Overdoing the Anointing of the Sick

Q: I attended Sunday Mass while on vacation … the priest preached about the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  Here are some of the statements he made.

“We all need to receive this sacrament.”
“Anointing is not just for people who are dying or very ill, it’s for everyone, because you never know when you’re going to die.”
“Catholics should be anointed regularly.  The Church gave us this sacrament for a reason, we should make use of it.”

The priest chided the congregation, because so many parishioners hadn’t come to him to be anointed.  At the end of Mass, people lined up as they do to receive Communion, and from what I could see, the priest anointed each of them quickly on the hand.  This seems to happen regularly at this particular parish.

I have a degree in theology … [and] I know what the Church teaches about this sacrament.  Almost every single thing this priest told the people about anointing was the exact opposite of authentic Catholic doctrine.  You’ll probably tell me to report this to the diocesan bishop, but that’s not my question.  My question to you is, is this anointing that he’s giving every healthy parishioner even valid?  It doesn’t strike me that it would have any effect, if you’re not dying or seriously ill or otherwise in danger of death. –Maria

A: Unfortunately, we’ve seen cases before of parish clergy who think they can invent new canon law whenever it suits them (see “Annulments and the Authority of the Parish Priest,” “When Can You Get a Dispensation, and Who Can Grant It?” and “Excommunication and the Authority of the Parish Priest,” for some sad-but-true examples).  But the situation which Maria describes takes the concept to another level.  In the articles just cited, the priests were playing fast-and-loose with procedural law more than anything else; but the priest in Maria’s case actually seems to be inventing his own theology to boot!  Let’s first look at what the Church actually teaches about the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and then at what the Code of Canon Law tells us about its proper celebration.  Then we should be better able to address Maria’s question as to the sacrament’s (in)validity when administered in the circumstances she encountered.

The Church traces the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (also known as Extreme Unction) all the way back to the Apostle St. James, who wrote in his Epistle,

Is anyone among you sick?  He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.  (James 5:14-15)

These sentences explain concisely that the Anointing of the Sick affects a Catholic on two different levels: spiritually it provides grace to the soul, and materially it strengthens the sick person’s body.  While we can’t see the spiritual effects with our eyes, it’s not at all uncommon to hear accounts of gravely ill Catholics who received this sacrament and quickly found that their health had improved.  At the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the Council Fathers declared that this was due to

…the grace of the Holy Ghost; Whose anointing cleanses away sins, if there be any still to be expiated, as also the remains of sins; and raises up and strengthens the soul of the sick person, by exciting in him a great confidence in the divine mercy; whereby the sick being supported, bears more easily the inconveniences and pains of his sickness; and more readily resists the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel; and at times obtains bodily health, when expedient for the welfare of the soul. (Session XIV, On the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, Chapter 2)

Unsurprisingly, Trent’s very next chapter 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.”  This statement was perfectly clear; but in practice, it actually seems to have been a bit too specific!  That’s because for generations, far too many Catholics ended up dying without this sacrament—because their relatives erroneously felt that since the sick person didn’t actually appear to be dying, it was too soon to contact the priest.  They thought that they should wait until their ill relative was visibly in his death-throes … and in many cases they waited too long, and the Catholic died before the priest could get there.

For that very reason, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), made a special point of declaring that it was wrong to wait until one was on the verge of dying, to receive this sacrament:

“Extreme unction,” which may also and more fittingly 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 him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.  (SC 73, emphasis added)

It can be seen that the phraseology of the current canon 1004.1 was lifted directly from this paragraph of SC: “The Anointing of the Sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age” (again, emphasis added).

In the course of implementing the conciliar reforms, Pope (now Saint) Paul VI issued the Apostolic Constitution Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum in 1972.  The primary purpose of this document was to announce revisions in the ritual for the celebration of this sacrament—and in the course of so doing, the Pope first cited the above passage from SC, and then described the circumstances when the Anointing of the Sick should be administered:

The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is administered to those who are dangerously ill, by anointing them on the forehand and hands with olive oil….  This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person, having once received the Anointing, recovers and then again falls sick, or if, in the course of the same illness, the danger becomes more acute. (Emphasis added)

Canon 1004.2 is largely a repetition of the latter part of this paragraph: “This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person, having recovered, again becomes gravely ill or if the condition becomes more grave during the same illness.”

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of this sacrament by noting, “The Church believes and confesses that among the seven sacraments there is one especially intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness, the Anointing of the Sick” (CCC 1511).  It also repeats the same citation from SC mentioned above, when it emphasizes that a Catholic need not be “on the point of death” to receive this sacrament, but should seek it when he “begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age” (CCC 1514).

