Saturday, February 11, 2012

Is Anointing the sacrament of the dying? Yes and no

February 11th, World Day of the Sick
Anointing of the Sick is surely the most misunderstood sacrament in today’s Church. However, I do not think it is so much that the faithful are too reserved in requesting it (as was the case in ages past), but rather it seems that the sacrament is far too often used in cases when it is not really appropriate. It is clear that the very close connection between Anointing and death has largely been lost over the past fifty years.
The Ecumenical Council of Trent declared that Anointing is the “sacrament of the dying”, and even Vatican II says that Anointing can still be called “Extreme Unction” (though admitting that “Anointing of the Sick” is better). Pope Paul VI specified that the “sick” who are to be anointed are those who are seriously ill. The Church’s teaching from Vatican II, to Pope Paul VI, to the Code of Canon Law specifies that Anointing of the sick is only to be given to those who have begun to be “in danger of death” whether from sickness or old age.

What the Church actually teaches about who can be anointed
“It is also declared, that this unction is to be applied to the sick, but to those especially who lie in such danger as to seem to be about to depart this life: whence also it is called the sacrament of the departing [i.e. “the sacrament of the dying” – sacramentum exeuntium]. And if the sick should, after having received this unction, recover, they may again be aided by the succour of this sacrament, when they fall into another like danger of death.” (Council of Trent, session xvi)
“‘Extreme unction,’ which may also and more properly be called ‘anointing of the sick,’ 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 that person to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.” (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 73)
“The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill.” (Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Sacram Unctione Infirmorum, 30 Nov 1972)
“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.” (Canon 1004.1)
“Great care and concern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously (periculose) impaired by sickness or old age receive this sacrament. A prudent or reasonably sure judgment, without scruple, is sufficient for deciding on the seriousness of an illness; if necessary a doctor may be consulted.” (General Introduction to the Roman Ritual, Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum, par. 8)
The Church has consistently taught and still continues to teach that Anointing of the Sick is given to the faithful above the age of reason who have: 1) begun to be in danger of death, 2) on account of some serious illness or old age. [in case of doubt, a doctor should be consulted]
Trent specifies that the sacrament is rightly called the “sacrament of the dying”, Vatican II says that it is given when a member of the faithful “begins to be in danger of death”, and this is affirmed also by Canon Law and the liturgical books. While it is true that the sacrament is not reserved only to those who are in the last moments of life, neither may it be given to those who are not yet in a real danger of death.
Further, it is clear throughout that Anointing is given not simply to all who are in danger of death generally, but only to those who are sick – just as St. James said, Is any man sick among you?
Anointing is not only for those who are “at death’s door”
Still, it is important to realize that the sacrament of anointing is not only for those who are at death’s door. The proper sacrament for one in the last moments of life is surely Viaticum – hence, this last Eucharist is most properly called the “sacrament of the dying” in the simple and absolute sense.
Let me make this very clear [since I know that there will be confusion]: Anointing of the sick IS NOT only for those who are at the last moment of life and at death’s door. I am not saying and have never said that Anointing is only for those who are dying in the very moment.
However, Anointing is nevertheless only for those who have “begun to be in danger of death” – if a person is not “dying”, in the sense that they have some illness or frailty (from old age) which puts them in a real though perhaps remote danger of death (i.e. it really could kill them at some point), then they must not be anointed. Indeed, if a person is not at least in remote but real danger of death through sickness or old age, then they CANNOT validly be Anointed.
Danger of death - an error made by Mark Shea (among many others)
When the Church teaches that Anointing of the sick can only be validly administered to those who have begun to be in danger of death, she does not mean that only those who are in immediate and proximate danger of death (i.e. those who are “at death’s door”) can receive the sacrament. Still, it is true that one must be in a true and real danger of death due to sickness or old age in order to receive the sacrament of Anointing.
Thus, for example, when the popular Catholic blogger and apologist (for whom I have a good deal of respect), Mark Shea, says “I know of numerous women who have received the Sacrament of Anointing because of chronic infertility and miscarriage problems” [here], he (together with those priests who gave the sacrament) is profoundly confused as to the Church’s teaching regarding the administration of this sacrament. Unless the “chronic infertility” or “miscarriage problems” are putting the life of the mother in a real danger of death, the attempts at Anointing do nothing more than expose the sacrament to nullity (a serious sin on the part of those priests, and something which Mr. Shea should think about before publicly promoting the idea). And, if any should think that the sacrament could be received by a mother on behalf of her unborn child, we direct them to our previous article [here].
Anointing is only for those who have “begun to be in danger of death” – this means that the illness or old age really puts the individual into at least a remote danger of death. It cannot be, however, merely a potential danger of death – since even a simple illness could theoretically and potentially under unusual circumstance develop into something serious. Rather, it must be a real and actual danger of death, no matter how remote. The illness must be serious and life-threatening in order to justify anointing.
Hence, for example, a person diagnosed with cancer (even if they probably have years to live and may well even be cured) could and should certainly receive Anointing of the Sick. An elderly person who is not on his death-bed, but who is generally worn down by the burden of years, could receive the sacrament. A person with a serious heart condition, but one which does not put him into the emergency room at the moment, could well justify receiving the sacrament.
But a man or woman struggling with infertility? No, it is absurd. Someone struggling with mild obesity (setting aside other possible health issues)? No. Someone with general (non-life-threatening) problems of arthritis? Certainly not.
There must be a real and actual, though perhaps remote, danger of death in order for a member of the faithful to receive the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. This is why the Sacred Council of Trent calls it the “sacrament of the dying” and also why Vatican II and Pope Paul VI continue to call it “Extreme Unction” (while also stating that “Anointing of the Sick” is a better term).
Anointing is not for everyone who is “at death’s door”
While Anointing is only for those who have begun to be in some real danger of death, neither is it for all those who are in danger of death. The Church teaches that it is Anointing of the SICK, which means that the danger of death must stem from either sickness or old age.
Hence, if a soldier is going off to war, the proper sacrament is Confession, not Anointing. Likewise, a man on death row – who is not seriously ill – cannot receive Anointing of the Sick in preparation for his execution, because he is not sick! Again, the proper sacrament is Confession (and, of course, Viaticum).
It is simply amazing how many of the faithful, and even of the priests are confused on this point.
Is Anointing of the Sick the “sacrament of the dying”?
If we understand the “dying” properly – meaning, not simply those who are in the very last moments of life, but all those who are in a real danger of death – then we say that only the “dying” (i.e. only those in danger of death) are to receive the sacrament of Anointing, this is what Trent taught and what Vatican II still teaches though with different words.
However, because “dying” is often thought to mean “those at death’s door”, the Church generally does not use this term any more. Still, it is good to recall that the sacrament is still called “Extreme Unction” and is always to be connected with at least a remote danger of death.
Such is the faith of the Church. If anyone says differently, even if he be a priest, ask him to explain how his opinion corresponds to the teaching presented by Vatican II and codified in Canon Law.

