Albany Diocese Proclaims A New “Right”


Albany Diocese Proclaims A New “Right”


February 14, 1974

We Americans live in a country where new and unheard-of things are being discovered all the time. This is nowhere more true than in the field of human rights. Thomas Jefferson discovered more rights than most people can remember. In our own century, F. D. Roosevelt discovered the right to be “free from fear.” Then came the Supreme Court, which only a year ago discovered that women have a right, a Constitutional right, to procure abortions.

For some mysterious reason, though, American Catholics have not been as lucky at discovering new rights, in the past, as their Protestant and Jewish neighbors. This fact has led to considerable embarrassment in some quarters. But now the Catholics can take a place in the sun. On Jan. 17th, 1974, ecclesiastical and American history was made when the Diocese of Albany, under the leadership of Bishop Edwin B. Broderick, became the first American diocese to discover and proclaim a new and totally unexpected right, which is called, “the right to sacramental self-determination.”

The document in which this breakthrough is announced is entitled, “The Introduction of Children to the Sacrament of Penance, Norms for the Albany Diocese,” the whole text of which, along with a covering letter from the Bishop, appears in the January 17th issue of The Evangelist, Albany’s official Catholic newspaper.

Now it might seem odd that anything as important as a new, “fundamental” human right should be announced to the world in a document which deals exclusively with introducing small children to one particular Sacrament.

But in fact nothing could be more logical, once you understand the truly original character of this particular right.

You see, all the rights which have been discovered in America up till now belong first and foremost to adults and only secondarily, if at all, to children. For example, the right to life belongs only to wanted children, and the right to vote doesn’t belong to any children. But the “right to sacramental self-determination,’ ’ as discovered in Albany, belongs exclusively to children.

Secondly, all the other rights which have been discovered in America up till now are non-sectarian. That is, these rights are supposed to be of some practical use to people regardless of their religion, except, of course, the right to free, public schooling, which is of limited use to the Amish and of no use to the Catholics. By contrast, the “right to sacramental self-determination” is of no use to anybody but Catholics, provided they are children.

Thirdly, all of the other rights which have been discovered in America apply to all the Sacraments equally, if they apply to any of them. For instance, the right to freedom of religion protects the Jews in our Country from being forcibly baptized and from being forcibly confirmed and from being forcibly ordained, etc. But the “right to sacramental self- determination” protects Roman Catholic children from one Sacrament only, that of Penance.

Fourthly, none of the other rights which has ever been discovered up till now protects an American child from the influence of his parents, even in matters of religion. This is a shocking fact to many people, but it is true. By “influence” I mean things like apodictic commandments (“Cindy, say your prayers”), value-laden exhortations (“You should say your prayers like a good girl, Cindy), expressed expectations (“Cindy, your father and I expect you to say your prayers, and so does Jesus”), appeals to base instincts (“The boogey-man will get you, if you don’t say your prayers”), appeals to rational self-interest (“Santa won’t bring you anything, Cindy, if you don’t say your prayers”) and, failing all else, a series of smart slaps on the derriere. Such judicious blending of the carrot and the stick, as various in nuance and application as the infinite resources of parental cunning, used to be employed to get children to do everything that their parents knew was good for them; but now thanks to Bishop Broderick and the pioneering Diocese of Albany, there will be one outstanding exception. From henceforth, the “right of sacramental self- determination” will protect Roman Catholic children from any and all forms of parental influence aimed at getting them to make their first Confession.

Remarkable? Unbelievable? Let me quote a few choice passages from the historic, January 17th document.

Child Not To Be Coerced

The request to be introduced to the reception of the Sacrament of Penance must flow freely from the child’s heart. The child is not to be the victim of any manner of coercion. It is essential to understand that many of the things which concerned adults might be inclined to look upon as decisive guidance may be genuine forms of coercion to the sensitivities of a child.

Classes Leading To Imposed Reception Are Banned

Classes and groups, the programmed goal of which is the imposed first reception of the Sacrament of Penance, are to be considered a violation of children’s freedom of choice.

