QUAERITUR: Does sacrament of anointing forgive mortal sins?

Sacrament of Anointing Extreme UnctionFrom a reader:

Can mortal sins be forgiven in the sacrament of Extreme Unction? The Catechism of Trent seems to say no:

“Pastors, therefore, should teach that by this Sacrament is imparted grace that remits sins, and especially lighter, or as they are commonly called, venial sins; for mortal sins are removed by the Sacrament of Penance. Extreme Unction was not instituted primarily for the remission of grave offences; only Baptism and Penance accomplish this directly.”

But the Catechism of St. Pius X says yes:

Q. What are the effects of Extreme Unction?
A. … (2) It remits venial sins, and also mortal sins which the sick person, if contrite, is unable to confess;

The Catechism of Bl. JPII just says “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (Jas 5:15)

If a person’s mortal sins were forgiven through Extreme Unction, would that absolution be conditional on them confessing those sins to a priest if they recovered? (like with a General Absolution?)

I don’t see what is confusing here.  The primary means for forgiveness of post-baptismal mortal sins is clearly the Sacrament of Penance.  That doesn’t mean that the Sacrament of Anointing does not forgive mortal sins.

In short, if a person incapable of confessing his mortal sins is anointed, his mortal sins are in that anointing forgiven.  However, on recovery he must make a confession of sins when possible.  In that respect it is similar to General Absolution.

I can’t say everything there is to say about this sacrament here, but I can offer some comments.

The effects of the Sacrament of Anointing or Anointing of the Sick or, sometimes, Extreme Unction, are:

  • To increase sanctifying grace in a moment of great need (danger of death)
  • To console the person
  • To strengthen against temptation
  • To heal the body
  • To forgive mortal sins when a person is incapable of confessing them or is unaware of his state of soul

Anointing was placed in the category of “sacraments of the living”, a handy way of saying that for them to be as effective as they can be, we must receive them while “alive”, that is, not “dead in sin”, that is, in the state of grace.  The key to understanding anointing and forgiveness of mortal sins is that the person must be incapable for one reason or another of confessing mortal sins.  However, upon recovery or a change of condition such that he is capable, he is bound to confess mortal sins in the normal way as soon as possible.  Danger of death always changes the playing field.

This is one reason why I believe it is an abuse of the sacrament of anointing and unhelpful for people when the sacrament is given en masse without regard for the person’s condition of soul or, in many cases, body.

It can be argued that when a person reaches a certain age, he or she should be anointed because, at that age you live in a perpetual state of danger of death.  I find that argument weak.  If a person is baptized, he draws on the graces of that sacrament.  The sacrament of confirmation is intended also to strength us against temptation and live our Christian character well in moments of challenge.  The sacrament of penance also strengthens us against sinning and it also consoles us when we are not in danger of imminent death.  The Eucharist forgives venial sins and is our greatest consolation and strength in good times and bad, and at every stage of life.  Furthermore, as far as these en masse anointing services are concerned, there is often no provision for people to make a sacramental confession before they are anointed.  It is wrong, simply wrong, to anoint a person in the state of sin if there is no real danger of death looming on the horizon.  The sacrament cannot be effective for forgiveness of mortal sins if he or she is perfectly capable to make a confession.

The sacrament of anointing should truly evoke reverential awe because it associates us with the suffering Lord, the Crucified Savior, whose Passion gives meaning to all human suffering.

That’s not nothing.

Another point.

The fact that the sacrament of anointing, in some circumstances, forgives mortal sins, then the only valid and licit minister of the sacrament is a sacerdos, a priest or bishop.


Neither can nuns in pantsuits with a lapel pin.  Neither can a parish volunteer.  Only a priest or bishop validly administers the sacrament of anointing.

This is a surprise to many.

Therefore, anything that resembles or simulates the actions of the sacrament of anointing should be stopped, so that people are not confused a) about what they are getting .. not getting, and b) what different roles in the Church are.

BTW… for those of you who are perhaps newer, less-seasoned Catholics.  The term “extreme unction” means first, that it is an anointing (“unction” from Latin ungo or unguo, “to smear” and this unctio “an anointing”) and the idea that the person is “in extremis“, that is “”at the farthest points”, which usually means “at the point of death”, though it can be taken “at the limits of one’s powers”, which is pretty close to meaning “near death”.

That said: The sacrament of anointing is not simply for the nearness of death.  It is for the sick or infirm.  But I think we must be wary of making it into something that it isn’t.

