Latin Practice of Delaying Communion not without Ancient Precedent?

Interesting Factoid


St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), in his 40th oration, considers the early practice of the Church in baptizing infants as a matter of secondary consideration rather than primary. In other words, St. Gregory says baptism should primarily be given to a child when they reach an age where they can at least respond to the questions which require a profession of faith on the part of the catechumen. His reasoning is that by being able to exercise reason and to have knowledeable consciousness of the faith’s content, they better understand the mystery into which they enter. One could say this a milder version of Tertullian’s opposition to infant baptism (c.f. De Baptismo 18). However, we know that both Tertullian and St. Gregory held that if an infant *is* baptized, it is spiritually effective for the remission of sins (something which contemporary credobaptists almost always reject).


I will paste the text from St. Gregory below wherefrom I extract the above observation (as well as the link to New Advent), but I wanted to draw a further point from this. Sometimes we can be hard on the Latin practice which had emerged in the 12th century (perhaps earlier) of ceasing to give communion to infants, preferring to wait until the child is old enough to exercise reason and faith. I’ve been guilty of making this appear as if it were a violent break with the unanimous Patristic praxis. However, with the assistance of more research (c.f. Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship), I’ve recognized that some caution is in order.
When describing the early Church’s movement to universalize infant baptism, Professofor Bradshaw (Professor of Liturgy at Notre Dame and recipient of Doctor of Divinity from Oxford) notes that this was not an immediate reality. He writes:


“What is also clear is that even after the practice of infant baptism was adopted, it did not quickly replace adult baptism as the norm everywhere. On the one hand, in North Africa it seems to have become firmly established at an early date. Thus Cyprian in the third century insisted that there was no need to wait until the eigth day after birth to baptize an infant… On the other hand, we find Gregory Nazianzus in Cappadocia in 381 advising that children should normally be baptized at about the age of three years, when they are able to answer the baptismal questions themselves and can to some extent understand the Christian faith (Or. 40.28)! There are also plenty of examples of people from Christian families in the fourth century who were not baptized until they had become adults. Indeed, as we saw in the previous chapter, there was a widespread tendency at that time to delay baptism as long as possible” (p. 33)


Bradshaw’s reference to the prior chapter simply deals with the fact that because early Christians didn’t believe that there was such a thing as restorative penance that could be employed in the case of a serious post-baptismal lapse from righteousness, they delayed baptism as long as possible. This seems to be the rationale that led some Emperors to postpone baptism (ex: Constantine), and perhaps also explains why St. Augustine (and many others) was not immediately baptized after birth. Also, St. Basil the Great, like St. Augustine, was baptized as an adult. There are other Saints who grew up in Christian families that did not get baptized until they were adults, but memory of them escapes me at the moment.


In any case, this much can be said: the much lamented reforms that took place in the early part of the 2nd millennium in the Latin West wherein holy communion and chrismation were delayed for infants after their baptism still retained something more strict than that which is reccomended by St. Gregory Nazianzus (sometimes called “the Theologian”), and certainly more so than the early Tertullian. In fact, if Bradshaw’s scholarship checks out (and I must humbly say, I think his conclusions are far too generally stated), then the Latin practice of the 2nd millennium appears to be more strict than even the parents of some prominent Saints in the ancient Church, as well as the general tendency before the 5th century. For the canons in the Latin West would excommunicate parents if they willfully did not baptize their infant children rather quickly (I forget what the length of days was that allowed for delay, truthfully). On top of this, the Tridentine consensus (16th century) employs the argument that a child should have the useful faculty of reason and knowledge before receiving the sacred body and blood of Christ, much like St. Gregory.


One might say, “Ah! But St. Gregory says an infant should be initiated on danger of death!” Well, interestingly enough, current Canon Law in the Catholic Church requires an infant who is ill, and projected to possibly pass away from this life, to be both baptized and chrismated, and the same law mandates that very small children who can at least recognize the Eucharist as something different than mere bread can receive for the sake of viaticum.
Anyway, feel free to criticize anything I’ve said above. Now, with the text of St. Gregory’s Oration:


“Be it so, some will say, in the case of those who ask for Baptism; what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated… But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament; that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctify them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration. For this is how the matter stands; at that time they begin to be responsible for their lives, when reason is matured, and they learn the mystery of life (for of sins of ignorance owing to their tender years they have no account to give), and it is far more profitable on all accounts to be fortified by the Font, because of the sudden assaults of danger that befall us, stronger than our helpers.” (Oration 40.28)

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