From time to time questions arise about the Sacrament of the Anointing of
the Sick. Two inquiries predominate, who may minister the sacrament, and who
may receive it.
Who may minister the Sacrament.
1. Every priest, and only a priest, validly administers the anointing of
2. All priests to whom the care of souls has been committed have the
duty and the right to administer the anointing of the sick to all the
faithful committed to their pastoral office; for a reasonable cause any
other priest can administer this sacrament with at least the presumed
consent of the aforementioned priest.
3. Every priest is allowed to carry blessed oil with him so that he can
administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick in case of
The minister of the sacrament is a priest or bishop. Deacons, religious
men or women, and lay men or women, are not valid ministers of the
Sacrament. The Holy See recently published the following doctrinal note,
drafted by the Pope while still Prefect of the doctrinal congregation.
11 February 2005
In canon 1003, paragraph 1 (Cf. also can. 739 paragraph 1 of the Code
of Cannons of the Oriental Churches), the Code of Canon Law includes
exactly the doctrine expressed by the Tridentine Council (Session XIV,
can. 4: DS 1719; Cf. also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.
1516), according to which only priests (Bishops and presbyters) are
ministers of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
This doctrine is "definitive tenenda." Neither deacons nor lay persons
therefore may exercise such ministry and any action in this connection
is a simulation of the sacrament.
Rome, from the headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, February 11, 2005, in the Memoria of the Virgin of Lourdes.
+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger
+ Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
Titular Archbishop of Sila
* * *
To the Most Eminent and Excellent
Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences
In these last years the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has
received several questions about the ministry of the Sacrament of the
Anointing of the Sick.
In this connection, this Dicastery considers it opportune to send to all
pastors of the Catholic Church the attached Note on the Ministry of the
Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (Cf. Annex 1).*
Also transmitted because of its usefulness is a brief note on the
history of the doctrine in this regard, prepared by an expert on the
subject (Cf. Annex 2).
In communicating the foregoing, I take advantage of the occasion to
offer you my best regards and to confirm my devotedness,
+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger
* EWTN will make the annexes available as soon as we have them.
Who may receive the Sacrament.
The anointing of the sick by which the Church commends to the suffering
and glorified Lord the faithful who are dangerously sick so that He
relieve and save them, is conferred by anointing them with oil and using
the words prescribed in the liturgical books.
1. The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the
faithful who, after having reached the use of reason, begins to be in
danger due to sickness or old age.
2. This sacrament can be repeated whenever the sick person again falls
into a serious sickness after convalescence or whenever a more serious
crisis develops during the same sickness.
These canons can be summarized as follows. Those who satisfy three
conditions may be anointed:
1. A baptized Catholic,
2. Reached the age of reason,
3. Begun to be in danger from illness or the infirmities of age, or
have become sick again or underwent a further crisis. It should be noted
that the danger need only have begun to exist. The person does not have
to be "in extremis" (in imminent danger of dying). This is a change from
the pastoral practice before the Second Vatican Council.
The ritual gives the following examples:
· "those who are
dangerously ill through sickness or old age"
· "a sick person...before surgery whenever
the surgery is necessitated by a dangerous illness"
· "elderly people...if they are weak,
though not dangerously ill"
· "sick children...sufficiently mature to
be comforted by the sacrament"
· "sick people who have lost consciousness
or who have lost the use of reason...if ...they would have requested it
if they had been in possession of their faculties"
Doubts about who may receive.
The communal celebration of the anointing of the sick for many of the
sick at the same time who are duly prepared and rightly disposed can be
performed according to the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop.
This sacrament is to be administered when there is a doubt whether the
sick person has attained the use of reason, whether the person is
dangerously ill, or whether the person is dead.
This sacrament is to be conferred upon sick persons who requested it at
least implicitly when they were in control of their faculties.
The anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who
obstinately persist in manifest serious sin.
From the canons and the ritual it is clear that the sacrament may not be
given indiscriminately. So, for example, the following may not receive,
except where noted.
1. One who is not a baptized Catholic. Those who are not baptized may
never receive. Baptized non-Catholics may not receive, unless the
provisions of canon 844 and the norms of the local bishop and the
bishops conference are met. For Orthodox Christians and other Churches
with valid sacraments, canon 844, 3 provides that they:
· ask for it on their own
· be properly disposed.
For all other baptized Christians (Anglican, Lutheran and
Protestant), canon 844, 4 states that the following conditions must be
· danger of death or other grave
· inability to approach a minister of
their own community
· ask for it on their own
· manifest Catholic faith in the
· be properly disposed
Proper disposition for anyone who is conscious includes the
confession of all mortal sins since the last good confession, or since
baptism, if the person had never made a confession.
2. One who has not reached the age of reason. Those who have not
reached the age of reason, or never had its use, may not be anointed.
However, a child may not have reached the normal age of First Confession
and First Communion, the typical application of the "age of reason"
standard, but still may show enough use of the faculty to understand
what is taking place and benefit from the sacrament. This could also be
the case with a mentally challenged individual. Doubt about whether the
person has sufficiently use of reason would be decided in favor of the
sick person (c.1005).
3. One who is not in danger from sickness or infirmity of age. Those
who are simply ill or old, without danger from sickness or infirmity,
may not be anointed. Even communal celebrations of the Sacrament presume
this condition (c.1002). Excluded also are the physically or mentally
handicapped without any accompanying danger from sickness or infirmity
of age. There is obviously both a medical and pastoral component to this
issue. In that regard, the ritual states, "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" (n. 8). Finally,
those in danger from some external cause, such as war, natural
disaster, sentence of execution, or surgery unrelated to a dangerous
illness, are excluded.
An unspoken criteria, alluded to in canon 1005, is that the sick person
must be alive. All the sacraments presume that the recipient is in the
"wayfaring state" and has not departed this life for eternity. However, the
Church permits anointing if there is doubt. The pastoral practice is to
favor the person and anoint them, provided it is not certain that they are
dead. This anointing should be absolute rather than conditional, as in the
past. In 1983 the Congregation for Divine Worship, in keeping with this
canon in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, deleted the conditional form of
anointing from the ritual ("Promulgato Codice," Notitiae 19 
Finally, canon 1007 excludes the giving of the sacrament to those who are
manifestly unrepentant. If the person is still conscious the way to the
state of grace is through the Sacrament of Penance, not through Anointing of
the Sick. Having repented, they can then be anointed. If the sick person is
unconscious and is known to have obstinately persisted in grave sin up to
the point of losing consciousness, with no sign of repentance, they cannot
be anointed. However, this is a high bar for denying the sacrament. Such a
person who showed even an implicit sign of repentance (e.g. "please call the
priest"), could be anointed. Another person who while not an obstinate
sinner was nonetheless in the state of grave sin, but who had manifested an
habitual desire to die a Catholic, could be anointed, even if he became
unconscious in the very act of sinning. The basis of the different treatment
is a prudent judgment that given their habitual frame of mind the person
would repent if he could.
The Canon Law, Letter & Spirit, The Canon Law Society of Great
Britain and Ireland (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1995).
Code of Canon Law Annotated, Canon Law faculties of the University
of Navarre & St. Paul University (Montreal: Wilson & Lafleur Limited, 1992).
The Sacraments and their Celebration, Nicholas Halligan, O.P. (New
York: Alba House, 1986).