Confirmation in the CATECHISM
of the CATHOLIC CHURCH
By Paul Turner
[First published in the Catechumenate]
Confirmation catechists and initiation ministers seeking clarity on the many pastoral problems surrounding the meaning and practice of confirmation will naturally turn to the article in the recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church. This compendium of the church's teachings traverses the broadest range of topics to recall ancient wisdom, to gather far-flung declarations and to enlighten the mentors of religion. Faithful to its mission, the catechism bravely enters the labyrinth of confirmation theology. This maze deceitfully has no exit, but the catechism at least helps the reader marvel at its tantalizing beauty and overlook its puzzle. An introduction (1285) summarizes some points about the meaning of confirmation and establishes a text from Vatican II (Lumen gentium,11) as the primary reference. The first heading treats confirmation in the economy of salvation: its origins and development through history (1286-1292). the second concerns the signs and the rite: anointing with chrism, extension of the presider's hands, texts and so forth (1293-1301). The third explains the effects of confirmation, what it accomplishes for the church (1302-1305). The fourth answers who may receive this sacrament (1306-1311), and the final heading investigates its minister (1312-1314). As with every other article in the catechism, brief summary points conclude the section (1315-1321). After one has surveyed the catechism's presentation of confirmation, several observations arise concerning its meaning, preparation, ritual and origin, as well as the edition itself.
THE MEANING AND EFFECTS OF CONFIRMATION
INITIATION. The catechism introduces confirmation as a sacrament of initiation (1285) and appeals for the safeguarding of its unity with baptism and Eucharist: Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace (1285-1316). Calling confirmation "initiation" continues traditional teaching, but the rest of the catechism's article treats this sacrament as a ritual separate from the initiation complex. It treats confirmation not as the ritual following baptism in adult initiation at the Easter Vigil, but as the ritual separated by many years from the baptism of infants. Occasional quasi-parenthetical references to the Eastern rite custom of confirming infants illustrate initiation, but the structure of the article clearly assumes that confirmation follows later. This explains the introductory admonition that confirmation be theologically united with baptism and Eucharist (since experientially they are disparate) and the explanation that it completes baptismal grace (a gratuitous notion when confirmation follows baptism in initiation). One passage of the catechism strangely maintains that confirmation completes Christian initiation (1289) --- a role which better suits Eucharist, "the climax of ... initiation and the center of the whole Christian life" (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 243). Elsewhere, the catechism stresses that when confirmation is celebrated separate from baptism, the liturgy expresses the unity of the two sacraments through the renewal of baptismal promises and the context of the Eucharist (1321). Although such a celebration may invoke the unity of the sacraments, other sacraments are frequently celebrated with Eucharist (e.g., Marriage, orders, anointing of the sick); yet they are not thus regarded as initiation sacraments. The history of confirmation shows that it originated as a unit with baptism, and Cyprian (in an undocumented reference) called it a "double sacrament" (1290). But of the many Fathers of the early church who attest to the unity of the initiation rites, Cyprian (200-258 CE) is an unusual choice. He argues that those who underwent the baptism of heretics need to be baptized again. He's not simply concerned that they didn't get the imposition of the hand (which later grew into confirmation); he wants to start the whole rite all over again, including the pouring of water. He advocates what we call "rebaptism," a practice the church now forbids. In short, his point is not to show how the imposition of hands presumes baptism but to show how baptism includes the imposition of hands. For Cyprian, if the occasion calls for the imposition of the hand (yes, they frequently used only one hand), it calls for the pouring of water. Since delayed confirmation developed after his death, one can only wonder what Cyprian would make of the practice. But a reasonable conjecture is that if baptism did not include the imposition of hands, he'd delay baptism until it did or repeat it when it could. History also reveals the origins of two baptismal anointings in the early Roman church. The first, given by a presbyter, signified the participation of the newly baptized person in the prophetic, priestly and royal mission of Christ. The second, given by the bishop, developed into confirmation. The distinction of these ministers also led to the separation of rites in the Western church. The West maintains the presbyter's anointing for infants and reserves the anointing of children to bishops. Although this paragraph (1291) says little about what confirmation is, it describes what it is not --the presbyteral, Christological anointing that accompanies baptism.
