The Discontinuance of the Practice of
Communing Infants in the Western Church
The Rev. Gary V. Gehlbach
31 August 1996
(updated 31 May 1999)
Up until the twelfth century, the Christian Church communed baptized infants. The communion of infants was the standard practice both in the Eastern and Western Churches. But since the twelfth century, the practice of infant communion has fallen into disuse, and even disfavor, in the Western Church. However, the Eastern Church continues the practice of communing infants.
This paper will look at the circumstances which led to the discontinuation of infant communion in the Western Church. For nearly 2,000 years one-half of the Christian Church has communed, and still communes, infants. But in the other half, infants were communed for over a thousand years and then were eventually banned from the altar. J.D.C Fisher recounts in his book Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West that
infants continued to be admitted to communion in Milan until the end of the fifteenth century; and infant communion in the Church of Amiens is attested in a Pontifical of this Church belonging to the fourteenth century, while even later the Council of Augsburg in 1548 found it necessary to forbid the giving of communion of infants, showing that the practice still persisted there even at that last date.
It is accurate then to say that in the Western Church the practice of not communing infants is a rather recent innovation which deviated from the historic practice of the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.
With the arrival and growth of Eastern Orthodox Churches in our country, Christians of the Western Church will be confronted with a practice which is foreign to many of them. How will we react to it? Will we condemn, embrace, or ignore the practice? The Lutheran Church has generally dismissed, and even at times condemned this practice. The Catechism of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) in answering the question, “Who must not be given the Sacrament?”, answers “The Sacrament must not be given to...those who are unable to examine themselves, such as infants, people who have not receive proper instruction, or the unconscious.” This answer provided by the LCMS, as we will see, goes against nearly 2,000 years of Eastern Church practice and over 1,000 years of Western Church practice. During the past 2,000 years, infants and the unconscious have been communed in the Church. Also, for centuries, catechumens did not receive what we would call proper instruction about the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion until after they had been baptized and received their first communion. The primary objection of 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body (New King James Version).
However, the Western Church up to 1200 A.D. continued to commune infants and the sick with full knowledge of this passage from St. Paul.
For the Eastern Church, “the Eucharist is the fulfillment of the Baptism”. Also, once a person (adult or infant) is given birth in baptism he must be fed:
The [newly baptized’ were baptized so that having died with Christ they might partake of His Risen Life, and it is this Risen Life that the Eucharist manifests and communicates in the Church.
The Eastern Church is also concerned that
the divorce of Baptism from the Eucharist, theological as well as liturgical, is more than a purely external departure from the early tradition. It mutilates both sacraments, not of course in their given fullness, which is not affected by our errors and shortcomings, but in our comprehension and reception of that fullness. Made into a self-contained and self-sufficient rite, Baptism is no longer experienced as truly the entrance into the Church.
What changes occurred in the Western Church which led to the demise of communing infants? Were these changes theologically, practically, or politically motivated? What rationale is now accepted for denying the Sacrament of the Altar to infants?
J.D.C. Fisher’s book will serve as a primary resource for this paper in the area of the sixth through sixteenth century. His work, although dealing with the entire initiation process, does provide useful and helpful sources on the subject of infant communion. Thomas Finn’s two volume set, Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate, provides the necessary background of the first six centuries.
The Historic Practice of Christian Initiation
The first change which occurred in the Western Church was the separation of the rite of Christian initiation into several parts. In the early church, the rites involved in the initiating a new member into the Church were seen as an organic unity.
Little is known about the initiation practice of the Christian Church during its first three centuries. For much of that time it was an illegal religion. After it became a legal religion under Constantine, more became known about its rite and practices.
One of the interesting aspects of Christian initiation in the early Church was that the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion were explained after the candidates had been baptized and communed. The general understanding is that a person cannot understand faith without faith.
What we do know about their initiation rites is that once brought into the Church, Christians were expected to turn away from their former way and to the way of Christ. The Didache, dating from the first or second century, clearly describes the two ways—the way of life and the way of death.
Justin Martyr, who died about 165 A.D., was the first Western Christian to set forth in writing the rite for receiving new Christians. In his description, Justin attests to a period of instruction prior to baptism, a testing or confession of faith, a period of fasting and preparation, baptism by immersion, and the baptismal Eucharist.
From the late second century, the Apostolic Traditions of Hippolytus reveals some more details on the initiation of new Christians, primarily regarding children. In the Apostolic Traditions, the pattern for the rite of initiation is similar to the pattern found in the other documents: stripping off of clothing, renunciation of Satan, imposition of hands, triple-immersion in water, anointing with oil, signing with the cross, offering of prayers, kisses, and eucharist.
