians and parish/pastoral workers, who are convinced somewhat by inertia and somewhat by pastoral expedience.

My book argued in 2013 that Confirmation debates were often a kind of cipher for larger issues. I wonder if we’ve realized that tweaking the age of Confirmation, or its occasion of celebration, is not going to solve our issues around what we now call disaffiliation. If so, those larger cultural-ecclesial issues are largely still driving the Confirmation question, or lack thereof.

by Tim Gabrielli, Ph.D teaches theology at the University of Dayton

 

14 comments

  1. This is a fascinating history, Tim–thanks for reporting the tangled webs we weave when we pursue liturgical theology’s run in with pastoral practice.

  2. Confirmation should never have been made a seperate sacrament, that is, being seperated from the rite of Baptism. Either the Holy Spirit is imparted via Chrism at Baptism or He is not. Confirmation has always been a “sacrament in search of a theology”. Having it only to keep kids in a religious ed program is a sacrilege in and of itself. Religious ed can help instruct students on the meaning of their sacraments of initation.
    Bishops have enough things to do than worry about and better use of their time. Visiting parishes is great for bishops; don’t need Confirmation as an excuse to schedule one.

    1. I don’t know for how long the church has taught that Baptism may be administered validly by any baptised Christian. But from that surely flows the idea that in order to have access to the other sacraments it is neccessary for good order that there be a formal recognition by the Church. If we believe that Baptism is neccessary (this needs unpacking, but you know what I mean) for salvation we cannot always wait, for example in an Amazonian parish, even for access to a priest..

  3. I wonder if the Confirmation discussion didn’t miss the boat. Maybe if Pius X had more foresight. who knows? Disaffiliation is a far more vital issue, certainly. For the last decade of two when people talk to me about confirmation being a graduation, I’m inclined to laugh. If we have a sacrament of commencement now (and I doubt we do) it is First Communion. If we’re lucky.

    Another amusement: bishops restoring Confirmation to adolescence. Maybe they get off the parish visit circuit until they get promoted to a bigger diocese. Plus the demonstration that some sacraments are fickle things, and while they might still matter, they don’t matter as much as ordination.

    There was a time when I looked forward to renewal. When was it now? The 80s. Maybe the 90s. Now I wonder how arrogant I was to think it was March and Spring renewal was just around the corner. What was that CS Lewis quote? Always winter and never Christmas. Somebody else is going to see the planting, let alone that far off harvest.

  4. In the Eastern churches, infants are confirmed (or chrismated, as they call it) immediately after baptism.

    Penance is not one of the sacraments of initiation and should not be treated as one.

  5. Tim, I am interested in your impressions of what happened in Greensburg. When you say that “many” parishioners were dissatisfied, may I ask, are you taking the bishop at his word on this, or have you seen actual data to support this claim? The reason I ask is that I’ve heard the opposite: that most families were happy with it, but a few were dissatisfied and they complained, loudly. The bishop, who didn’t like confirming younger children, invoked the supposed “will of the people” on this question in order to go ahead and raise the age, but it was window dressing. My information is anecdotal, but my sources are pretty well-placed. (Of course, they may be biased.)

    1. I love the recursive qualifications in your wording – which are completely valid because of how we know these things too often go!

      I do wish Catholic parishes and dioceses had better approaches to regularly gathering feedback and data (the two things can be related but are not quite the same thing). It’s not like we have no historical methodologies to drawn on: consider religious communities (maybe more so of women?) where, while the superior often exercised quasi-monarchical authority or at least power, it could be exercised collegially, especially when the superior understood the longer-term risks of having to eat the results of one’s own cooking. Instead we tend to listen to the most motivated to bleat pro and con (who should not be ignored, but our listening should be placed in a broader and deeper context).

    2. Thanks, Rita. Your question raises many important questions about the dynamics of how the story is told and the kinds of sources we have access to! Here’s some context, which I hope is illuminating. I undertook these interviews with a total of 5 clerics who were involved with the changes in some way and of Bishop Brandt as part of what was to be an article-length project for U.S. Catholic Historian. When I pitched the idea, I had access to the Greensburg Diocesan archives as well and a newly-appointed archivist who wanted to help.

      The 4 priests and 1 deacon who I interviewed would all be described as sympathetic to Bosco’s vision, Almade the most sympathetic for reasons I explained above. The other 3 priests were involved in some way with implementation, all associated in some way with the chancery under Bishop Bosco (and not in the chancery under his successor, Brandt). Two of those priests mentioned the difficulties with rollout that I mentioned above, that priests were ill-prepared, and thus parishioners were not sold on the change. They both thought the “restored order” a better way to go and regretted that it wasn’t more fully implemented/accepted.