Sacraments, all sacraments, should be simultaneously familiar and awesome.  They should be thoroughly incorporated into our lives and approached and received as often as appropriate, with something I can only describe as fearful familiarity, timid  boldness, reverential ease.  They should be both commonplace and also as if the rarest of events.  We should be at the same time filled with longing for them when we need them and also filled with pious dread at the mystery of God’s ineffable favor poured out on us for no merit of our own, all because He has deigned to make us His adopted sons and daughters.

So… in short, the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick can forgive mortal sins in certain circumstances.  It is, however, a sacrament to be received, unless impeded, in the state of grace, and only a priest can give it.

Use it.  Don’t abuse it.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. BaedaBenedictus says:

    That exorcism movie The Rite, which came out early this year, has a scene where a deacon (the main character, the young atheist seminarian) performs extreme unction on someone who has just been hit by a car. I remember thinking it a good example of a sacrament being effected “ex opere operato” except that it wasn’t a sacrament!

  2. APX says:

    which usually means “at the point of death”, though it can be taken “at the limits of one’s powers”, which is pretty close to meaning “near death”.

    I knew Exteme Unction could forgive mortal sins if the person is incapable of confessing, but this is where I get confused because I have read that Extreme Unction can also be given after the person has physically died, so long as rigor mortis hadn’t started. This was said because we are not able to know the exact point at which the soul leaves the body. So is this true as well?

  3. Legisperitus says:

    APX: I think that would be a conditional anointing “Si vivis…”

    Father, thank you for this thoughtful and informative post.

  4. pfreddys says:

    Isn’t it common practice for the priest to give absolution even if the person is not aware/awake and then proceed to Extreme Unction?

  5. Bryan Boyle says:

    I have to say…I’ve received the sacrament once…don’t know whether I was in extremis or not (my lungs were collapsed…and was pretty foggy at the time…understandably…just remember the Filipino nurse, seeing that I was clasping my rosary while on the gurney…asked if I wanted a priest…don’t think she waited for my response)…anyway…don’t discount the power of His healing that this sacrament imparts…I do recall that I felt totally accepting of whatever path God had chosen for me at that point…and to be honest, quite peaceful as the anointing was done. I think that’s why all the good priests I know carry the oil of the sick on them at all times. As a layman, I can tell you there is no greater gift than to face a crisis like this, knowing that one of Our Lady’s sons has imposed this sacrament to assist you on your journey.

    I did go to confession a few days later (post-surgery, still in the hospital bed) when the hospital priest came around to distribute communion. We had a long talk (well, as long as it should be) about the effects of the sacrament on my soul at that point, as well as the strength it imparts, whether it’s to face your judgment day or to help point you towards the continuous reformation of your life. I still think of it from time to time…and know that it was what was needed…since it could probably have gone either way.

    So…to the unknown priest who rushed to my side and anointed me…thank you.

  6. APX says:

    @Bryan Boyle

    Having one collapsed lung is pretty serious. Having two collapsed lungs is extremely serious.

  7. irishgirl says:

    I think the only time I was anointed was the day I had cancer surgery (hysterectomy).
    When I made my arrangements to go into the hospital, I made sure I let them know that I wanted a priest to anoint me before I went into surgery.
    Sure enough, the priest came into my room before I was taken down to the operating room and he anointed me.

  8. Lepidus says:

    What about the punishment due to sin? I recently heard that the Sacrament of Anointing removes that as well, similar to a plenary indulgence. Seems to me like that is just an excuse for the “canonization” funeral homilies. (He is already in heaven). It also seems like a weak excuse not to pray for the dead. (Don’t give for Masses; Give a memorial.) Any documentation on that?

  9. Banjo pickin girl says:

    I was at church one Sunday last year and had my cardiac strangeness that sometimes comes on. I felt a little faint. I asked one of our priests for the Annointing of the Sick and the heart palpitations stopped and didn’t come back again for about 10 months.

    I ask to be annointed when my condition gets significantly worse. My current pastor seems to think it should only be done once. I ask for it anyway. It is part of the process I guess.

  10. dad29 says:

    if a person incapable of confessing his mortal sins is anointed, his mortal sins are in that anointing forgiven

    A great comfort to us whose relatives were/are afflicted by Alzheimer’s!

  11. Bryan Boyle says:

    @APX: agreed…can look back on it now with somewhat gallows humor…at the time…not so much. Thank goodness for quick-thinking ER doctors, a nurse with lots of compassion, and Our Lord looking lovingly at me and probably saying “Not your time yet, my son…” while He guided their hands.