TERMS OF INCREASED DEGREE. Here, as in the liturgical texts of confirmation and their introductory matter, confirmation is described with terms of increased degree: It binds believers more perfectly to the church, enriches them with the strength of the Spirit, and obliges them more strictly to be witnesses for Christ (1285, citing Lumen gentium, 11). Further, it brings an increase and deepening of baptismal faith: It grounds us more deeply as children of God, it unites us more firmly with Christ, and it increases the gifts of the Spirit (1303). Preparation for the sacrament should lead the Christian toward a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Spirit, in order to more capably assume Christian responsibilities (1309). This language assumes that all these attributes begin with baptism and that confirmation celebrates their increase. This is all well and good until one remembers that confirmation's temporal relationship to baptism enjoys great freedom. When adults are baptized, confirmation follows immediately; when babies are baptized, confirmation is delayed. (In some instances, people celebrate this "initiation" sacrament at the time of death.) The language of degree more clearly interprets the confirmation of children. In fact, this language did not evolve in the history of confirmation theology until the rite separated from baptism. The existence of these terms helps explain why adolescent confirmation (hitherto unheard of) was able to develop in the twentieth century. When these terms are applied to the confirmation of newly baptized adults in the West, or to infants in the East, one can only surmise that they pertain to the unfolding of the one ritual experience, not to the further spiritual growth of the new Christian. But the catechism does not treat this circumstance.
"CONFIRMATION". The term confirmation has come to mean many things over the years. The catechism explains that it is used in the West as the equivalent of Chrismation in the East -- the sacramental anointing with chrism that accompanies every baptism (even of infants) in that tradition. Confirmation indicates that this sacrament ratifies baptism and strengthens its grace, the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1289). This interpretation of the word emphasizes its relationship to baptism and honestly explains its origins as a chance for the bishop to affirm what the presbyter had done. But "ratification" can sound like a slap in the face (pardon the pun) to baptism, which shouldn't need ratification at all.
COMMUNION WITH THE BISHOP. The practice in the Roman church differs from that in the East by making the bishop the ordinary minister of confirmation. (As paragraph 1312 implies, he is the original minister for both traditions.) Therefore, in the West confirmation signifies the communion between the new Christian and the bishop, and hence the union with the church, its unity, its catholicity and its apostolicity (1292). It is for the sake of the bishop's role that confirmation separated from baptism in the West (1313). This far-reaching reflection underscores the reasons why the West has linked confirmation to the bishop's presence throughout history. (The East has as well, but only by recognizing the bishop's presence in the chrism consecrated by the patriarch and used by the priest -- 1290.) It also makes anomalous the twentieth-century increase in occasions when the presbyter is delegated by law or by the bishop to confirm children in the absence of the ordinary. If confirmation separated from baptism because of the importance of the bishop's presence, the bishop's absence should argue for its return to the baptismal ritual.
THE EFFECTS OF CONFIRMATION. The many effects of confirmation further express its meaning. The primary effect, of course, is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (1302). Since this image is the heart of the text which accompanies the sacrament ("N., be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit"), it deserves full attention. Other effects include the terms of degree (1303). Confirmation also confers a character, an indelible spiritual mark. Like baptism, it is given a single time. The character in turn helps one bear witness to the faith (1304, 1317). The image of an indelible spiritual mark masks western medieval notions of the duality of body and soul and the urge to quantify and physicalize the spiritual life. Post-Enlightenment humanity winces at a "spiritual mark" or an "indelible character," preferring the description that confirmation may only be given once. They mean the same thing. The "character" perfects the common priesthood, which the faithful received in baptism, and empowers them to profess the faith publicly (1305). This teaching reaches back to Aquinas in its attempts to link the once-for-all nature of confirmation with the duty to bear witness. It surely increases the seriousness of the Christian's mission, but sacraments such as Eucharist, marriage, and orders call for bearing witness as well.
PREPARATION, CATECHESIS AND AGE
Although the catechism acknowledges that confirmation is a sacrament of initiation (1285) frequently celebrated together with baptism (1290, 1291), the other practical explanations and theological expressions for the sacrament in this article imagine that "confirmation" refers to that ceremony presided over by the bishop for children baptized into the Catholic church in infancy. The anxious urgings that all celebrate confirmation (1285, 1306, 1314), the concern that its unity with baptism be safeguarded (1285), the acknowledgement that it completes Christian initiation (1289), the separate meaning of the two initiatory anointings (the first of which is omitted when confirmation immediately follows baptism) (1291), the disparity between the initiatory practices of the East and West (1289,1292,1297,1307,1312, 1313, 1318, 1320), the practice of renewing baptismal promises (ridiculous if confirmation followed baptism immediately) (1298, 1321), the interpretation of the kiss of peace as showing communion with the bishop (1301), the caution about a too extreme interpretation of calling confirmation the sacrament of Christian maturity (1308), the need for preparation (redundant in cases of preparing adults for baptism) (1309,1319), the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation preceding confirmation (1310), the suggestion that godparents be the same as those for baptism (1311), and the complete absence of citations to the order of the Christian initiation of adults in the footnotes -- all assume that confirmation stands apart from the initiatory complex of adult baptism and is a sacrament for children. The catechism offers little further insight for the meaning of this sacrament when it is celebrated immediately after baptism or after a profession of faith in the Catholic church. Not surprisingly, then, when the question of age for this sacrament surfaces (1307), the catechism responds that the Latin tradition maintains the "age of discretion." (This makes no sense when the question of age is asked of adult candidates for baptism.) The age of discretion is the point of departure for determining confirmation's age. The exception the catechism makes may surprise the typical parish minister. In danger of death, an infant may be confirmed (1307). The exception is to celebrate the sacrament at a younger age. Although many people call confirmation "the sacrament of Christian maturity" (1308 - this paragraph doesn't tell us who), the catechism warns that they not confuse the age of adult faith with the age of natural growth. In short, this text discourages adolescent or young adult confirmation if the community is simply waiting for a more adult faith to mature in the candidate. Nonetheless, the preparatory catechesis for this sacrament assumes that the community is presenting children of at least catechetical age. Preparation should lead to apostolic responsibilities (1309), include the celebration of reconciliation (1310), and be assisted by sponsors or godparents who will provide spiritual aid (1311). Since catechesis should lead one to a more intimate union with Christ and a more lively familiarity with the Holy Spirit (1309), its focus should be on spirituality, community, prayer and the Christian way of life more than on mere information. The very hallmarks of preparation for catechumens (RCIA, 71) apply here.