Update: And, lest any should think that there is room for debate on this issue, hear the teaching of the Council of Florence, which has been followed by Trent and Vatican II: "This sacrament should be given only to the sick of whose death there is fear."


Gabby said...

So, what to make of those parishes where the anointing of the sick is celebrated monthly and the same people go up, month after month, to recieve it? I've been in attendance at one such celebration and I was the only person not to go up to receive it. One teen was hesitating until her mother said "What, you think you're perfect? Get up there." ???

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father Ryan,

Thank you for your elegant exposition of the proper conditions which must accrue in order to receive the Sacrament of the Sick. Permit me to ask on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes: has the Church promulgated guidance on how to pray for those who have some non-life threatening sickness or injury?

We have le Thaumaturge de Montreal, St. Frere Andre, who had the special gift of healing, and used St. Joseph's oil to anoint people.

Even Mother Angelica mentions "mamooch" in her neighborhood, the little old Italian lady to whom people went to be prayed over when they had some illness. She related how, as a girl, she was healed from a serious stomach sickness after Mamooch prayed with her.

There are many "healing services" held in Catholic Churches in which priests and laity bless those who come up for prayers with oil or holy water and pray over them. The good priests at these services usually make it very clear that they are not administering the Sacrament of the Sick, but rather they are interceding with Our Lord for the healing of the person. Thank you for your good guidance, Father. Happy Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes!

Jonathan said...