    (Full disclosure…was not at the tension stage yet…came within a whisker according to the Dr., never went below 70% saturation…and had pleurodesis administered.)

  12. Luke says:

    Thank you for this, Father: I learned a few new things today.

  13. There was a book published about twenty years ago by Liturgical Press, authored by one John Ziegler, entitled “Let Them Anoint The Sick.” Long story short, he maintained that it was the practice of the early Church for deacons to be able to anoint. It’s been years since I’ve read it, and even then I never really finished it. But some of its submissions are probably bandied about when this subject arises. I’m guessing that this might have been common before what we know as “sacraments” were as clearly defined as they were by the Councils of Florence and/or Trent — which is not to say there were never seven of them.

    And that’s when it becomes a long story.

  14. manwithblackhat: Deacons CANNOT anoint. 

  15. James Joseph says:


    The great psychologist and professor Fr. Chad Ripberger over at the FSSP seminary has quite a bit to say about Extreme Unction. His audio lectures are available at http://www.sensustraditionis.org/multimedia.html

    I might be mistaken. I think it is he that says that as an exorcist he uses Extreme Unction as a way of bolstering a person’s pre-disposal to recieving Sacramental Grace: Confession, Penance, & Reconciliation (for the soul), then Extreme Unction (for the body), and then the most holy Eucharist (for both).


  16. Father Z: I believe that the correct practice of the Church, that only bishops and priests can anoint, was implicitly understood in my remarks, thus I (respectfully) stand behind them. Were that not clear enough for you, let me be clearer: I stand with Mother Church on this issue.

  17. That exorcism movie The Rite, which came out early this year, has a scene where a deacon (the main character, the young atheist seminarian) performs extreme unction on someone who has just been hit by a car. I remember thinking it a good example of a sacrament being effected “ex opere operato” except that it wasn’t a sacrament!

    That was the big thing that bothered me about The Rite: it seemed really fuzzy about Holy Orders, and the difference between priest, deacon and layman. You had somebody who was not a priest doing things that only a priest can do (and, apparently, efficaciously). (Also, we saw the guy being ordained a transitional deacon, but were left with the impression that this was something he could just walk away from if he felt like it, but that’s another issue.)

    While we’re on the subject, a layman can’t anoint, either. This also needs to be clarified in some circles.

  18. Jason Keener says:


    There seems to be some debate about whether or not the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick itself removes any or all temporal punishment due to sin. We can be quite sure, however, that the Apostolic Blessing or Pardon that often accompanies the Anointing of the Sick does remove all temporal punishment due to sin.

    From Father Mark Gantley, JCL:

    “The Apostolic Pardon (or blessing) is an indulgence given in situations of danger of death. The focus is on the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. The words of the prayer explain the meaning of the act: “Through the holy mysteries of our redemption may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.” Or “By the authority which the Apostolic See has given me, I grant you a full pardon and the remission of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

    The Handbook of Indulgences #28 states: “Priests who minister the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and-death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence. But if a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition ‘provided they regularly prayed in some way.'”

  19. Alice says:

    I remember memorizing an answer in the Baltimore Catechism about Extreme Unction (Anointing of the Sick) taking away the temporal punishment due to sin and the Catholic Encyclopedia concurs. The priest also gives a plenary indulgence to the dying, so between the two, the person really ought to go straight to heaven BUT it depends on the person’s disposition. God doesn’t force Himself on anyone and if the person is still attached to sin, he’ll end up in Purgatory (or worse).

  20. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but as the text from the Catechism reads, Extreme Unction does not forgive mortal sins. Here is the quote again:

    “It remits venial sins, and also mortal sins which the sick person, if contrite, is unable to confess.”

    Note that it says “if contrite.” Contrition forgives all sins, including mortal sins, of itself. So it is not like attrition, for which absolution is necessary for forgiveness of mortal sins. Thus, since with contrition the mortal sin is forgiven already, Extreme Unction does not forgive it. And it seems that, unlike Penance, Extreme Unction does not forgive a sin for which there is only attrition.

    The requirement of Confession is not voided by the forgiveness of sin acquired by contrition, however, since Confession does more than remit sins. For example, it readmits the sinner to Communion. So, all things being equal, one needs to Confess mortal sins before going to Communion, even if one has perfect contrition.