Subtle Pressures Hinder Freedom

Strongly leading questions put to the child, or the pressure of expressed expectation from parents, or parish pastoral and religious education staffs may all play a part in the subtle erosion of the positive atmosphere of freedom essential to the preservation of the child’s right of self- determination concerning the First Reception of the Sacrament of Penance.

Policies Which Dictate Penance Either Prior or Subsequent to First Communion Day Violate Directives and Freedom

Those pastoral or religious education staffs who, in some misdirected solicitude, might be tempted to decide in children’s behalf that those entrusted to their care will, as a matter of policy, receive the Sacrament of Penance before First Communion day – or that they will, as a matter of policy, wait until after that day – should clearly understand that to establish such policies would be to violate the directives of the Bishop of Albany, and to either trifle with the canons of sacramental validity or infringe upon the children’s rights. There Is no one apart from a child itself who has the slightest right to decide if the Sacrament of Penance shall precede First Communion Day or follow it. The right is to be carefully and lovingly explained to every child of a reasoning age and is to be jealously guarded by those in authority. Children may be admitted to the Sacrament of Penance only when they wish to do so, and only when the sequence in which that reception relates to the Eucharist is genuinely and freely their personal choice.


Now, this last paragraph which I have quoted brings us to a fifth remarkable characteristic of this new “right of sacramental self- determination.” This is the first right promulgated in America to protect children from a policy of the Pope (a foreign prince). To be sure, there are other rights which go against the Pope’s ideas, like the right to have an abortion; but the right which Albany discovered is the first one to protect specifically Roman Catholic children against the machinations of this Prince and his foreign theologians. Here is a little background that might be helpful.


Years ago, there was a universal custom in the Western, or Latin, rite of the Roman Catholic Church. This custom was to prepare children around 7 years old to make their first Confession before they went to their first Communion. There was never a specific law saying that no child could make his first Communion until he had made his first Confession, since such a law would not be good theology. So it may be that there were always a few exceptions to the general practice. The point, however, is that there was this customary order by which, as a matter of policy, children were prepared for and led to first Confession before they were prepared for and led to first Communion. Clear enough? Very well; about five years ago a funny thing happened in America. Some religious educators decided that it would be a wise thing to reverse this customary order, since children around age seven were old enough to receive Communion but were not really old enough to confess their sins, if indeed they had any sins (a thing which these educators doubted). Many bishops listened to these experts, including the Bishop of Albany; and as a result, many dioceses introduced the “experimental” policy of not preparing children for their first Confession until two or three years after their first Communion.


Not everybody, however, agreed with the experts about this new way of doing things. Some people suspected that the experts plain didn’t like the Sacrament of Penance, since it had to do with “sin,” a controversial concept. In any case, the matter was considered in Rome by the Pope and his Curia. They discovered that the experimental practice violated the provisions of an almost forgotten document, called Quam Singulari in Latin (a dead language), which had come out in 1910. Quam Singulari said that the age of reason (about seven years) is the same for the two Sacraments (Penance and Communion), so that there would be no justification for postponing either one. As to the order between the two, Quam Singulari just took for granted that children would be prepared for first Confession first, since this had been the custom at least since the Council of Trent in 1567. Having made this discovery, the Pope issued a new statement on this subject, entitled “Addendum to the General Catechetical Directory,” which came out in 1971.

The “Addendum” was perfectly clear. It said that it was wrong to postpone preparing children for their first Confession (for the reasons given by Quam Singulari) and therefore that the older customary practice should be retained (or returned to). Meanwhile, any bishops who wanted to continue the “experiments” should get in touch with the Holy See. This advice did not sit well with the American educators mentioned above, and as a result little or nothing was done. Doing nothing in such circumstances is called “democracy in the Church.”

Then in July of 1973, the Pope and his Curia gave the educators a shock. These undemocratic foreigners simply ruled that at the end of the school year 1972-73, all the experiments would have to be stopped and everybody would have to observe the norms of Quam Singulari, even in America.


At this point the reader should be made aware that many of the expert educators who have been mentioned above were women. This fact is important because, as the Bible says, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” (If the Bible doesn’t say this, then it ought to, because the maxim is infallibly true and applies even to nuns.) The women had set their caps, so to speak, on the experimental ways; and when they were told that that old Grinch of a curial obscurantist had ordered a halt, well, they were very upset.

