Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

When to receive anointing of the sick

Many Catholics of a prior generation had an unfortunate impression that one could receive the sacrament of anointing of the sick only very near the point of death. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear accounts of how some members of the faithful would delay requesting this sacrament out of fear that its reception signified that one was about to die. On the other hand, more recent years have seen a trend on the opposite extreme where the sacrament is more or less indiscriminately administered, such as when all present at a Mass are invited to receive the anointing regardless of whether they are actually ill or infirm. Both extremes are misguided. While this sacrament definitely should not be reserved only for those nearing death, the teachings and laws of the church have consistently maintained that serious or dangerous infirmity is the proper occasion for its reception.

The Second Vatican Council’s “Sacrosanctum Concilium” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” 73) teaches that the anointing of the sick “is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone 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.” Several years later, Pope Paul VI taught the following in his “Apostolic Constitution Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum” (“Holy Anointing of the Sick,” Nov. 30, 1972): “The sacrament of anointing of the sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed oil … ” In the current Code of Canon Law, canon 1004 §1 states: “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 by reason of illness or old age.” Similarly, the relevant canons of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1990 to have the force of law for all Eastern Catholic Churches equivalent to the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church) always speaks of the recipient of this sacrament as one who is gravely ill (canons 737 §1; 738; and 740).

The question naturally arises how “serious,” “grave” or “dangerous” must an illness or infirmity be to call for the administration of this sacrament? In his 1923 apostolic letter “Explorata Res,” Pope Pius XI provided some qualification: “it is sufficient that there is a prudent or probable judgment concerning the danger (of death).” Theologians since that time have consistently used and explained the same language. Jesuit Henry Davis (author of “Moral and Pastoral Theology,” 1957) taught that “the danger need not be obvious and certain; it is sufficient if the danger is probable, that is, if thought to be probable … It is not necessary to wait for imminent danger.” Dominican Nicholas Halligan (author of “The Administration of the Sacraments,” 1963) explained that the “danger need not be imminent but must be at least probable. The prudent estimation of the danger or its gravity will be made principally by the minister … He will weigh in his consideration the judgment of others, e.g., physician, family, the sick person. As long as it is true illness which is presently and actually grave and dangerous (even though it may be removable), the sacrament is validly conferred.”

Charles Renati, in his dissertation on “The Recipient of Extreme Unction” (The Catholic University of America in Washington, 1961), summarized the common understanding, “regarding the presence of a danger of death it suffices that, from the attendant circumstances, some interested person reasonably judge that the sickness in the patient raises a real probability that death could follow from it.”

Hence, the gravity or danger of the infirmity should not be understood narrowly as applying only to cases where death appears certain, or even the more likely outcome. Rather, it is enough that the sickness or infirmity is reasonably judged to be of such a nature that death could follow from it as a probable or prudently feared result, even if that result can be avoided (e.g., through medical means), and even if survival is equally or more probable. In cases of doubt regarding the dangerous nature of the illness, the Code of Canon Law gives the benefit of the doubt in favor of administration of the sacrament (see canon 1005). Finally, it should be noted that “this sacrament may be repeated if the sick person, having recovered, again becomes ill or if, in the same illness, the danger becomes more serious” (canon 1004 §2).

Arias is an assistant professor at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020