Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Can a pregnant woman be anointed on behalf of her dying unborn child?

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).


Matthew said...

Father: Great post. I have often had debates with people about "how sick" someone had to be to receive the Anointing.
I teach high school so I always get very weird questions so I will give one to you. What about the anointing of conjoined twins? In a certain sense we have two person but one body. What if only one twin wishes to be baptized??

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Also, lest any should think me ignorant of the Eastern practice ... Let's look at the Eastern Code of Canon Law ... which states:

Canon 737
1. By the sacramental anointing of the sick with prayers of a priest, the Christian faithful who are gravely ill and sincerely contrite receive grace, by which, strengthened by the hope of eternal reward and absolved from sins, they are disposed to correct their lives and are helped in patiently enduring their infirmity and suffering.

and Canon 738
The Christian faithful freely receive anointing of the sick whenever they are gravely ill; pastors of souls and persons who are close to the sick are to see to it that they are supported by this sacrament at an opportune time.


The Eastern canons require that the individual be "gravely ill".
Further, they must be above the age of reason so as to be "sincerely contrite".

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Great question.
I presume you are referring to adult conjoined twins ... since young children cannot be anointed.
I would say that, if one wishes to be anointed, then that portion of the body which seems to be animated by that one's soul is the part that should be anointed.

Likewise with baptism.

I do not believe that conjoined twins share a single body ... rather, it seems that they have two partially-formed bodies which are joined together -- hence the word "conjoined".
Thus, there shouldn't be any real difficulty.

I hope that makes sense ... it is an interesting question to be sure! :-)

John H. said...

Fr. Erlenbush,

Great post - And thank you for bringing in the perspective of Eastern Catholics. However, the quote from our Canons is only part of the story. The reality is, Byzantine Catholics have the opportunity to receive the Mystery of Holy Oil once a year, on Great and Holy Wednesday:


I myself have received this on several occasions for this reason. It is considered not only an acceptable, but indeed a praiseworthy practice in the East.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@John H,
Thank you for bringing in more of the Eastern perspective ... however, I have heard from several Eastern Catholics (and Orthodox) [including even priests] that this "anointing" on Holy Wednesday is not the same as the sacrament of Anointing.

Further, the Eastern Canons make it clear ... Anointing is for those who are "gravely ill" (i.e. some danger of death) and "sincerely contrite" (i.e. have reached the age of reason) ... so whatever is going on on Holy Wednesday needs to be judged against that.

Further, the fact is that the Eastern Churches do not have the same understanding of sacraments ... hence, there is often confusion as to whether a particular ritual is a Sacrament or a sacramental -- in this case, I suspect it is a sacramental (rather than the true Sacrament proper).

In any case, if the Sacrament of Anointing is being given to those who either are not in danger of death due to sickness or old age, or if it is given to those who have not yet reached the use of reason ... then the Sacrament is invalid.
(this is the ancient faith of the Church, which is found in the patristic writings of East and West ... and is taught by Trent)

However, as I say, I suspect that this "anointing" is a sacramental -- even though many in the East are not clear on that distinction.

Peace! +

Father S. said...

@Father and John H.,

Are you speaking of Eastern Rite Catholics? If so, their understanding of the Sacraments is identical to that of the West. The distinction in rites is only liturgical. (Of course, there may be individuals who do not share understanding, but there is no distinction in teaching among the rites of the Church.) The link that was provided was for the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. These are Roman Catholics, just of the Ruthenian Rite. Also, from what little I know of this, the anointing given on Great and Holy Wednesday is a Sacrament.

Of course, the point that Father made still applies. This Sacrament should only be given under certain circumstances. I would presume that the priest(s) involved would give sufficient catechesis beforehand.

Kind regards,
Father S.

john said...

"So too, the sacrament of Anointing confers spiritual healing of the soul through the sign of physical healing of the body"

I thought the anointing was the sign. If a physical healing were the sign of spiritual healing, then a lot of people would be left questioning the spiritual healing when they didn't see the physical. Also, if the physical healing were not an integral part of the intended effect of the sacrament vs just a sign, what would distinguish it from only receiving the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Sorry, I probably wasn't as clear as I could have been.
The "sign of physical healing" is the application of the oil -- which was thought in ancient times to have extensive medicinal qualities.

What makes Anointing different from Confession is that Confession is directed primarily to the forgiveness of sin itself, but Anointing to the remission of the "vestiges" or "remnants" of sin (which weigh the person down as he nears death and thinks about the judgment).

Hope it is more clear now! +

Anonymous said...

Please also post about something that should be obvious: deceased babies cannot be baptized, nor can any other dead person. I have seen two articles in the last couple of years that stated that a priest baptized a stillborn/miscarried child. (One article clearly said so, and the other one sounded like the child was dead when the supposed baptism occurred.) This is outrageous, that a priest would do that--surely no priest is so ignorant as to not know that this is impossible. That is not the right way to try to console grieving parents!!

John H. said...

Fr. Erlenbush,

Thank you for your reply. However; it appears the Eastern Catholic Bishops would disagree with you. In the Eastern Catholic Bishops of the United States Catechism series "Light for Life: Part Two, The Mystery Celebrated" they write "... holy unction is not given primarily to those in danger of death, but to any who are sick. In some Churches it is offered to all during Great Week for the healing of our spiritual ills in preparation for Pasha" (pg. 90).

The clear teaching of the East as that this is a Holy Mystery, a Sacrament, that can be given to all during Great and Holy Wednesday. I know this doesn't agree with what you have stated here, but it is the firmly held belief of the East. It is not a sacramental, but the sacrament itself. And it is administered validly.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

John H,

Your interpretation of the Eastern Bishop's statement would mean that they are denying their own Canon Law ... as well as the earliest Tradition of the Church in regard to the sacrament being for those who are in danger of death.
This is the teaching of the Council of Trent ... the sacrament is not for everyone who happens to be present on Holy Wednesday, but only for the "sick" and "those especially who lie in such danger as to seem to be about to depart this life" ... therefore it is called (by the Ecumenical Council of Trent, which all Eastern Catholic must accept) the "sacrament of the departing" (Trent, Session 14).