Could the Sacrament be given to a soldier who has been mortally wounded? Would that fall under the definition of an "illness"?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, most certainly, a seriously wounded soldier should receive Anointing.

Thanks for bringing it up.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, the Church has a rite for "visits to the sick" which includes opportunity for confession and communion, as well as many prayers.

Regarding "healing anointings" beyond the sacrament -- we just must be clear that it is not the sacrament.
Thus, we cannot use the blessed Holy Oil, nor should we do the blessing during the context of Mass.

Blessings! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It sounds like there are some grave abuses happening there.
The teen girl should probably have gone to confession rather than anointing.

Let us pray for grace and light! +

Quid est Veritas? said...

Father, what about someone who is healthy, but is going to be killed (like a condemned criminal). Can such a person only go to Confession and receive Viaticum?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@quid est veritas
Yes, a man on death-row could receive Confession and Holy Communion as Viaticum.

Indeed, all the faithful who are in danger of death FROM ANY CAUSE are bound to receive Viaticum (if possible).

Good question. +

BillyHW said...

You have a good deal of respect for Mark Shea? Say it ain't so father, say it ain't so.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I don't always agree with Mr. Shea -- and, for my taste, he writes far too often about politics.

Still, I am convinced that he is an honest man and that he is willing to sacrifice his own will in order to follow the truth (as best as he knows how).
And you don't find many like him in the world today -- especially in the blog-world.

Elizabeth Dianne said...

My sister's husband collapsed suddenly with a heart attack while at work this week. After waiting an hour the doctor announced attempts to revive him had failed and that he was dead. Only then did she think to call their pastor, at which point, she was informed it was too late, he would not come to give the last rites. See you tomorrow was more or less the response she received. This raises the question, does the Church teach at what point the soul has left the body? Was it really too late? I understand that she should have called earlier but she was confident he would survive and the thought never crossed her mind that he would die. In situations like this, where the death is so sudden, people do not necessarily think clearly and call a priest.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm very sorry to hear of sudden loss for your sister and all the family.

The priest was correct that, after an hour (if he was dead for an hour), it would clearly be too late for Anointing or any sacrament.
However, if he was only just pronounced dead ... maybe there would be time -- after all, doctors aren't always right ... still, I can see the priest's point.

However, the Church does provide prayers for after death ... and generally the priests would go and at least pray these with the family.
I'm not sure what happened and why the priest did not come ... perhaps he really could not get away from his other duties ... I'm very sad to hear that your sister had to go through all this.

Prayers for you all. +

Elizabeth Dianne said...

Yes, I understand and her pastor must have been unable to come possibly due to other commitments or responsibilities. Maybe we should all be carrying the name and phone numbers of our priests to call in an emergency. A reminder in parish bulletins on Sundays might serve to remind the faithful that that call for extreme unction needs to be made before and not after the fact. Fr. Ryan, thank you for your prompt reply and clarification.

John R. said...


In your opinion, what *should* the pastoral response be to those who struggle with frequent miscarriages? If these women are not gravely ill, what are they? If their children are not in danger of death, what state would you consider them to be in?

I would love to have you blog on the pastoral response to miscarriages as a whole. What should the Church's reply be to those who are grieving the loss of their unbaptized children? How should their remains be disposed of? Should there be a funeral mass?


Fr. Maximos Davies said...

I wonder whether you would ever consider including the practices of the Eastern Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) in speaking to this topic. In the tradition of the Byzantine Rite it is very common, and never regarded as an abuse, to offer the Mystery of Holy Anointing to all baptized members of the Church who desire it, especially in Holy Week (Holy Wednesday specifically), and often more frequently during Lent. It is considered that the sacrament is for the healing of spiritual and psychological, as well as physical, ailments.

This is certainly an area where the practice and discipline of the Latin Rite differs from that of at least some of the Oriental liturgical traditions.

Robert King said...

Fr. Ryan,

It would seem that most mental illness is excluded from Anointing because it does not present "danger of dying". What of suicidal ideations, though? These present a danger of death, though it retains a moral quality as well. Is there a definite teaching in such a case?

Marion (Mael Muire) said...

