Saturday, February 11th – World Day of the Sick
This coming Saturday, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, is designated as the World Day of the Sick. In preparation for this day, we will be considering several questions regarding the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, or Extreme Unction.
Today, I wish to consider the particular question of anointing a pregnant woman on behalf of her unborn child who is in danger of death – there are several reasons why such an anointing would be a sacrilege and invalid, though (of course) we would not assign any fault to the woman but rather to the priest. This particular case will teach us a great deal about the sacrament.
We have already considered several important aspects of this sacrament: That it can only be given to those who are in a real danger of death (“How sick is sick?” [here]), that surgery cannot ever be the reason for Anointing but can be the occasion (“Should Anointing of the Sick be given before surgery?” [here]), and that young children cannot receive this sacrament [here].
What is Anointing of the Sick all about?
As we have already discussed the nature of the sacrament of Anointing (which is also called Extreme Unction – even by Pope Paul VI) in our previous article [here], we will simply recap briefly.
All the sacraments confer grace by means of physical (sacramental) signs. Baptism washes and refreshes the soul by means of the physical washing of the body. The Eucharist feeds the soul by means of a physical feeding of the body. So too, the sacrament of Anointing confers spiritual healing of the soul through the sign of physical healing of the body – we recall that oil has always been understood to have a medicinal purpose.
And, as the waters of baptism do not need to literally wash the body (to any significant degree) and the Eucharist does not need literally to provide substantial nutritional value to the body, so too it is of no importance if the oil of Anointing does not actually effect a physical healing.
Still, the connection between physical healing and the sacrament of Anointing is strong enough that only those in need of physical healing can receive this sacrament – hence, it is the sacrament of the “sick” and can be received only by those whose health is seriously compromised through either sickness or old age.
Who can receive this sacrament?
Anointing of the Sick can only be received by those who are so sick as to be in danger of death (at least remote danger of death on account of illness or old age) and who have reached the age of reason.
“The anointing of the sick can be administered to any member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger of death by reason of illness or old age.” (Code of Canon Law 1004.1)
While Anointing is not to be reserved only to the very last moments of life, neither is it to be given to those who have not begun to be in danger of death. Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament for those who are dying – at least, who are in a real danger of death.
Hence, the sacrament cannot be given for a disease which is not serious and life-threatening. Nor can it be given to someone who, though in danger of death, is not sick – i.e. it cannot be given to a soldier before going off to battle, or to a man about to be executed [in these cases, the proper sacrament is Confession].
Finally, one must have reached the age of reason to receive this sacrament – it cannot be given to a young child. We will discuss this further below.
Can a pregnant woman be Anointed for her pregnancy?
It should be clear that a woman cannot be Anointed for an ordinary pregnancy. While it is true that all pregnancies have some danger of death, if there is no serious complication, then Anointing is not the appropriate sacrament. Personally, I would think that every mother about to give birth would want to make a confession – but Anointing is not to be the norm.
Why can’t a woman be Anointed for her pregnancy? Some will point out that there is some danger of death in delivery, after all. I answer that a child cannot be considered a disease, and pregnancy must not be thought of as a sickness – else, Planned Parenthood has won. Therefore, an ordinary pregnancy cannot be the cause for Anointing of the Sick.
However, if there is any significant complication with the pregnancy (such that the woman’s life is in serious danger), then Anointing of the Sick (together with Confession) should be given to the mother.
Can a person receive a sacrament on behalf of another?
Our case is this: If a pregnant woman has an unborn child who is suffering from some serious complication, can the mother be Anointed on behalf of her child? Can a person receive Anointing for another – mother for son?
The simple answer is, no. It is not possible to receive a sacrament on behalf of another.
We ask: Is the child one person with the mother, or really a distinct person? If the mother can be Anointed for the child, then this would imply that the child is nothing more than a part of the woman’s body – and then Planned Parenthood has won, since a woman can “do with her body as she pleases”.
However, the child is not just a part of the woman’s body, but is truly another individual person. Therefore, an unborn child cannot be Anointed vicariously through his mother – because they are two people (one enclosed within the other).
Why the unborn child cannot be Anointed
Additionally, there are two other reasons why an unborn child cannot be Anointed through his mother.
1) He is unbaptized. Only those who are baptized can receive the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, or any other sacrament. Obviously, the child is not yet baptized (if he is still unborn) – therefore, he cannot possibly receive Anointing of the Sick.
2) Infants have no need of Anointing of the Sick. We have discussed this at length in our previous article [here]. A young child (born or unborn) cannot receive Anointing of the Sick because he has not yet committed any sins. This is why Anointing is reserved to those who have reached the age of reason. The infant has no need of Anointing, because he has no spiritual illness (being already baptized and without any sin or wound of actual sin).