Although many of the other documents are not clear on the initiation of children, the Apostolic Traditions does state:
[Those who are to be baptized] shall take off [their] clothes. First baptize the children. Let those who can, speak for themselves. But those unable to speak for themselves, let their parents or someone from their family speak for them.
The phrase “those unable to speak for themselves” refers to young children. Following this description of the baptism, Justin moves immediately to the celebration of the Eucharist. In Justin’s description of the Eucharist there is no exclusion of children. The initiation is described as one event, from baptism to Eucharist, for all initiates.
The Didascalia Apostolorum (from the third century) briefly mentions Baptism. The initiates are primarily pagans and required to have sponsors. The initiation process includes integrating them into the Christian community, receiving oral instruction, being anointed, being baptized by immersion, and celebrating the Eucharist.
John Chrysostom, a fourth century theologian, explains the initiation process. The basic elements of the initiation process are that the candidates were stripped of their clothes, anointed with oil, baptized by immersion, and led to the altar for the Lord’s Supper.
From the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo encourages the baptism of infants when he states,
For whether it be a newborn infant or a decrepit old man—since no one should be barred from baptism—just so, there is no on who does not die to sin in baptism.
Following baptism, the candidates returned the next morning to the church for the Eucharist.
A sixth century document, the Letter of John the Deacon to Senarius, describes the initiation process of Rome. John describes several anointings, triple-immersion in water, reception of a white garment, and a head covering. The initiates are thus attired so that “in a wedding garment the [newly baptized] may approach the table of the heavenly bridegroom as a new person.”
Also, regarding infants, John the Deacon does not wish to be unclear:
Lest I seem to have passed over something, I clearly and quickly say that all these things are done even to infants, who by reason of their age understand nothing.
There were dissenting voices in the early church regarding infant baptism (and thus infant communion). Tertullian, a second century theologian, wrote:
With respect to children, it is preferable to defer baptism in accord with each candidate’s character and even age....So let them come when they are growing up, when they are of an age to be instructed, when they have acquired a knowledge of what [estate] they are coming to. Let them become Christians when they have the capacity to know Christ.
However, Cyprian, a contemporary of Tertullian, encouraged the baptism of infants. Origen likewise confirms the practice of the Church:
‘The church has received from the apostles the custom of administering baptism even to infants,’ [Origen] writes, ‘for those who have been entrusted with the secrets of the divine mysteries [the apostles] knew very well that all are tainted with the stain of original sin, which must be washed off by water and the spirit.’
Tertullian’s view was the aberration from the overwhelming testimony of the Church Fathers.
The preceding review of the early church’s practice brings two items to the fore. First, Baptism, Anointing (Confirmation), and Eucharist were all part of one rite of initiation. Second, infants received full initiation, that is, they were baptized, anointed, and communed.
The Practice of the Church from the Sixth to Twelfth Centuries
From the sixth to the twelfth century, both the Eastern and Western Churches communed infants at their baptisms. However, the Western Church had come to understand Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist as separate rites rather than three parts of one rite of initiation. The practice became established that the parish priests were authorized to baptize and commune candidates, but the authority to anoint (confirm) was reserved for the bishops.
This division did not take place in the Eastern Church. The local priests were authorized to perform the full rite of initiation. Therefore Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist continued to be practiced as a unified rite of initiation. Because the Eastern Church maintained the unity of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist at initiation, we will focus our attention on the practice and changes in the Western Church, particularly concerning the matter of infant communion.
The documents from the sixth to twelfth century demonstrate that infants were communed at their baptisms. Their participation in the sacrament continued even after baptism. This practice was common in all regions of the Western Church.
The Church in Rome
The center of the Western Church was Rome. The influence of the Church in Rome was felt in all areas of the Western Church. The rite of initiation for the Church is recorded in the Ordo Romanus XI (Ordo XI), the Gelasianum, and the Hadrianum. These sacramentaries are from the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, respectively.
