The following post is excerpted from a paper Ralph Martin presented in Rome this week for the fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. You can read the entire paper here.
As I’ve spoken to youth ministers, religious education directors, and pastors in many parts of North America, and in my classroom at the seminary, the most common difficulty that I’ve heard expressed when discussion turns to confirmation is that the majority of youth confirmed are seldom seen in church again. Matthew Kelly’s Dynamic Catholic Institute reports that during the past decade, eighty-five percent of young Catholics leave the Church within seven years of their confirmation. They conclude: “For generations we have said, ‘They will come back!’ But they have stopped coming back. An increasing number are not coming back to get married or to baptize their children.” 1
The sacrament that is supposed to express and effect deeper, conscious commitment to being witnesses to the faith seems in many cases to result in directly the opposite. Many who are engaged in preparation for confirmation tell me that it is quite common to have parents drop off their children for preparation classes, but not attend Mass themselves, with no expectation of their children attending after confirmation as well.
The Catholic theology of the sacraments is truly beautiful, but the gap between theory and practice in many cases is embarrassingly wide. There seems to be a tendency at times to focus almost exclusively on getting the theology right, while ignoring the huge gap between theory and practice. And yet that very orthodoxy calls for an effective orthopraxis, however little it is averted to. The shocking disconnect about what our theology claims is happening in young people who are confirmed and what the actual fruits are is something like the “elephant in the living room” of the Catholic Church today. Let’s briefly note what our sacramental theology says about the sacrament:
“This fullness of the Spirit was not to remain uniquely the Messiah’s, but was to be communicated to the whole messianic people. On several occasions Christ promised this outpouring of the Spirit, a promise which he fulfilled first on Easter Sunday and then more strikingly at Pentecost . . . Those who believed in the apostolic preaching and were baptized received the gift of the Holy Spirit in their turn. . . . Confirmation . . . in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church” (CCC 1287- 1288).
And what does our theology say concerning the intended effect of the sacrament?
“It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (CCC 1302).
“From this fact, Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace: it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, “Abba! Father!” it unites us more firmly to Christ; it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us; it renders our bond with the Church more perfect; it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ, boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC 1303).
And as Aquinas says about the sacrament: “The confirmed person receives the power to profess faith in Christ publicly and as it were officially (quasi ex officio)” (ST III, 72, 5, ad 2. Quoted in CCC 1305).
But what are we to make of the continued conferral of the Sacrament with none or hardly any of the effects it is supposed to have, actually happening? We are quite clearly facing a situation where sacraments are being “validly” conferred, but remain in many cases manifestly unfruitful. There’s a text in the CCC that sums up Catholic teaching on both the validity and fruitfulness of the sacraments.
“From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them” (CCC 1128).
The Wisdom of St. Thomas
One of the best sources for understanding what now needs to be present in our initial celebration of the sacraments and in our attempts to stir up the graces of the sacraments already conferred but not as fruitful as intended is the wisdom of St. Thomas on the subjective dispositions that can block sacramental fruitfulness. We can find these primarily in the Summa theologiae, especially in the Tertia pars (III, qq. 66–71). In these questions, Aquinas identifies very insightfully the obstacles that block the fruitfulness of the sacraments, even when they are validly conferred: lack of faith, lack of understanding, lack of desire to live a new life, lack of repentance, or the omission of the exorcisms that need to proceed, accompany, and follow sacramental conferral. I have written on this at greater length in an essay that appeared in Nova et Vetera and I simply want to highlight here two of the many elements that Aquinas cited as causes for the lack of fruitfulness in the reception of validly conferred sacraments.2 These are also the two that are most frequently mentioned in Scripture as essential for salvation, namely repentance and faith.
The Baptism of Adults: The Teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas unambiguously teaches that those who are not willing to repent of sin should not be baptized. Quoting scripture and Augustine to support this point he states:
“Now so long as a man wills to sin, he cannot be united to Christ. . . Secondly, because there should be nothing useless in the works of Christ and of the Church. Now that is useless which does not reach the end to which it is ordained; and on the other hand, no one having the will to sin can, at the same time, be cleansed from sin, which is the purpose of Baptism; for this would be to combine two contradictory things. Thirdly, because there should be no falsehood in the sacramental signs” (ST III, q. 68, a. 4).
In contemporary sacramental practice when someone physically presents oneself to receive a sacrament proper disposition is often assumed. Thomas teaches the contrary.