  21. Alice says:

    Out of curiosity, can a priest validly anoint someone who is asking not to be anointed? When I was in middle school, we found out that I have a congenital condition that won’t ever put me in danger of death or keep me from living a normal life. My mother wanted me to be anointed. I refused because she had made me read enough about my condition and taught me enough Baltimore Catechism that I knew it was inappropriate. The priest did it anyway and either he or my mother forced my hands open to be anointed. I don’t remember much because I was so upset and trying so hard to not look willful and disobedient in front of the priest. Looking back, I don’t even know if I should confess disobedience or know that I did the right thing.

  22. BaedaBenedictus says:


    Indeed. It is preposterous that a seminary rector would blackmail a deacon who is leaving because he does not believe in God. And what must this apostate seminarian do to avoid paying back the seminary education costs? Go to Rome to train as an exorcist!

    And, of course, you’re right, not only does this deacon perform sacraments, [SPOILER] he performs an exorcism so successful that it expels Satan himself after one session! [/SPOILER]

    Getting back to the point, there certainly is much confusion and ignorance about the sacraments of Extreme Unction and Holy Orders (as there is about the other five, alas!).

    The much-maligned “rote memorization” and “ossified manuals” of the old days did one thing good. Of course one must “imbibe” this sacraments as well as understand what they are and what they aren’t. But how is one going to do that today if one does not understand them first? The “rote memorization” and “ossified manuals” were like a cake mold into which the experience of the sacrament could be poured. Now the “experience” of the sacrament is poured all over the floor—it’s all “experience” and little understanding.

    Priests and catechists threw out the old pedagogy and decided to “open things up so the Spirit can flow freely.” But they showed a fundamental naivete about human psychology and human weakness. But what Spirit is flowing if you don’t even know who the Spirit is? At my adult confirmation, my bishop decided to do a quiz during his homily, asking us newbies about various aspects of the faith. My RCIA classmates didn’t do too well, even after 6 months of classes. The low point was when the bishop asked “What is the Holy Spirit?” And one of my classmates answered, “It’s Jesus!”

  23. albizzi says:

    I was apalled in being told that the late Pdt of the french Republic, François Mitterrand (who was probably a great sinner, knowing some scandalous accounts of his personal life) was given the Extreme Unction by his DOCTOR.
    Anyways, it seems that his mother who was a pious and devout women offered her life for his salvation’s stake.

  24. Dr. Eric says:

    I for one wish that this Sacrament was more widely known, understood, and utilized. I have been healed through the Sacrament of Anointing.

  25. RJS007 says:

    @APX It is the Teaching of The Church that Extreme Unction NEVER benefits a DEAD man. When your dead, your dead. Period. Exclamation point. There is no more availability for sacramental forgiveness. It’s then between The Deity and the Soul.

  26. cregduff says:


    Would it be an abuse to ask how the “Apostolic Pardon” fits in here?

    This is a wonderfully rich entry, thank you.


  27. cregduff: The Apostolic Benediction or pardon is really a different issue. A priest can give this so that when a person is in extremis the priest can grant this remission of temporal punishment and forgive sins. It is generally used in conjunction with “the Last Rites”, that is, continuous administration of the sacraments of penance, anointing, and Viaticum (Eucharist), thus preparing a soul to go on to judgment.

  28. Dr. Sebastianna says:

    Are there any other circumstances in which this Sacrament could licitly be used, other than with a person who is “in extremis” from a physical problem? What about very serious spiritual problems, such as obsession, oppression, and possession?

  29. RJS007 says:

    @Fr. John Zuhlsdorf No Priest can take away the temporal punishments due to sin, otherwise there would be no need for the Doctrine of Purgatory.

  30. AnAmericanMother says:


    Our archbishop did the same thing to my daughter’s confirmation class. They were his first confirmandi as our new archbishop, so I think he was kind of checking out the standard of instruction. (The priest in charge and the Religious Education director were having kittens because His Grace didn’t inform them of this little wrinkle until about 45 minutes before the Mass began). At first they thought he was going to question the kids beforehand . . . but turned out he interrogated them individually, on open mike, when they came up with their sponsors to be confirmed! Then I really thought Father and his assistant were going to stroke out!

    As it turned out, all the kids were well instructed and had paid attention in class — they answered all the questions correctly and well. Some of the questions were tough — name the seven sacraments, name the spiritual or corporal works of mercy, name the precepts of the Church, name a work written by a particular saint. Nobody needed to worry — the parish had a class for parents while we were waiting for the little darlings (who couldn’t drive yet), basically explaining to us what the kids were learning next door. Good, solid, authentic Catholic teaching straight out of the Catechism. This is a good parish.

