I debated splitting this section into two posts. But the progressive argument seemed to be important to present without a break, so bear with it. Lateran IV and the Angelic Doctor are about as authoritative sources as one can find in the Middle Ages:
The principal interpreters of the Lateran Council and contemporaries of that period had the same teaching concerning this Decree. The history of the Church reveals that a number of synods and episcopal decrees beginning with the twelfth century, shortly after the Lateran Council, admitted children of seven years of age to First Communion. There is moreover the word of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is an authority of the highest order, which reads: “When children begin to have some use of reason, so that they can conceive a devotion toward this Sacrament (the Eucharist), then this Sacrament can be given to them.” Ledesma thus explains these words: “I say, in accord with common opinion, that the Eucharist is to be given to all who have the use of reason, and just as soon as they attain the use of reason, even though at the time the child may have only a confused notion of what he is doing.” Vasquez comments on the same words of St. Thomas as follows: “When a child has once arrived at the use of reason he is immediately bound by the divine law from which not even the Church can dispense him.”
The same is the teachings of St. Antoninus, who wrote: “But when a child is capable of doing wrong, that is of committing a mortal sin, then he is bound by the precept of Confession and consequently of Communion.” The Council of Trent also forces us to the same conclusion when it declares: “Children who have not attained the use of reason are not by any necessity bound to Sacramental Communion of the Eucharist.” It assigns as the only reason the fact that they cannot commit sin: “they cannot at that age lose the grace of the sons of God already acquired.”
Quam Singulari speaks of what Trent called “necessity.” But even in this generous offering of the Eucharist to young children, we are still looking at the Eucharist as a remedy for sin, and not necessarily an opportunity for grace. Human institutions offer human beings a set of minimum requirements. It gives those who look back (Luke 9:62, perhaps?) a standard of “membership.” I don’t know how helpful this is to a vibrant and grace-filled Christianity.
Let’s move ahead to the 1720’s:
From this it is the mind of the Council that children are held to Communion by necessity and by precept when they are capable of losing grace by sin. The words of the Roman Synod, held under Benedict XIII, are in agreement with this in teaching that the obligation to receive the Eucharist begins, “after boys and girls attain the age of discretion, that is, at the age in which they can distinguish this Sacramental food, which is none other than the true Body of Jesus Christ, from common and ordinary bread; and that they know how to receive it with proper religious spirit.”
Who are the best judges of a child who is ready for the sacramental life? Parents and priest:
The Roman Catechism adds this: “At what age children are to receive the Holy Mysteries no one can better judge than their father and the priest who is their confessor. For it is their duty to ascertain by questioning the children whether they have any understanding of this admirable Sacrament and if they have any desire for it.”
This brings us to the “present day” of Quam Singulari, the early twentieth century, and a conclusion that will lead into the prescriptions of this document:
From all this it is clear that the age of discretion for receiving Holy Communion is that at which the child knows the difference between the Eucharistic Bread and ordinary, material bread, and can therefore approach the altar with proper devotion. Perfect knowledge of the things of faith, therefore, is not required, for an elementary knowledge suffices-some knowledge (aliqua cognitio); similarly full use of reason is not required, for a certain beginning of the use of reason, that is, some use of reason (aliqualis usus rationis) suffices.
Recent judgments of the pope and the predecessor of the CDWDS are cited:
To postpone Communion, therefore, until later and to insist on a more mature age for its reception must be absolutely discouraged, and indeed such practice was condemned more than once by the Holy See. Thus Pope Pius IX, of happy memory, in a Letter of Cardinal Antonelli to the Bishops of France, March 12, 1866, severely condemned the growing custom existing in some dioceses of postponing the First Communion of children until more mature years, and at the same time sharply disapproved of the age limit which had been assigned. Again, the Sacred Congregation of the Council, on March 15, 1851, corrected a prescription of the Provincial Council of Rouen, which prohibited children under twelve years of age from receiving First Communion. Similarly, this Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments, on March 25, 1910, in a question proposed to it from Strasburg whether children of twelve or fourteen years could be admitted to Holy Communion, answered: “Boys and girls are to be admitted to the Holy Table when they arrive at the years of discretion or the use of reason.”
Thoughts on this? Tomorrow we’ll conclude with a look at eight prescriptions set out by this document. We can discuss too if this move to early Communion has accomplished anything more than a temporary inclusion in the life of the Church.