“A man is said to be insincere who makes a show of willing what he wills not. Now, whoever approaches Baptism, by that very fact makes a show of having right faith in Christ, of veneration for this sacrament, and of wishing to conform to the Church, and to renounce sin. Consequently, to whatever sin a man wishes to cleave, if he approach Baptism, he approaches insincerely, which is the same as to approach without devotion” (ST III, q. 69, a. 9, ad 3).
On the other hand, according to St. Thomas, when a lack of sincerity such as lack of true repentance or lack of faith or lack of intention to receive and live the unique grace of the sacrament, blocks the fruitfulness of a validly received sacrament, subsequent repentance and recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation can release or increase the fruitfulness of the sacrament.
“In like manner, when a man is baptized, he receives the character, which is like a form: and he receives in consequence its proper effect, which is grace whereby all his sins are remitted. But this effect is sometimes hindered by insincerity. Wherefore, when this obstacle is removed by Penance, Baptism forthwith produces its effect” (ST III, q. 69, a. 10.). . . .
If one does not will to conduct one’s life in harmony with the purpose of the sacrament, one will not receive it fruitfully. For there to be no “falsehood in the sacramental sign” the recipient of the sacrament must intend what the sacrament intends. This, of course, raises serious questions about the widespread practice regarding the Sacrament of Confirmation today where the great majority of those receiving it, rather than becoming more committed witnesses to their faith, drift away from it. There appears to be a widespread “falsehood” in the sacramental sign. The same can be said in many cases of sacramental marriage as well as in the reception of the Eucharist by those who don’t believe in its substance or intend its effects and perhaps even receive it in unrepented serious sin. . . .
In contemporary sacramental practice, one often hears that even though there appear to be serious defects of intention and preparation in someone who is approaching a sacrament, “The sacrament will take care of it.” Thomas does not agree. Thomas teaches that the reception of the sacrament should not be counted on to remove obstacles of lack of repentance, unbelief and other forms of “insincerity.” The removal of these obstacles needs to precede the reception of the sacrament.2 . . .
When Aquinas speaks about sacramental fruitfulness, he is talking about what our theology of the sacraments says should happen in a person’s life through receiving the sacrament, to some degree at least, actually happening in a manifestly discernible manner. He is talking then about the real power of the sacrament to effect identifiable change. In resolving the sacramental crisis then, we not only need to pay careful attention to the truth dimension but also the power dimension. I would like to suggest that some theological attention to the biblical category of “power” will bear much fruit. Orthodoxy is not enough. Correct liturgy is not enough. We also, as Jesus says, need to be “clothed with power,” and be “baptized in the Spirit.” . . .
- Jesus taught His disciples about the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit, and so must we.
- Jesus told His disciples not to attempt to carry out the mission until they were clothed with power from on high, and so must we.
- Jesus told His disciples to prayerfully seek this “baptism in the Spirit,” and so must we.
- The disciples believed Jesus, obeyed Jesus, and received the fulfillment of the promise.
- The disciples before and after Pentecost are a fruitful source of ongoing reflection as we confront the question of sacramental fruitfulness.
- We are not only theologians, but first and foremost disciples ourselves.
As almost 1,700 years of Christendom collapse and a new international pagan culture gains ascendency, even rising to the “dictatorship of relativism” that Benedict warns us about, the Church in the West is encountering circumstances that are more like those encountered by the early Church than anything we have known in our lifetimes. The recent and consistent papal calls for a new Pentecost, as perhaps the deepest need of the Church today, surely can be advanced by a deeper theological understanding of what many millions have experienced as baptism in the Holy Spirit.
And yet whatever theological interpretation one favors, as McDonnell has graciously and wisely said: “Whether the release of the Spirit is due to an awakening of sacramental grace or merely the fruit of prayer, the important thing is that it happen.”3
Facing the current doctrinal and pastoral crisis regarding sacramental fruitfulness, cannot the wisdom of Aquinas and the contemporary experience of successful renewal movements, show us a pathway to the genuine “new Pentecost” that was St. John XXIII’s deepest hope for Vatican II? And would this not be a very positive step in resolving the shocking disconnect between our sacramental theory and sacramental practice?
You can read the paper in its entirety here.
2. See Colman O’Neill, Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, revised edition, Romanus Cessario (New York: Society of St. Paul, 1991), pp. 38 and 126 ff.
3. McDonnell and Montague, Christian Initiation, 339.