Note on miscarriage: A healthy woman with a good gynecological history may recover quickly and with minimal lasting effects. In the case of a woman with a history of miscarriage, however, once early labor gets underway, hemorrhage or other serious complications are a possibility: she may be facing a medical emergency.

Casey said...

Fr. Ryan,

Not necessarily in defense of Mr. Shea, however...

Considering the effects of sin, could one not argue that without the fall, infertility and chronic miscarriages would not be part of the current human condition; i.e- sickness and death?

The Sacramentary of Bishop Serapion (29:1) on the sacrament's effects: "it may be effected for the casting out of every disease and every bodily infirmity...for the good grace and remission of sins..."

Could you not include infertility as "every bodily infirmity."

Thank you for your thoughts.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm not sure what Bishop Serapion could have meant by that statement ... the Ecumenical Council of Florence says that it may be given only to those whose death is feared.

So, no, normal infertility does not justify the sacrament.

Peace. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, if a labor is such that the life of the mother is in danger, then Anointing should be given.

Thanks! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Robert King,
It is difficult to know exactly when mental illness would justify Anointing ... but there would be such occasions ... perhaps suicidal thoughts could (in rare circumstances) ... I would deal with each individual on a case-by-case basis.

Peace. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Fr. Maximos,
The Eastern Code of Canon Law explicitly says that the sacrament is given for the "gravely ill" and those who are "sincerely contrite" for sin -- hence, danger of death and age of reason are required.

Further, if a priest is Catholic, then he must accept the Ecumenical Council of Florence which states that Anointing is only given to those of whom there is a fear of death.

Whatever is going on in the Mystery of "Holy Anointing" ... it is either a sacramental or a serious abuse.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It's not enough for the unborn child to be in danger of death ... the mother must be.

See my earlier article on this subject:

Brian Sullivan said...

I have often heard that those who are about to undergo surgery of any kind can be receive Anointing of the Sick. The idea seems to be that since there is always the possibility of death when undergoing anesthesia/surgery (you have to sign off on it!) that it therefore qualifies you to receive the sacrament. Is that the case?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Brian S,
A surgery can be an occasion for Anointing, but not the cause.

That is to say -- if someone has an illness (or old age) which posses a real (even if only remote) danger of death, then that person could receive Anointing.
Moreover, if there is need for surgery, it makes sense to receive this Anointing before surgery -- not because of the surgery, but on account of the illness (or old age).

Hope that is clearer now ... I wrote an article about this while back ... you can probably find it through the search engine in the upper left of the page.

Peace! +

Wine in the Water said...

This does raise a question for me. You've stated that giving the Sacrament to those who are not gravely ill risks invalidating the Sacrament, but none of the quotes say that. They all say that the Sacrament should only be given to those who are gravely ill. Does non-gravity of illness really affect the validity of the Sacrament, or only the licitness?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Wine in the Water,
The "recipients" of a sacrament are those who can receive the sacrament validly.
Hence, if a sacrament is conferred upon one who is not a recipient, that sacrament is not merely illicit but invalid.

Example: If a baptized person is "re-baptized" (even with the correct matter and form, water and a Trinitarian formula), that second baptism is not merely illicit but even invalid because he is not a recipient of that sacrament.

If the recipients of Anointing are those who have begun to be in danger of death, then those who are not in danger of death (i.e. gravely ill) are not recipients of the sacrament.
And, if such are not recipients of Anointing, then the attempt at Anointing them is not merely illicit but even invalid.

Likewise, just as it is invalid to absolve an infant (because the child has not reached the age of reason and has committed no sins), so too it is invalid to Anoint an infant (for the same reason that the child cannot receive Reconciliation, neither can he be Anointed).

Further, look to the theology of the sacrament ... Anointing makes NO SENSE AT ALL when removed from danger of death.

It should be clearer now. +

Anonymous said...

What about someone who feels fine, but has a condition that carries a risk of sudden death? (about 8% annual risk that's probably growing)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Please use a pseudonym.

The disease must put the person in a real and actual (though remote) danger of death.
It can't be merely a potential threat to life, but must be a real threat.

Hence, there are some diseases which pose a real threat in the moment ... and which could have very low percentage of sudden death ... these would certainly justify Anointing.
[though successive Anointings would only be given if the condition got significantly worse]

Hope that helps! +

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