SIGNS, RITUAL EXPRESSION
The theology of confirmation is expressed in the ritual and the signs that accompany it. The imposition of hands, recognized in the scriptures as a sign for the gift of the Holy Spirit (1288), is amplified with the anointing with the perfumed oil of chrism (1289). Although these two signs enrich our understanding of the gift of the Spirit, the explanation for retaining both images (1293) is a thinly veiled polemic defending the Catholic church's tradition, which added a nonscriptural anointing to the ritual imposition of hands so clearly attested in Acts as sufficient to the cause. (This anointing became one rallying point for mirthful criticism by the sixteenth-century Reformers. The Catholic church knows how to carry a grudge.) This polemic helps explain why the section that describes the signs in the rite of confirmation (1293 - 1301) begins with the oil signifying the spiritual seal (1293) and buries its reflection on the imposition of hands (1299). The other reason is that Paul VI's apostolic constitution introducing the revised rite can also be read as an argumentative discourse defending the scholastic insistence that the essential rite of confirmation is anointing (cf. 1300). That this insistence quieted the medieval mind which persisted in identifying the "precise moment" of sacramental encounter, an impulse increasingly disregarded by sacramental theologians as the anthropological value of the entire ritual context, becomes clearer. The reflection on the spiritual seal of confirmation is quite rich. The seal recalls a juridical act, a document, a secret (1295), and a sign of belonging, service and protection (1296). The Scriptural apparatus for these analogies is quite rich, drawing from both testaments, and provides a phenomenology worthy of discussion and commentary. Having accentuated the essential sign of confirmation, the catechism then examines the various other signs in turn. The renewal of baptismal promises helps yoke confirmation with baptism (1298). The imposition of hands (more accurately, the extension of hands over the whole group) guides the prayer for the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit (1299). The anointing itself is accompanied by words that identify its meaning (the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit) and by a gesture so compromising that it weakens its significance: The minister's chrism-soaked thumb signs a cross on the forehead of the one to be confirmed (1300). Incredibly, this pollical gesture, involving only a single digit, is supposed to represent the rich biblical imposition of hands! (Thank God for opposable thumbs!) Finally, the kiss of peace symbolizes the union of the bishop with the faithful (1301). Obviously, this interpretation works only when the bishop is presiding and when confirmation has been separated from baptism. When the presbyter confirms an adult who has just been baptized, the kiss of peace has nothing to do with the bishop but symbolizes membership in the Christian body of believers who share this sign of peace as part of their rite of communion. The catechism chooses this article on confirmation to explain the use of other oils in Catholic tradition: the oil of catechumens to purify and strengthen those approaching the church for baptism, and the oil of the sick, which brings healing and comfort (1294). They seem to be here because they are blessed at the same time chrism is consecrated. Treatment of the consecration of chrism surely does belong in this article of the catechism, but the explanations of the other two seem out of place. disappointingly, the text refrains from commenting on some of the other symbols of the rite: the place in the church (preferably near the baptismal font -- RCIA, 231), the community and its song, and the pronouncement of the baptismal name -- not a new confirmation name.
