The other day, I published Purchasing the Seal: Confirmation and the Sin of Simony. I received a number of responses, mostly “you tell ‘em!” in one way or another, but some were more skeptical. So consider this post 1.5 in my sacramental catechesis reform series, which I will continue with another fresh take next week.

Dubium #1: Don’t We Earn Grace?

This gets a little complicated. Grace is a gift from God with which we freely cooperate. The very ability to cooperate is itself a grace. Therefore, yes, we earn grace in that we do meritorious good works which God rewards with graces, but it’s important to remember that 1) every good work we do is already a cooperation with grace, and 2) God only “has to” reward our good works because He has bound Himself to do so with His word and He is faithful. So again: it’s all generosity. Copious amounts of generous grace with which God wills us to cooperate. That cooperation, by the way, is for our own good and sets Catholic theology apart from Protestant theology. In Protestant theology, grace covers our sins and gives us “imputed righteousness;” basically, grace masks our sins and God pretends He can’t see through the mask when He lets us into heaven. In Catholic theology, grace cleanses us of sin and transforms us into saints, grace making us ever more into the image of Jesus Christ. When God lets us into heaven, He does so because He sees His Son in us.

That’s an important distinction because we need to keep in mind that it is grace which transforms us. Those without grace — those in mortal sin, like probably the vast majority of teens — cannot perform good works of merit. Even those in a state of grace can’t perform works which earn a sacrament, such that God — or His Church — would owe us the sacrament. No one performs an indulgence or a novena or a period of fasting to earn a sacrament. What grace we merit, we merit by cooperating with the grace of the sacraments, among other graces.

Dubium #2: Service Hours Don’t Earn Confirmation, the Dispose Confirmands Toward the Sacrament, Right?

I addressed this in my last post, but I want to re-iterate. When confirmands are required to do service hours, at the very least it implies that the work they do is to “get” the sacrament. Those hours are holes in a punch card toward receiving the Holy Spirit. It’s a dangerous impression to give anyone. This is because 1) it’s simply a logical assumption in our consumerist society that you do something to get something, 2) the hours are very typically required to be of a specific number and type, giving the hours the character of a transaction, 3) the hours are sometimes but not always in service to the parish itself, a direct quid pro quo.

It is true, as I pointed out with a reference to canon law, that the confirmand should be properly disposed. There is no clarification on what kind of disposition and so the assumption must be the least disposition suitable to the sacrament. To go over and above the law by requiring that service be rendered — which bears no impact on the suitable reception of the sacrament because the sacrament is not at all directly about mowing your neighbor’s lawn or answering phones at the parish rectory — service which resembles a transaction and will likely be interpreted as simony and Pelagianism, that is absurd.

Dubium #3: Don’t Other Sacraments Require Good Works for Right Disposition?

We’re getting to the distinction again between works earning merit and properly disposing oneself. Yes, you have to fast for an hour before receiving First Holy Communion. By no means does that mean that fasting for an hour earned you the Eucharist. You were properly disposing yourself. Here is where I will draw out more completely the point I made in my last paragraph: the act of disposition has to be suited to the sacrament. Not eating for an hour before receiving the Eucharist is directly related to the act of eating the Heavenly Food, the Bread of Angels, the New Manna. You can see the connection.

What is Confirmation? It is the sacrament which strengthens the grace of Baptism, bringing the soul to maturity. Thus, proper acts of disposition that would make sense might include renewing your baptismal promises, going to Confession, and even — yes — living a life consistent with Baptism, including acts of charity. These are all good things that you should do in preparation for Confirmation, in order to properly dispose your soul. But requiring service, stipulating a specific number of hours and types of service to be entered into — and disqualifying others — recording those hours, requiring signatures from volunteering supervisors and essays reflecting on these hours: this turns the entire effort into a transactional exchange. “This is the price that must be paid to get the thing.” It is an unacceptable abuse of the Sacrament of Confirmation.

By all means, encourage service, but don’t require it — certainly not in such a formal, supervised way. Ask your confirmands and their parents: Are they dutiful? Are they kind? Do they behave in a Christian manner? Even then, if the answer is “no,” don’t be quick to deny them the sacrament. It’s a gift of God’s grace and it may well be what they need to kickstart their spiritual life.