J.D.C. Fisher indicates that infant baptism and communion were the norm in the Western Church up to the twelfth century:
The evidence shows conclusively that the subjects of initiation in the seventh century could be assumed to be infants. For the Gelasian rubrics consistently refer to them as infantes, as term which, it needs to be remembered, could be used of any person, whatever his age, who had been spiritually reborn in baptism, but which is certainly used in its natural sense here. That this is so is shown in several places. Thus the candidates are called “infants” even while they are still catechumens; and more significantly, at the delivery of the creed (traditio symboli) an acolyte is said to hold one the candidates on his left arm. But all doubt on this score is removed in Ordo XI, where after the delivery of the creed and Lord’s Prayer the parents are ordered to take their “infants” out of the church, and leave them under supervision until mass is over, and secondly after the blessing of the font any of the congregation who wish are permitted to take away some of the consecrated water before the candidates, here called parvuli, are baptized in it, and thirdly, and most significant of all, the neophytes are ordered to assist at mass and to communicate, it being expressly laid down that they may not be put to the breast nor receive any food before they have been communicated. The fact that some, though not necessarily all, of the candidates may be too young to have been weaned indicates that the subjects of initiation are those infants who have been born since the last baptismal season.
The practice of communing infants after baptism is stated at the conclusion of the initation in Ordo XI:
After this they go in to Mass and all infants receive communion. Care is to be taken lest after they have been baptized they receive any food or suckling before they communicate.
That infants are the subject of baptism and communion is further clarified by the condition that they should not suckle before communicating. Suckling children would more than likely have been the very young, especially infants.
Except in the case of an emergency, such as imminent death, “the Roman rite preserved its primitive unity during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, the period covered by the Ordo XI, the Gelasianum, and the Hadrianum.” The eighth century rite of initiation in the Roman Church
consisted in (i) catechumenate during the last three weeks of Lent, (ii) blessing of the font, (iii) threefold confession of the faith and dipping, (iv) anointing of the head by a presbyter, (v) episcopal hand-laying and consignation of the forehead with chrism, (vi) communion of the candidates at the Paschal vigil.
It is this order which the Roman Church uses for the next four hundred years, remaining virtually unchanged. One of the minor changes was that when a bishop was not available the local presbyter could baptize and commune the initiate, but confirmation would be delayed until the bishop was present.
The Churches in Milan and Northern Italy
The initiation rite in northern Italy and Milan was similar to the Roman rite, but also had some unique features:
Thus the initiatory rite described by Ambrose consisted in (i) preparation of the competentes during Lent, (ii) unction and renunciation of Satan, (iii) blessing of the font, (iv) threefold confession of the faith and dipping, (v) anointing of the candidates by a bishop, (vi) the pedilavium, (vii) vesting of the baptized in white robes, (viii) the ‘spiritual seal’, (ix) the communion of the baptized.
In particular, it should be noted that the Churches of Northern Italy practiced infant communion:
Our fifth authority is an eleventh century Order of Scrutinies, emanating from a Church of some distinction in northern Italy....The initiatory rites which we have just been considering ended with the communion of the baptized. In the Order of Scrutinies mass is celebrated, the parents offering on behalf of their children, who are all communicated not only at this mass but also at the masses of Easter week.
Also, from the sixth century to the twelfth, the Milanese and Northern Italian Churches maintained the unity of the Paschal initiation — Baptism, Anointing, Eucharist — which had been the practice of the early Church:
Thus from after the time of Odilbert until the twelfth century, to which the Ordo of Beroldus belongs, the Milanese rite of Paschal initiation consisted in catechumenate, baptism, unction with chrism for the imparting of the Holy Spirit, pedilavium, and the communion of the baptized.
The Churches in Gaul and Germany
The initiation rites in Gaul and Germany followed closely those of Milan. According to J.D.C. Fisher,
The Gallican rite, as described in the books which are here being considered, consisted in (i) catechumenate, about which little is said, (ii) baptism, (iii) anointing of the candidates, (iv) pedilavium, (v) vesting in white robes, (vi) communion at the mass of the Paschal vigil....That the subjects of initiation in these rites were infants i revealed in several places.
Although he was speaking on the subject of receiving heretics back into the church, Gennadius of Marseilles stated that infants should be communicated. This clearly indicates that in Gaul in the fourth century infants were communed.
Like the Roman and Milanese Churches, the Churches of Gaul and Germany maintained the unity of the initiation rite — Baptism, Anointing, and Eucharist. Also, the practice of infant communion is continued in these churches.
The Church in Spain
The Spanish Church was separated for some time from the Roman Church. However, like the other Western Churches, infants were included in the rite of initiation:
Idelfonsus, however, states plainly that persons of a somewhat greater age, those newly born, and infants are all called catechumens or hearers. But the initiation of infants has by now become so common in Spain that each author spares the time to justify the practice on theological grounds, drawing on the teaching of Augustine to do so.