For the most part, Catholics can recognize when somebody “begins to be in danger of death from sickness.”  Theologians also agree that if you’re about to undergo a very risky surgery which you might not survive, it is entirely appropriate to receive the Anointing of the Sick beforehand.  After all, at this point you truly are “in danger of death”!  But it can be hard to identify the precise point when a Catholic “begins to be in danger of death from … old age.”  It goes without saying that this can vary dramatically from person to person.  One frequently hears of men and women who are in their 90’s, yet still engage in sports or dancing, and seem to be the picture of perfect health—so should they be asking to be anointed?  There’s no hard-and-fast rule here; and in any event, such healthy, energetic elderly people might strenuously object to the idea!  For these and similar reasons, knowledgeable and sincere parish clergy may reasonably arrive at different conclusions about what is the best thing to do in individual cases.

The existence of some grey area in practical application does not, however, alter the fact that the Church’s fundamental teaching about this sacrament is unambiguous.  We’ve already seen above that the Church’s various official documents on the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick all tend to quote each other, thereby making abundantly clear the consistency of the Church’s teaching on this sacrament.  So what should be our takeaway thus far?  It’s this: over the centuries, Catholics may have had different understandings of how ill you really need to be before you should receive this sacrament; but there has never been any disagreement that in some way or other you do have to be in ill health in order to receive it.  After all, it’s called “Anointing of the Sick” for a reason!  Directly relevant here is the discussion on this subject in the Catechism of the Council of Trent (here, pp. 206-211).  It cites the first sentence of St. James quoted above, when it notes, “…[A]lthough instituted for the use of all, Extreme Unction is not to be administered indiscriminately to all.  In the first place, it is not to be administered to persons in sound health…”

Now let’s contrast the Church’s teaching (as found in Scripture, the documents of two ecumenical councils, two official Catholic catechisms, and the Code of Canon Law, among other places), with what Maria heard the parish priest tell his congregation.  It’s perfectly clear that Maria is on-track when she says, “Almost every single thing this priest told the people about anointing was the exact opposite of authentic Catholic doctrine.”  There is no basis for telling the faithful that everyone needs to receive the Anointing of the Sick, much less receive it regularly!  Yes, “you never know when you’re going to die,” as this priest said, but this fact is irrelevant here: by this “logic” you might as well permanently camp out in front of a hospital’s emergency room.  It appears that at least some of the faithful listened to the priest and lined up to receive this sacrament after Mass—without there being any indication that they all were “begin[ning] to be in danger due to sickness or old age,” as the Church requires.

So let’s return now to Maria’s question: if young, healthy Catholics—who are not at all in danger of death due to sickness or old age—receive this sacrament, is it valid?  The answer depends on the intended purpose of the Anointing of the Sick, so let’s look at that again.

The Catechism sums up the effects of this sacrament, when it introduces its discussion of the Anointing of the Sick with yet another quotation from Vatican II, this time from Lumen Gentium (LG):

By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of her priests the whole Church commends the sick to the suffering and glorified Lord, asking that He may lighten their suffering and save them; she exhorts them, moreover, to contribute to the welfare of the whole people of God by associating themselves freely with the passion and death of Christ. (CCC 1499, quoting LG 11)

The Catechism also tells us the effects of this sacrament:

… [T]he first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will.  (CCC 1520)
By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. (1521)
This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house. (1523)

So if there’s no need for healing of the body or grace to endure bodily sufferings, and no need to prepare us for death … then what is the point of receiving this sacrament?  What effect could it possibly have?  And if it’s not having any effect, then what could be “valid” about it?

These questions were meant to be rhetorical, but the second one also has a concrete answer: administering this sacrament pointlessly, to Catholics for whom it is not intended (at least at this stage in their lives), can only serve ultimately to trivialize the Anointing of the Sick in the eyes of the faithful.  By wrongly celebrating this sacrament so cavalierly when it is utterly unnecessary, Catholics are unwittingly taught that it’s not so urgent to seek it when circumstances truly require it!  “Yes, Grandpa might be gravely ill, but let’s not bother the priest; he’s already received an anointing dozens of times after Sunday Mass over the years anyway!”

In how many different ways is it wrong to do what this parish priest is doing?  It’s difficult to find any benefit here, spiritual or otherwise.  Maria is right that the appropriate action is to inform the diocesan bishop of what is going on at this parish; it’s a pretty safe bet that the bishop has absolutely no idea, and he should want to know!  Another issue worth considering is this: if the parish priest is so thoroughly twisting the meaning and celebration of one sacrament, is he doing similar things with other sacraments?  One shudders to think of what damage he could be causing if (let’s say) he is celebrating invalid marriages, or administering invalid confirmations (see “Can a Priest Administer the Sacrament of Confirmation?” for a discussion of the invalidity of such an action under the wrong circumstances).  All the more reason why the diocesan bishop should be informed of what’s happening at this parish.

All this being said, you have to admit that there doesn’t appear to be any malice intended here by the parish priest at all.  Rather, it sounds like he is full of good intentions, but woefully ignorant of some pretty basic sacramental theology (which he should have learned in the seminary).  Let’s pray not only for our clergy but also for our future priests who are still seminarians, that they learn to minister to the faithful correctly, as the Church intends.

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