      Now, it does bear mentioning that all of them also pointed out Brandt’s general distaste for the “restored order” when he arrived. This was not at all something Brandt was shy about sharing with me in the interview. He was of the opinion that celebrating Confirmation at ages 17 or 18 was ideal, but eventually settled on 13 or 14 (8th grade) as a middle ground, particularly because it was in tune with the neighboring Diocese of Pittsburgh. He also mentioned a “strategic planning process,” done upon his arrival, which involved “listening sessions” with “thousands of people” in regional councils across the diocese about a variety of issues. According to Brandt, the conclusions relevant to Confirmation were:…

      1. Tim,

        Maybe I’m reading too much into the word “middle ground,” but it seems to me that bishop Brandt’s thinking here is… well, I’m having a hard time thinking of a word that is not insulting. Presumably Bishop Bosco has reasons for thinking 7 was a good age, and bishop Brandt had reasons for thinking 17 was good. But it sounds like the final solution was based simply on an age that was a midpoint between the two, not on whether or not it was in fact an appropriate age for the sacrament.

        I was at a staff meeting at my parish the other day where we were discussing our Confirmation program, and people were lamenting the state of things. So I asked, “Has anyone ever heard of a Confirmation program that people thought worked?” After a pause, the consensus was that nobody ever had. Maybe this is the Holy Spirit’s way of telling us that we need to stop trying to design programs that seek to make Confirmation produce a particular result and simply let the sacrament do what it is going to do (I know I’m preaching to the choir on this one).

    3. … 1) Confirmation needed to be discussed; 2) People missed seeing the bishop. The second point led to a policy he implemented to visit a parish every time he installed a new pastor, but also made him think about the canonical point that the bishop is the ordinary minister of Confirmation. Brandt then began focus groups, “which involved those who had been confirmed, parents, and pastors.” Brandt expressed amazement that “people in the focus groups couldn’t even remember being confirmed” because in his estimation “children were on sacramental overload” receiving First Communion and Confirmation at the same time at age 7. “It was sad.”

      But there’s more….

      Why didn’t the article come to fruition? Well, after several conversations with the archivist I mentioned above and one initial meeting in June of 2017, he ceased responding to my inquires. I don’t know why that is. He did leave that position in early 2018 to take the same role in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Without archival access, I didn’t have the sources for the project. Though, after that first meeting the archivist did send me the executive summary from the focus groups that Brandt mentioned. The one-page summary indicates that the “Focus Groups or Phone Interviews concerning the age and administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation” took place over six weeks in August-September of 2008 or 2009 (the summary is not dated) and involved 39 people from the Diocese of Greensburg as well as 4 each from the neighboring dioceses of Pittsburgh and Altoona-Johnstown. This strikes me as a small number of people, even for a small diocese….

    4. … Among the bullet-point list of conclusions are: “By a margin of 2 to 1 the Pastors favor keeping the age of Confirmation in Grade 2”; “63% of the priests that participated in the Focus Group said they would support a change in the celebration of sacraments that would include Penance – Advent of Second Grade, Confirmation – Easter of Second Grade, and First Eucharist – Easter of Third Grade”;“57% of Faith Formation Leaders favor the Restored Order and celebrating the Sacraments at the same Liturgy”; “Parents were almost evenly split in whether or not they believed the Restored Order was successful.”

      My interviews with priests and that last bullet point were my sources for the claim that “many parishioners were dissatisfied with the upheaval.” As I look at my wording again, it would probably be better for me to have phrased the sentence before to say, “According to those involved, many priests and other parish staff never bought into Bosco’s initiative, whether because of their inherent skepticism or because they didn’t feel well-supported in explaining it.” That said, without seeing the entire study, it’s very difficult to judge its methods and how those methods may support the conclusions drawn here. Based simply on the reported number, if 39 people in total were involved, and of those 39 some were confirmandi, some pastors, some other parish priests, some (lay?) faith formation leaders, and some parents, that simply means that there weren’t very many people in each of those categories. Further, at least on my read of the conclusions, the dissatisfaction was not necessarily overwhelming, particularly considering the sheer pastoral upheaval required to implement a change….

    5. … In any case, it’s clear that Brandt came to the diocese with skepticism about the “restored order” and a strong opinion that Confirmation should be celebrated in late teenage years. It’s entirely possible that he saw what he wanted to see with respect to dissatisfaction with the “restored order” in the diocese. That said, since the Greensburg priests I interviewed were sympathetic to the “restored order” and offered more nuanced descriptions of the situation than “Brandt didn’t like it,” it does seem that there’s some more complexity there.

      1. Wow, Tim,

        Thank you so much for the granular detail from your research! Although there are serious limitations on the data, the additional information sketches a picture that is clearly NOT one of “the people rejected it.” Rather, it shows a complex picture in which support for it among the people was real, but not strong enough to override the bishop’s preference. A mixed and complex situation, indeed.

        I believe this added information is important for clarity, because examples of dioceses that did implement this and then reversed course are being touted as proof of the project’s inherent destiny to fail. It could rather be read as a cautionary tale about factors which influence change.

        I am struck by the fact that the priests preferred it by a margin of 2 to 1, and the majority of parents were likewise favorable to it. To me this suggests more support than expected for a great departure. I am guessing the “thousands of people” the bishop consulted refers to the diocesan synod, but when it came to brass tacks he was really only getting input from 39 people — and only 31 of these from the diocese. This cannot be an adequate basis for judging what people are experiencing broadly, or need, concerning Confirmation. You are completely right, it’s a miniscule number. Again, many thanks.

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