The initiation process included the communion of the baptized. If therefore infants were initiated, then they were also communed. That these were small children (infants) and unable to speak is further supported:
While Isidore gives no notice of time, Idelfonsus says that the competentes receive the creed on the day of their anointing, and themselves, if they are of an age, or through the mouths of those that carry them, if they are infants, recite it to the bishop on Maundy Thursday.
According to the Spanish rite as found in the Liber Ordinum, “the priest sets a veil over the head of the baptized infants, and communicates them.
The Spanish Church, although separated for a while from the Roman Church, still maintained a unified rite of initiation — Baptism, Anointing, and Eucharist. Also, the Spanish Church initiated infants which included communing them.
Summary of Western Church Practice
As is clearly testified by the various liturgies of the different regions, the Western Church, through the twelfth century, was unified in its initiation practice. Although the various regions of the Western Church may have had unique customs which were included in their initiation rites, the rite of initiation had some basic elements which were common to all — Baptism, Anointing, and Eucharist.
Secondly, the Western Church not only admitted adults but infants as well in its initiation rite. Because the initiation rite was seen as one rite which included Baptism, Anointing, and Eucharist, it must be concluded that infants were received as full members through the same rite as the adults. The various documents from the sixth to the twelfth centuries are very explicit in saying that infants are not only baptized, but anointed and communed also.
The Discontinuance of Full Initiation for Infants in the Western Church
The testimony from various sources of the Western Church demonstrate that up until the twelfth century the Western and Eastern Churches were in conformity with each other on the basic elements of the initiation rite and the practice of infant communion. The Church of both the East and West was concerned that no infant or sick person die without communing. Also, as it was in the second century so it was in the twelfth, baptism was not administered without communion.
But beginning in the twelfth century, a division begins to take place between the East and West over the issue of initiation, especially as it concerns infants. A portent of this division can already be seen n some areas of the Western Church prior to the twelfth century. Some people expressed concern about infants who could not adequately swallow the communion elements. This led others to be concerned about the propriety of communing those who could not sufficiently consume the elements:
In the later eleventh century, however, doubts began to arise about the propriety of communicating infants and sick persons in consequence of a growing scrupulosity regarding the consecrated elements, itself a result of the gradual victory of Realism over Symbolism. For Paschasius Radbertus, in work published in 844, had taught that the substance of the bread and wine used in the eucharist was inwardly and effectively changed into the flesh and blood of Christ, the bread from heaven....In these circumstances the Church began to feel uneasy about the communion of persons who might not be able to swallow the host.
Withdrawal of the Host from Infants
In order to alleviate the concerns about infants and the sick not sufficiently consuming th host, the practice began of withholding the host from infants and the sick. They continued to be communed from the chalice only (sub specie sanguinis). Paschal II (d. 1118), abbot of Cluny wrote:
We know that bread by itself and wine by itself were given by the Lord. That this custom should thus always be maintained in the holy Church we teach and enjoin, except in the case of infants and sick persons who cannot swallow bread.
In order to justify this practice, other theologians defended the practice of giving only the chalice to infants by stating that in the chalice they receive the whole Christ. In 1121, William of Champeaux wrote:
To little children just baptized only the chalice is given, because they cannot assimilate the bread, and in the chalice they receive Christ entire.
In other areas, the practice developed of communing infants at baptism and then waiting until they were older before communing them again:
The School of Anselm of Laon (d. 1117) argued that, since it is necessary to eternal life to receive the Lord’s body,...[but added] ‘Once it has been received another reception of the sacrament can be deferred for a long time.
Still others, wanting to continue to commune infants in both kinds, adopted new methods of distributing the Lord’s Body and Blood. One of these methods was described in a Roman Pontifical of the twelfth century:
Those who had been baptized — confirmed too, if a bishop were present — should forthwith be communicated; but if they are children who did not yet know how to eat or drink, they were to be communicated with a leaf of by placing in their mouths the presbyter’s fingers dipped in the Lord’s blood; adults, however, received in the customary manner.
Robert Pullyen (d. 1146) describes another method of communing infants:
The presbyter had to communicate newborn infants by placing his finger in the chalice, and then putting it in the child’s mouth, because the infants were able by nature to suck.
Rather than introduce these new methods of distributing the Sacrament, many churches opted to simply not give the host to the children. But another major shift occurred which soon placed into jeopardy the participation of children in the Lord’s Supper.