So, either whatever is going on Holy Wednesday is a sacramental rather than a sacrament, or it is a sacrilege by exposing a sacrament to nullity.

John H. said...

Dear Father Erlenbush,

Canon Law is great. But it's not a Catechism. Canon Law does not teach the Faith, it regulates it. It is a mistake to use it to teach Theology.

Further, Vatican II seems to have lent to a greater understanding of this Sacrament, by saying that it "is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived" (SC 73). That is a much broader application than you seem to be painting here.

Also, I'm not interpreting the Eastern Bishops' statement. I'm just typing it as I see it. I'll be happy to transcribe the entire passage for you. They clearly teach that Churches in the East celebrate this Holy Mystery on Great and Holy Wednesday. Your disagreement is not with me, but with the Eastern Catholic Hierarchy. You're free to disagree with them of course. I'm not saying that they are infallible in their teaching here. But it is indeed their teaching and practice.

John H. said...

Dear Father Erlenbush,

One more point. The Eastern Code does not preclude the application of the Holy Mystery at other times than those times when people are sick. The code specifies it is to be given at those times, but does not say it cannot be given at other times. Again, I still think it is a mistake to use the Code to teach theology, but it at least does not contradict the teaching and practice of the East.

God bless!

Katherine said...

I'm surprised surgery is not a reason. Certainly surgery, at least in the common use of the word where it involves General Anesthesia, always has the risk of death. What do you think those endless pages of waivers and disclaimers are for? But even if now with contemporary techniques most surgeries come out OK, if Obamacare is implemented, the chance of death will no doubt shoot way up. Extreme Unction should then become mandatory! (sarc/)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Serious surgery is not the REASON for Anointing, but it is often the OCCASION for Anointing.

Generally, a man would not undergo serious and life-threatening surgery without having some serious illness which could be life-threatening.
So, he is Anointed for the illness, but the surgery is the occasion - since he wants to be sure to be anointed before the surgery.

Hope that makes sense. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@John H.,
I did not say that Anointing is only for those at deaths door ... I have only said exactly what you have quoted the Second Vatican Council as saying: It is for those who "have begun to be in danger of death".

So, if an illness is not so serious as to put someone in a real (though remote) danger of death, then they simply must not be Anointed.

Further, if you want a Catechism, the Roman Catechism of Trent speaks even more strongly on this than does the Code of Canon Law.

All I'm saying is that if an Eastern priest is giving Sacrament Anointing to people who are not "gravely ill" and "sincerely contrite", then he is not following his own Canon Law.
Nor is he following the teaching of Vatican II.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

John H.,
Canon Law says when to give the sacraments, not when not to give them.
Hence, we can't say "well Canon Law doesn't say you can't give it in this case" ... but rather we say "Eastern Canon Law only mentions giving anointing in the case of 'grave illness' therefore it is to be given only when there is 'grave illness'" ... and this is further endorsed by the authoritative teaching of Vatican II which says it is to be given for those who have begun to be "in danger of death from sickness or old age".

John H. said...

Dear Father Erlenbush,

Thank you so much for your patience. I assure you I am not trying to be difficult. I am a pilgrim in search of the truth, and I have a lot to learn. Nonetheless I still disagree with you.

First, you say "Canon Law says when to give the sacraments, not when not to give them." This is not true. The Roman Code clearly states to whom and when to give the sacraments in certain cases. (cf. Can.  864 "Every person not yet baptized and ONLY such a person is capable of baptism." See also Cans. 889, 1024).

Again, I reiterate that Canon Law is not a source of Theology. So I don't think we can turn to it to understand the meaning of our Faith.

Further, I know the Roman Catechism considers only those in danger of death to be at least licit recipients of Extreme Unction. However; this is the Roman Catechism, and therefore the Roman practice of said Sacrament. The Roman Catechism was not written with Eastern Catholic practices in mind. It does not really translate across rites. Imagine if it did. We would have to instate the Roman Canon in Our Liturgies. We would have to limit the ministers of Confirmation to Bishops alone. The Roman and Eastern theology and practice is different, and so our explanation of the way we celebrate the faith will be different.

Lastly, this is not a matter of a simple priest of the East teaching and practicing this belief. It is the Eastern Hierarchy that does so. I understand you disagree with them. I do take exception to you using the word sacrilege, but I understand why you used it. My point is that the East does indeed consider this Holy Mystery to be validly and licitly celebrated for the properly disposed faithful on Great and Holy Wednesday. Again, I contend that your disagreement is not with me or my interpretation, but with the Eastern Catholic Bishops.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@John H,
Canon Law does not so much teach us theology (in this you are correct), but it does tell us how to administer the sacraments -- and what we are talking about here is the administration of the sacraments.

Furhter, Vatican II clearly states that Anointing is only for those who have begun to be in danger of death.

Regarding the "Roman Catechism", perhaps I should have been more clear -- this IS NOT a local catechism of the Diocese of Rome, it is the "Catechism of the Council of Trent" and is a universal Catechism of the whole Church (just as Trent is a Council of the whole Church).

Further, the Council of Lyons (1245) says that Anointing is only for the Sick and is not to be given to all as a "satisfaction of penance" (as it seems is being done in some places on Holy Wednesday).

Again, the Ecumenical Council of Florence states "this sacrament should be given only to the sick of whose death there is fear".

There really isn't room for debate on this issue.
And I'm going to leave it at that.

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