The history of confirmation is so sticky that using it to defend contemporary practice is like playing with a tar baby. Pretty soon the contemporary practice looks no cleaner. A case in point is the way the catechism describes the scriptural roots for this sacrament. Citing Paul VI, the article claims that Catholic tradition properly regards the New Testament imposition of hands as the origin of the sacrament of confirmation, which in some way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost (1288). The theological connection between confirmation and Pentecost actually comes a bit late in history; no texts exist for this interpretation prior to the fifth century. This same paragraph states that the letter to the Hebrews (6:2) includes instruction on the imposition of hands among the first doctrines to be taught. This is true, but only a superficial, anachronistic interpretation of this verse would assume that it means what the later church called confirmation. Other paragraphs (1286-1287) state that the prophesied coming of God's Spirit was realized in Jesus and given to the community. Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Spirit (11:2, 61:1), and Jesus implies that He fulfills Isaiah's prophecy (Luke 4:16 - 22). (Other passages, including the anointing at Bethany in Mark 14:3-9, could also have illustrated Jesus' messiahship.) Ezekiel (36:25-27) and Joel (3:1-2) foretold the coming of God's Spirit not just onto the Messiah but onto the whole people. From this testimony the catechism argues that confirmation fulfills the most ancient of Judaeo-Christian prophecies. Well, maybe. biblical criticism supports the prophetic gift of God's Spirit on leaders and the chosen people -- contemporaries of the prophets in question. Beyond that (applying these notions to sacramental developments in the church, for example), one enters the realm of typology, admittedly familiar and favorite territory for the four evangelists but hazardous if pushed too far. The continuity of the Spirit's presence can be traced through the Bible's story: The prophets established that God shares the Spirit with the people. Jesus becomes the preeminent locus or that Spirit. And the apostles, filled with the same Spirit, shared it with a waiting world. Does confirmation fall in line? Yes, but so does baptism. In fact, the first evidence for the gift of the Holy Spirit in the church is Baptism. And the catechism itself admits that the Spirit was first conferred at Easter, not at Pentecost (1287). Confirmation helps underscore that baptismal gift, but it should never usurp its supreme position.
THE ENGLISH EDITION
Publication of the catechism was delayed nearly two years to resolve editorial decisions about the English edition. The results are mixed. On the plus side, the footnotes represent a happier result than the first French edition produced. That edition was inconsistent in its placement of scriptural citations -- some were in the main text, others in the footnotes. The English edition relegates them all to the footnotes and even conflates some that appear as separate entries in the original publication. In patristic references, the French original simply gave title and author. Not referring to a specific edition makes it more difficult to cross-reference a text. In English, the footnotes referring to Hippolytus happily mention a specific edition (Sources chretiennes 11), but other editions are mysteriously eliminated (e.g., for Ambrose and Thomas Aquinas). Further (one hates to be picky in these matters, but footnotes demand precision by nature), the best edition of to Hippolytus is volume "11 bis," not volume 11. And the complete absence of title or work for the citation of Cyprian is inexcusable. Where does Cyprian call the celebration of baptism a "double sacrament"? Does the catechism mean Letter 72,1? Some were baptized outside the church and were spotted with the stain of profane water with the heretics and the schismatics. When they come to us and to the church which is one, it is necessary that they be baptized. It is equally fit to impose the hand on them for receiving the Holy Spirit, unless they also receive the baptism of the church. or then they are finally able to be sanctified and to be children of God, if they are born by both sacraments, as has been written, "Unless one has been born of water and the spirit one cannot enter the reign of God." (Emphasis mine. Cf. Turner, Sources of Confirmation from the Fathers through the Reformers, 86.) The intrusion of the Latin text for the formula of confirmation (1320) seems odd. One wonders why the English translation includes this quaint original. In describing the relationship of confirmation to baptism, the catechism call confirmation the completion of baptismal grace (1285), the strengthening of baptismal grace (1289), and the sacrament which perfects baptismal grace (1316). These represent different nuances. The multiplicity of descriptions leaves us a little unsure of exactly what confirmation does to baptism and what baptism is missing. Finally, the reader of English can only express complete exasperation over the noninclusive language of the final edition. "Jesus Christ has marked a Christian with the seal of his Spirit by clothing him with a power from on high so that he may be his witness" (1304). "If a Christian is in danger of death, any priest should give him confirmation" (1314; emphasis mine). Must we say it again and again? These texts are unacceptable English style in the United States. No publicist, marketer, journalist, politician, preacher, newscaster, author, toastmaster, novelist, historian, reporter or weather forecaster in his or her right mind would ever assume that "his" means "his or hers." The definition of "his" has changed. It now means "his." The English-language version of the catechism suggests that confirmed men, not confirmed women, witness to Christ, and that priests should give confirmation to dying men, but not to dying women. Hello? Anybody listening on the other side of the Tiber?
The catechism's article on confirmation means well. It strives to explain what is shrouded in confusion. But until the church simplifies our multifarious practices of confirmation, this may be the best theology we can do.
Back to Top-of-page