Lest these remarks appear sexist, I should hasten to add that there were some men last summer who felt just the same way. One of these was Donald Thorman, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, who was so mad that he predicted American parents and American educators would treat the Pope’s new orders just the way they had treated his orders on birth control. Mr. Thorman’s newspaper has readers in every diocese in America; and once you put these readers together with all the furious religious educators, you can see what a problem a bishop like Bishop Broderick must have had on his hands, trying to satisfy the Pope on one side and Mr. Thorman’s friends on the other.

When bishops have a problem on their hands in America today, they customarily turn to their own professional experts, who are kept in a building at 1312 Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. Last Fall, therefore, the Bishops of America asked their experts to examine the question of what was really imposed by these new Papal orders, so that those bishops who -wanted to go along with the Pope could easily do so, and those bishops who wanted to do the absolute minimum they could get away with, would at least know what that minimum was. The experts responded very well with something called “A Study Paper for First Confession.” It made the whole question ten times more complicated than anyone had previously believed possible. In fact, if you quoted only selected parts, you could make the “Study Paper” say pretty much what you wanted it to say. However, there is one statement on page 24 of the “Study Paper” which, I think, captures its essential position:

“This right” (that is, the right of baptized children who have reached the age of reason to confess their sins) “must be protected, certainly to the extent of providing catechesis and opportunity for -first Confession. As a practical matter, it” (that is, the Pope’s order of 1973) “proposes that first Confession prior to first Communion will become the ordinary usage.”

The “Study Paper” goes on to say that there may be individual exceptions to this “ordinary usage,” and that children who are not conscious of grave sin cannot be forced to confess against their will, but these are matters of detail. The point that needs to be stressed is that the “Study Paper” does recognize that the meaning of the recent Vatican actions is 1.) to establish or re-establish an “ordinary usage” or custom, which custom involves the fact that 2.) “ordinarily” children will receive the Sacrament of first Penance before they make their first Communion. They will “ordinarily” receive Penance first because, according to the Vatican norms, children are supposed to be prepared for this Sacrament first, and once they are prepared for it, why shouldn’t they receive it?


Now there you have the ineluctable question. When children have been taught how to brush their teeth, they are urged to go ahead and do it. The same is true for all other useful habits that children are taught and encouraged in. So, why shouldn’t children regularly, naturally, “ordinarily,” go ahead and receive first Penance, as soon as they have been prepared for it? (Well, there is a secret answer to this question, namely that early Confession is not a useful habit, that, in fact, this Sacrament is bad for children. Now, many religious educators really believe this, but they cannot say so publicly. It is just not respectable to claim, in so many words, that one of the seven Sacraments established by Jesus Christ, Who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not,” is in fact psychologically damaging to little children; so you need a different line.)

Now, this is where the Diocese of Albany comes in. Albany discovers the first publicly acceptable answer to this obvious and ineluctable question. Albany discovers that, uniquely with respect to first Confession, children have the heretofore undiscovered right to be protected from doing anything regularly, naturally or “ordinarily.” So: do you propose (like the Pope) that children ought ordinarily to make their first Confession before going to first Communion? Tyrant! You have overlooked the child’s right to “sacramental self- determination.” Alternatively, do you propose (like Don Thorman) that children ought ordinarily to postpone their first Confessions for a few years after their first Communion? Tyrant! You have overlooked the same right. Do you propose anything at all? Watch it! You are subtly coercing the child with your “expressed expectations.”

Ah, the intellectual powerhouse which has turned up in Albany! Review the whole background, and you will be forced to agree with what I said before: this “right of sacramental self-determination” is a real “first,” the first right ever discovered to specifically protect Roman Catholic children from a policy of the Pope.


Now that we have seen the remarkable characteristics of this new right, it remains to inquire what the discovery is based on. Many rights, you see, are based on the very nature of man, but that doesn’t seem to apply in this case. Otherwise, children would have the right to make up their own minds about when they wanted to be baptized, and so forth. So rule out nature. Then there is historical precedent: many rights are based on historical precedents, like the famous “rights of Englishmen,” which are treasured by everybody except the Irish. But historical precedent is no good in this case, because, as we have seen, the old customs of the Church (and even the new experiments!) would tell against the very existence of this right. So, where are we to look?