  31. MikeJ9919 says:

    Fr. Z,

    I do not disagree with your point that only priests can administer the Anointing of the Sick, but I question your reasoning. A priest need not be the minister of a sacrament simply because that sacrament forgives mortal sins. If that were so, then only a priest could baptize, and that is clearly not the case.

  32. Jason Keener says:

    Dr. Sebastianna,

    The Church has special prayers for people who may be suffering from diabolical obsession or possession, so I see no need for the Anointing of the Sick to be used in such cases. I would argue, however, that those suffering from serious mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, and severe anxiety could avail themselves of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Theologians seem to be arguing for a broader use of the Sacrament as our understanding of Christ’s healing ministry matures. I also think it would make sense to allow infants and younger children who are ill to receive the Anointing of the Sick even if these young people have not reached the age of reason because Christ’s mercy is not dependent on us understanding how the Sacraments work.


    The Church has the power of binding and loosing and can extend a plenary indulgence to those who are dying. Some people will still go to Purgatory because not every person who dies has the benefit of receiving the Apsotolic Blessing or Pardon, which is basically a plenary indulgence.

  33. Alice, it sounds like you were trying to follow your conscience. If you were over the age of reason, sane and mentally alert, and not under the influence of drugs or medication that made you unable to make decisions, your parents and your priest had no right to force you to receive any Sacrament. I am sure they meant well and were probably worried about you, but it was wrong. Please forgive them.

    If you did more or less consent despite mental reservations, it’s not so clear cut. Actual duress prevents any Sacrament from occurring, I think, so probably you weren’t anointed except physically. (But don’t believe me, because I’m not a canon lawyer or moral theologian and am just making an uneducated guess.) That said, you may still have received graces from the Lord, out of His grace and pity upon you, and upon your worried family and acquaintances.

  34. Oh… and if you were only refusing because you thought you had to be in danger of death, whereas your mother and priest were operating on the “seriously ill” definition from the Catechism and from Sacram unctionem infirmorum… It wouldn’t have been wrong for you to receive Anointing, because you were technically “infirm” because of your condition.

    But making somebody upset and angry and then giving them a Sacrament against their will? Why would that be a good idea? Nobody would tell their kids to go up for Communion while angry.

    I agree that there are some people who seem to want to have everybody anointed regardless of seriousness. (I couldn’t really see my broken arm as sick enough for being anointed, myself, though I wouldn’t question anybody who did want it with a broken limb.)

  35. Re: Fr. Z’s reasoning, the Catechism just quotes the Bible about calling for the “presbyters” – ie, not the deacons.

  36. Alice says:

    Suffice to say, my condition is no more serious than strabismus and needing glasses. :) Maybe that’s a good reason to receive Anointing, but it totally went against the catechesis that my mother had given me.

  37. Mary G says:

    It always concerned me that a patient admitted to a Nursing Home after an adult life outside the Church (possibly married outside the Church and never returned) puts ‘Catholic’ on the admission form. Then the lay person regularly taking Holy Communion to that Nursing Home gives the Blessed Sacrament to that patient. Fortunately, with a new pastor, he asks to be notified so that he can visit that patient to offer the Sacraments before the lay person’s next visit.

  38. Allan S. says:

    I have received this sacrament three times. The one time I was awake the priest read from a special book, and as part of the sacrament I was asked to confess mortal sins which were then absolved, all within the context of the sacrament. The entire sacrament took about 15 minutes.

  39. Just needing glasses??? Oh, now I definitely agree with you. Obviously not super-great to have, obviously nice to be miraculously healed from , but not obviously a matter of danger of death unless you had a childhood habit of leaving your glasses behind and playing in traffic. :) Somebody should have just given your mother some St. Joseph oil from up in Canada, or something. (Heh, maybe priest should keep a store of sacramentals around for these sorts of occasions….)

    It’s weird how some problems are more distressing for other people than the people who have ’em.

  40. RJS007 says:

    @MikeJ9919 Laity can only baptize in an emergency and after that a priest MUST be called in to perform the Rite of Baptism.

  41. RJS007 says:

    @Jason Keener The Magisterium has the power of Binding and Loosing and that is concerning sins and forgiveness as expressed by Jesus in John 20:22. That never takes away from the Damage of Sin. Reparation is always required. It is not an option. As in Baptism, A Plenary Indulgence will get you straight to heaven if you die the second after you recieve it. Nothing unlcean shall enter heaven. Nothing. The Church is not a magician.

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