Withdrawal of the Chalice from Infants
In some circles, there was a growing concern that the laity should not commune from the chalice. Although the reasons are not easy to determine, the fact remains that the cup was removed from the laity. With the removal of the cup from the laity, the practice of infants receiving only the chalice also ended. With the withdrawal of the chalice from the laity, the infants did not receive the Sacrament in any form.
Introduction of ‘Age of Discretion’ as a Requirement for Participation in Communion
By the time of the fourth Council of Lateran (1215), many churches had established requirements that, prior to communicating, the faithful must go to confession. With this innovation, those unable to “go to confession” were thereby prohibited from communing. The fourth Council of Lateran thereby linked first communion with attaining the age of discretion. Fisher notes that no precise definition is given for the phrase “years of discretion”.
It is apparent that despite the many obstacles which were placed in the way of communing infant, the practice continued well into the sixteenth century:
Nevertheless despite the ruling of the fourth Council of Lateran the communion of infants survived in some Churches in the thirteenth century and even later....Magistretti says that according to the codices of the Rituale Ambrosianum infants continued to be admitted to communion in Milan until the end of the fifteenth century; and infant communion in the Church of Amiens is attested in a Pontifical of this Church belonging to the fourteenth century, while even later the Council of Augsburg in 1548 found it necessary to forbid the giving of communion to infants, showing that the practice still persisted there even at that last date.
The followers of John Huss reintroduced the practice of communing infants in Bohemia Luther himself commenting on the Hussite practice said, “I cannot side with the Bohemians in distributing the Lord’s Supper to children, even though I would not call them heretics on that account.”
Because of these lingering customs of continuing to commune infants, the Council of Trent finally spoke with authority and banned the practice of infant communion.
The Churches of the Reformation
With the final end to infant communion by the Church of Rome, the Western Church was left with the Churches of the Reformation to hold on this legacy. Although Luther was familiar with the practice of the Hussites of communing infants, the practice was not common nor recently practiced in the Churches of Germany and so the reintroduction of infant communion was not likely. The Anabaptists with their rejection of infant baptism closed the door to infant communion. The Calvinists’ weak defense of the Real Presence would not make them likely candidates to reintroduce infant communion.
Thus, no branches of the Western Church continued the practice of communing infants.
Summary of the Discontinuance of Infant Communion
The best explanation as to the root cause of the Western Church eventually abandoning infant communion is found in the change of the rite of initiation. The Eastern Church viewed the rite of initiation as culminating in the Eucharist. The Western Church had subdivided the rite of initiation into several separate rites. Each of these parts was separated from the others by its purpose and time of administration. Rather than being three parts of one whole, Baptism, Anointing (Confirmation), and Eucharist became three distinct rites with no organic connection with each other.
The discontinuance of communing infants did not happen overnight. Its discontinuance was marked by several key changes in doctrine and practice. First, the host (body of Christ) was taken away from infants. Second, the chalice (blood of Christ) was taken away from the laity, and thus the infants as well. Third, the teaching that children should reach “years of discretion” before communing was introduced. Fourth, the Council of Trent put the final blow to the practice by banning the communing of infants.
Because none of the Churches of the Reformation incorporated this practice, the practice of communing infants finally was discontinued in the Western Church.
The Modern Lutheran Church and Infant Communion
Over the past few years, there has been and increased interest in the practice of communing infants. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has experienced the reintroduction of infant communion. A Candian District President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod found it necessary to write a paper against infant communion. The LCMS’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations has responded to the question of infant communion.
Two key points must be addressed in this discussion. First, what is the relationship between infant communion and 1 Corinthians 11:27-29? With full knowledge of that passage the Western Church for 1200 years (and the Eastern Church for 1900 years) permitted infants to commune. How is our understanding of that passage now better than it was in the past?
Second, is the faith of an infant different than the faith of an adult? If it is faith by which a person discerns the body of Christ, then what prevents a child (who has faith) from discerning the body of Christ? St. Paul wrote, “Faith comes by hearing”; St. Paul does not say that faith comes by intellectual comprehension.
The practice of infant communion is taken for granted in the Eastern Church. However, for those churches of the West, it is struggling point. Its mention (let alone support) is met with strong resistance. However, its discussion can only bring blessings to the Church of God and bring our Church to a deeper and richer understanding of both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
This subject cannot and should not be taken lightly or dismissed out of hand. One thousand years of Western tradition cannot be dismissed easily. As the Churches of the East begin to establish congregations in the West, their practice cannot be ignored.
Any conclusion we draw will affect our church body and its most fragile and youthful members the greatest. May the Lord of the Church guide us into His wisdom.
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