The Sacrament of Anointing and Non-Catholics

by Father Roger J. Scheckel

On May 3rd the Church celebrates the Feast of two apostles, Ss. Philip and James the Less. Saint James the Less was the inspired human author of the Epistle that bears his name. In that Epistle he sets forth the importance of praying for and administering the Sacrament of Anointing to those who are infirm (James 5:13-15).

The Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Christ and bequeathed to His Church (Mark 6:11-13). This Sacrament dispenses grace for spiritual and physical healing, provided that physical healing would be good for the recipient’s spiritual welfare.

Also, this Sacrament can bring about the forgiveness of sin as well as the satisfaction of the penalty for sin if sickness or injury makes it impossible to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance in its ordinary sacramental form, e.g., the inability of making an auricular confession and carrying out a prescribed penance due to unconsciousness. When it is possible, the celebration of the Sacrament of Anointing is preceded by the Sacrament of Penance and followed by reception of Holy Communion.

The Sacrament of Anointing is primarily but not exclusively employed in those situations and circumstances that may lead to the death of a person. Due to this proximity to the possibility of death, the Church provides a generous latitude for the Sacrament’s conferral on those who are gravely sick and injured and almost certain to die. However, this generosity cannot be misconstrued to mean that the Church embraces a casual or indiscriminating attitude in the administration of the Sacrament. There are some Catholics (and perhaps, catechists) who incorrectly believe that the Sacrament of Anointing can and should be given to any baptized person (Catholic or not) who is sick or injured, including those who have grown fragile due to advanced years.

It is true that every baptized person is able to validly receive the Sacrament of Anointing; however, because something is possible does not make it necessary or even desirable. It is for this reason that in the administration of the sacraments the Church not only requires that they be validly received but lawfully administered as well. Determining the lawful administration of the sacraments requires knowledge of the Church’s canons (laws) that regulate this administration.

For a proper understanding of the lawful administration of the Anointing of the Sick, a study of Canons 1004-1007, 842 and 844 is necessary. Canon 844, which sets forth various conditions which must be present in order for a Catholic priest to lawfully administrate the Sacraments of Anointing, Penance and the Holy Eucharist to a member of the faithful who is not Catholic is particularly noteworthy.

Prudent discrimination is required on the part of the Catholic priest when he is called to administer the Sacrament of Anointing. Some of the conditions that are to be considered before administering the Sacrament are: is this person truly infirm, has this person reached the age of reason, are they truly repentant of any manifestly grave sin they have committed, are they in fact alive. In any situation where the answer to these questions is in the negative, the priest cannot lawfully administer the Sacrament. (It must be noted that, if there is doubt as to whether or not a person is alive or dead, the Sacrament of Anointing should be administered.)

In the situation of a non-Catholic member of the faithful, the above conditions are in play along with a number of others that are set forth in Canon 844. This canon which should be read from beginning to end by all catechists states that if there is a danger of death or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the Bishop’s Conference, there is some other grave and pressing need, a Catholic priest could validly and lawfully administer to a non-Catholic who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously asks for the Sacrament. Also they must be able to demonstrate the Catholic Faith in respect to the Sacrament of Anointing and must be properly disposed to receiving it. These conditions are not casual or what would be considered ordinary. They are rare and unusual. This is important to understand less we inadvertently encourage the notion in our catechesis that a non-Catholic is to approach a Catholic priest for this Sacrament as would a Catholic.

For a catechist to desire for a non-Catholic to receive the Sacrament of Anointing is commendable and understandable, especially with it being positioned, in the majority of situations and circumstances, close to the eventuality of a person leaving this world and appearing before Christ as their judge. The Sacrament of Anointing is the very best preparation in which to participate before our particular judgment. Nevertheless, the best expression of this desire is to assist our non-Catholic brothers and sisters into full communion through a profession of faith, and reception of the Sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion.

Canons referenced for the valid reception and the lawful administration of the Sacrament of Anointing. Taken from: Code of Canon Law Annotated, (Woodridge, IL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2004).

“Member of the faithful” refers to a baptized Catholic.

“Catholic minister” refers to a Catholic priest.

A baptized non-Catholic, must meet the conditions of Canon 844 §4 for the lawful administration of the Sacrament of Anointing.

Canon 842
§ 1. A person who has not received Baptism cannot validly be admitted to the other sacraments.
Canon 1003
§ 1. Every priest, but only a priest, can validly administer the Anointing of the Sick.
Canon 1004
§ 1. 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.
§ 2. This Sacrament can be repeated if the sick person, having recovered, again becomes seriously ill or if, in the same illness, the danger becomes more serious.
Canon 1005
If there is any doubt as to whether the sick person has reached the use of reason, or is dangerously ill, or is dead, this Sacrament is to be administered.
Canon 1006
This Sacrament is to be administered to the sick who, when they were in possession of their faculties, at least implicitly asked for it.
Canon 1007
The Anointing of the Sick is not to be conferred upon those who obstinately persist in a manifestly grave sin.
Canon 844
§ 1. Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ’s faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from Catholic ministers, except as provided in § 2, 3 and 4 of this canon and in canon 861 § 2.
§ 2. Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ’s faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, may lawfully receive the Sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.
§ 3. Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the Sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick to members of the Eastern Churches not in full communion with the Catholic Church, if they spontaneously ask for them and are properly disposed. The same applies to members of other Churches which the Apostolic See judges to be in the same position as the aforesaid Eastern Churches so far as the sacraments are concerned.
§ 4. If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgment of the diocesan Bishop or the Bishops’ Conference, there is some other grave pressing need, Catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church,

  1. who cannot approach a minister of their own community and
  2. who spontaneously ask for them, provided that
  3. they demonstrate the Catholic Faith in respect of these sacraments and
  4. are properly disposed.

§ 5. In respect of the cases dealt with in §§ 2,3 and 4, the diocesan Bishop or the Bishops’ Conference is not to issue general norms except after consultation with the competent authority, at least at the local level, of the non-Catholic Church or community concerned.

Originally published in the Tilma, Summer 2007