Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
ROME, 28 June 2016 (ZENIT)
Q: In my parish and in neighboring parishes on the first Friday of each month the sacrament of anointing is conferred during Mass. Persons who I know to be in good health and/or are not in danger of death (e.g., young athletes), are anointed. This seems to me to be an abuse of the sacrament. My ground for holding this opinion is that a necessary condition for receiving a sacrament is that one have the capacity to receive it. If one is not baptized, he lacks the capacity to receive any other sacrament. He can consume the consecrated host, but he will fail to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist — he is incapax. If one has not sinned, he is incapable of receiving the sacrament of penance. If one is not seriously ill or in danger of death (e.g., about to be executed), then he has no capacity to receive the sacrament of anointing. I would welcome your comments. — F.M., Gosford, Australia
A: Under present norms the sacrament may be administered “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” (Code of Canon Law 1004 §1). The Catechism, summarizing the effects of this sacrament, says in No. 1532:
“The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects:
“— the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church;
“— the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age;
“— the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance;
“— the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul;
“— the preparation for passing over to eternal life.”
The provisions of the ritual “for the anointing of the sick and their pastoral care [PCS]” issued by the Holy See, clarifies the conditions under which the sacrament may be received.
Regarding the judgment as to the seriousness of the illness PCS, No. 8 states that “It is sufficient to have a prudent or probable judgment about its seriousness. All anxiety about the matter should be put aside and, if necessary, the physician might be consulted.”
Also: “This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person had recovered after his previous reception of anointing. It can also be conferred again if, during the same illness, his dangerous condition becomes more serious.”
Major surgery is also a sufficient motivation for receiving the sacrament even if the condition is not in itself immediately life-threatening: “Before a surgical section (popularly ‘operation’), holy anointing can be given to the sick person as often as the dangerous illness is the cause of this surgery.”
Here the Church distinguishes between an illness that might not of itself warrant reception of the sacrament, and the same illness preceding surgery. In the latter case, anointing becomes warranted.
With reference to the elderly: “Anointing can be conferred on the aged who are greatly weakened in strength, even though there is no sign of a dangerous illness.” In this case the anointing may be repeated periodically as old age progresses.
The sacrament can also be administered to sick children “from the time they have reached the use of reason, so that they can be strengthened by this sacrament.”
The sacrament may also be conferred on the unconscious if “as believers they would likely have asked for the holy anointing while they were in possession of their faculties.” Likewise, if a person is apparently dead but the priest “is in doubt whether the sick person is really dead, he can give him the sacrament conditionally.”
Until relatively recently Catholic doctrine has not seen this sacrament as necessary for non life-threatening chronic illnesses, mental illnesses and conditions such as drug addiction and alcoholism. It could be given, however, in the case of a dangerous situation that results from such conditions as a drug overdose.
Medical science, however, has discovered that some hitherto mental illnesses are in fact symptoms of physical imbalances. For example, the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s is apparently mental, but it is also a fatal, and still incurable, disease.
Even if the serious mental illness is not caused by known physical phenomena, No 53 of the Introduction to PCS opens up the possibility of the use the sacrament in such cases. To wit:
“Some types of mental sickness are now classified as serious. Those who are judged to have a serious mental illness and who would be strengthened by the sacrament may be anointed. The anointing may be repeated in accordance with the conditions for other kinds of severe illness.”
The minister should proceed with some caution with respect to anointing for mental illness. There is no clear cut standard to determine “seriousness.” For this reason, such situations should be handled on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with the person’s physician.
It is it is also important to recall that the Church’s habitual sources of grace such as frequent recourse to the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist, closeness to the Blessed Mother, as well as prayer and seeking spiritual guidance, are of great benefit in helping us to overcome these burdens or at least bear patiently the trials permitted by God.
The motive for conferring the sacrament is not (though it may include) remission of people’s personal sins, but to obtain the strength they might need either for bearing their sufferings, or to overcome discouragement. As PCS, No. 52 states: “Those who receive this sacrament in the faith of the Church will find it a true sign of comfort and support in time of trial. It will work to overcome the sickness if this is God’s will.”
Therefore, although the Church’s dispositions allow for a generous administration of the anointing of the sick, the sacrament is ordered toward the gravely ill from a physical or mental condition. It should not be administered generally and indiscriminately.
Finally, although our reader mentions a condemned criminal, such a person would not normally be apt for anointing of the sick. While death might be imminent, the cause is not due to illness. For such a person the sacraments of reconciliation and Communion would be the normal means of spiritual comfort in these moments.