This is the first post in a four-part series on a broad-reaching problem in modern catechesis.
When Simon saw that the Spirit was conferred by the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me this power too, so that anyone upon whom I lay my hands may receive the holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your money perish with you, because you thought that you could buy the gift of God with money. You have no share or lot in this matter, for your heart is not upright before God. Repent of this wickedness of yours and pray to the Lord that, if possible, your intention may be forgiven.Acts 8:18-22
My first two years in a classroom, I taught Church history. Confession: that was a subject my theology degree didn’t really prepare me for. As I read up on councils and schisms and all things in between, I was deeply struck — as many historians have been — by how riddled our 20 centuries have been with the same old sins. One particularly troubling recurrence was the sin of simony.
It doesn’t seem difficult to understand that there is something deeply unacceptable about offering the gifts of God as a return in a little quid pro quo. Nevertheless, it was an arrangement that occurred time and again despite the clear warning against it from the lips of St. Peter himself.1 Clerics looking to skim a little something for themselves off the gifts of God led to political corruption of the clergy in the Middle Ages through the purchase of Holy Orders. Later, it was the reputed preaching of Fr. Johannes Tetzel that men could buy their way out of purgatory which first prompted Martin Luther to light the fire of the Protestant Reformation, leading to centuries of division among Christians, that gravest of scandals.
These abuses were always committed for money and influence, but in more recent decades, in the United States, they’ve arisen in a different way and for a different reason.
If, in the last few decades, you’ve received the Sacrament of Confirmation as a young person, you’ve almost certainly been required by your pastor or bishop to complete some number of service hours as a prerequisite for the reception of the sacrament. The exact nature of this requirement varies from place to place. In some locales, any sort of volunteered time may count; in others, it is expected that the time be spent in service to the Church.
My point here is not that service to the Church is bad. Every Catholic parent should encourage their children to consider and engage in ways they might serve their parish as well as their civil society. Above all, the prayerful discernment of God’s call in their lives is a fruitful and worthy exercise.
The Sacrament of Confirmation, however, is a gift of God. It is to be bought neither with money nor with good deeds. To place this as an obligation on the faithful, no matter the intention, is to commit simony.
Defenders of the practice may claim that the volunteer hours are an attempt to instill in the confirmands the predisposition toward charity so that, upon receiving the grace of the sacrament, they will be more open to the virtuous giving of their time. This argument is not without merit. The Code of Canon Law requires that a person be “suitably instructed [and] properly disposed” (Can. 889 §2). Instruction may include formation in service and proper disposition may include — because the grace of the sacrament builds on nature — an orientation toward charity in the confirmands.
While this is a noble goal, the requirement for a specific number of hours, often at specific tasks, casts a transactional shadow of coerced “charity” — which thus ceases to be virtuous — over the whole sacrament. It may predispose young people to service; it may also predispose them to the sin of simony and the related heresy of Pelagianism — the heretical belief that salvation is a payment by God to be earned rather than a gift from God freely given or even, simply, that we save ourselves.
(Forcing parishioners to jump through unnecessary hoops for sacraments — and Confirmation ain’t the only one — also has the horrible result of building resentment among the faithful. Along with service hours, TGC’s Twitter followers noted various other obstacles they’re clearly still bitter about, not limited to keeping a record of Mass attendance and writing summaries of every homily for 2 years to prove they’d been to Mass. I’ll just continue here to address service hours, but keep those in mind.)
Setting requirements on human efforts to prepare for sacraments is particularly troubling because sacraments exist precisely because of the weakness of human effort. It is true that the sacraments are not magic; they require our cooperation. Nevertheless, that cooperation itself is also made possible only by grace which the sacraments bestow. The Sacrament of Baptism bestowed a grace which the confirmands have hopefully held a firm grasp on. It is that grace — and not any mere human effort — which disposes them to receive Confirmation. “You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts“ (CCC 2006). There is, frankly, only so much we can do to make ourselves ready to receive the Holy Spirit. It’s absurd to suggest otherwise.
The proper disposition for the sacrament that is required in canon law means that the confirmand should be open to the grace of the sacrament so that it is not received in an unfruitful manner. This disposition would be much better reached through solid catechesis and the opportunity for confirmands to attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation very shortly before receiving Confirmation.2 If pastors and lay ministers of souls wish to instill a spirit of service in their disciples, rather than requiring a transactional exchange of service for sacraments, they should engage the group of confirmands in some service work together as a communal activity by way of invitation rather than requirement. This accomplishes the stated goal of forming youth in service, retains the freedom in the act that supplies merit to the virtue of charity, builds community both within the Confirmation class and beyond.
Next week, I’ll dig into a broader problem with sacramental prep in catechesis.
1 I call to your attention that his rebuke of Simon Magus resembles his rebuke of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5; this was a grave rebuke that, had Simon not immediately repented, could easily have led to his being struck down by God on the spot.
2 Notice that this opportunity is not common in preparation for Confirmation, even though it would indicate clearly the confirmand’s continued desire to live the faith.