Well, in fact we have to look to the science of theology and specifically to the nature of the virtue of Faith. Let me quote some more at this point from Bishop Broderick’s wonderful Norms.

Sacraments Are Celebrations Of Faith

Since all Sacraments are celebrations of a faith community, the motive of faith is normally essential to the proper reception of any Sacrament.

Faith Response Is Essential For First Reception Of Penance

If the child is to exercise a proper right to the first reception of the Sacrament of Penance, then the motive of faith, somehow accommodated by the Spirit of God to the proportions of a child’s psychological capabilities, must manifest at least the first hints of its presence.

Faith Does Not Come From Pressure

The requirement of faith is closely related to the requirement of freedom (above). Like freedom, faith cannot be coerced. It cannot be given existence by social pressure or by the pressuring expectations of parents, pastoral and religious education staffs or friends.

Faith is the Gift Of God’s Spirit, Not The Product Of Programs

Like the requirement of freedom, the requirement of faith demands complete independence from the coercing influence of classes or groups in which the programmed goal is the imposed first reception of the Sacrament of Penance. The purpose of such groups begins with a theological fallacy. A faith response cannot be imposed as a programmed result. Faith is not the result of classes or of religious-looking habit patterns. It is not the result of knowledge or of well-fed memories, of clever programs or fixed calendar dates. Faith is the free gift of the Spirit of God.

Faith, Not Administrative Procedures, Decides the Sequence of First Penance and First Eucharist

Since the Spirit of God breathes where it will, it would be an unfortunate misunderstanding of the ways of God’s Spirit and of the nature of the Spirit’s gift of faith for any member of the pastoral or religious education staffs of a parish or institution to decide in the administrative process that a response of faith will bring a child to the Sacrament of Penance in any particular sequence — either before or after First Communion time. The presence of the faith response is the key which determines the sequence. Without that faith response there may be only programmed ritual, not the Sacrament.

Dates Not To Be Force-Set

It follows, then, that the determination of a date and time for a child’s first reception of the Sacrament of Penance shall be arrived upon as a result of the clear desire of the child to make such a response — never as the result of an administrative decision which presupposes that the Spirit of God will oblige.

Now, you see, I have to back a little bit on something I said before. I said that this new right of “sacramental self-determination” belongs primarily to children. But as we can now see, the children are really incidental. This is the first right ever discovered in the United States which is designed specifically to protect the Holy Spirit. Absolutely (so to speak): the Holy Spirit has a God-given and inalienable right to “blow where He listeth,” and the Bishop of Albany is the First man in the history of the Church to guarantee Him this right with no strings attached. No longer will the Holy Spirit be forced to oblige, Just because some priest makes an “administrative decision.” This is known as theological progress.


The last question which occurs to us, as we contemplate the sheer genius of the Albany norms, it this: why didn’t the Pope think of these things long ago? The Pope is supposed to be an expert (In fact, the expert) on the Holy Spirit. So why didn’t he realize that you can’t administratively oblige the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of little children on a certain day, just as you can’t oblige Him to convert a specific adult on a certain day?

Well, the reason the Pope never thought of this point is because he considers it a heresy. Oh, yes! It was defined at the Council of Vienna back in the Fourteenth Century that children receive the infused virtue of faith at their baptism. From that point on, in other words, little children have the Faith (and the Holy Spirit) until they deliberately sin against it. Now, as every modem educator knows (and even the Pope knows), it is very unlikely that a child will have sinned mortally (especially against the Faith) by the time he or she is seven years old. Therefore, it simply never occurred to the Pope that children should be treated like unbelievers (or “inquirers” in the old sense) until each little child should have voluntarily come up with acquired faith!

So, this point permits us to say one final thing about the new-found “right of sacramental self- determination.” This is the first right ever to be discovered in America which is directly based on a heresy. Just where this fact leaves the Bishop of Albany is a very piquant question.

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