QUAERITUR: Why not Sacrament of Anointing before execution?

From a reader…


In my Religion book by Fr. Laux, “Mass and the Sacraments”, he says without any explanation that soldiers going into battle and criminals before execution cannot receive Extreme Unction. I get the soldiers part, but why can’t the criminals receive Extreme Unction? I also read somewhere that they receive it AFTER death… This sounds weird to me and I’m really confused now.

The law is pretty clear.

Can.  1004 §1. The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.

This doesn’t say execution or about to engage in battle or some other activity like driving in a NASCAR race.

And there is the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1514 “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 deathfrom sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.”

Common points?  Danger of death… sick and old age.

One can be in danger of death for many reasons.  For example, someone who is about to undergo surgery requiring a general anesthesia could be in danger of death.  People about to be executed or go into battle are in danger of death. Those are not occasions for the sacrament because they are external to the person.  Once damage is inflicted through a wound and danger of death is obvious, that’s another matter.

Soldiers and those to be executed ought to be given the opportunity to make their confession, receive Viaticum, hear the commendation of the soul, and so forth.

Some of you might be saying “But Father! But Father!  You must really hate Vatican II!  Vatican II did away with rules.  Pope Francis said so!  All sacraments should be given to everyone all the time.  You make me cry.  I need to be anointed now.”

Look.  Bending law on the level of wearing blue vestments on a Marian feast is one thing.  Administration of sacraments is another.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    This certainly makes sense. Could a person about to be executed, assuming he or she had received absolution, also receive apostolic pardon?

  2. One of those TNCs says:


    I had heard – and so I told my 5th grade R.E. students – that a person who was about to undergo serious surgery (i.e. a heart transplant) could receive this sacrament.

    Now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense that those about to undergo surgery should make a good confession and receive the Eucharist. Duh…should have thought of that myself!

    Thank you for straightening me out. I will be sure to correct my mistake.

  3. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “One of those TNCs”, what mistake?

  4. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Oh, I see, about surgery not qualifying. I’m not sure that’s right. Look, why does one go in for a heart transplant surgery? Is it not because your heart is about to quit? Is that not danger of death? Does one lose the right to the sacament before surgery? What if surgey is ordered to remove a bullet that, if left alone would not kill one, but might cripple one? Would not general anesthesia then, for an operation not necessary “to save a life”, qualify? I think such things qualify as “infirmitates”. I don’t recall seeing a canonist deny the liceity of annointing prior to major surgery, but I can’t say I’ve read them all with that question in mind. Interesting.

  5. Alice says:

    It would seem to me that someone in need of a serious surgery such as a heart transplant is in danger of death through sickness. The heart transplant may work and save the person’s life or it may hasten their death (as happened to a friend of ours this weekend), but if you’ve made it to the top of the waiting list for something like that, you’re in pretty serious condition before the surgery starts. Asking to be anointed before an operation for a hernia probably wouldn’t be a good idea, though.

  6. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Ordo unctionis 10 seems to answer this question.

  7. acardnal says:

    I, too, thought it was acceptable to receive the sacrament of anointing if one was going to undergo surgery with general anesthesia. Now, based on above, it appears that the reason for the surgery is why the anointing may be justified and not simply receiving anesthesia.

    In other words, if I am going to undergo surgery with anesthesia because I want a “nose job” or a face lift in order to look better, then anointing would not be justified because there was no underlying “sickness” that could cause me to “begin to be in danger of death”. But if I am undergoing surgery to remove a cancer, repair my heart, remove a brain tumor, etc., then I could be anointed because there is an underlying “sickness” that could cause me to “begin to be in danger of death” if not treated. I hope that is the correct understanding.

  8. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    acardnal, that is my understanding, too.

  9. militantCatholicmom says:

    Last year, my then-5 year old daughter received the Annointing of the Sick prior to liver surgery. She had a tumor the size of a grapefruit. She is absolutely fine now. I asked our priest for a blessing before the surgery and he offered the Sacrament instead. I believe she was in danger of death. Is this scenario a correct example?

  10. ocleirbj says:

    30 years ago I was anointed a few days before having a scheduled c-section. Was this wrong then? It seemed to help – no complications during or after surgery and all went well, for which I thanked God. Maybe I should have apologized instead? – Puzzled.

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Childbirth isn’t a sickness, but I thought it was generally considered a condition which puts one in danger of death?

  12. Elizabeth M says:

    ocleirbj: I wonder about that too. I suppose I’ll have to pray and ask the Grace that a priest would be close by if something goes wrong during my next c-section. Pregnancy is not a sickness as some people would like society to believe.
    Point being – if you’re healthy – go to confession!

    Now, if someone could explain “healing Mass” to me and why people think a general blessing is the same as Extreme Unction…

  13. Joe in Canada says:

    It seems to me the Sacrament is for healing of an illness, as St James says “is there anyone among you who is sick? Let him call the elders, and let them pray over him.” Neither a soldier nor a condemned criminal is sick. The appropriate Sacraments would be as Fr says above. And likewise for someone going in for surgery. If the surgery is required by sickness, then the person is sick. In the case of hte Caesarean section, the minister would have to decide it this was a matter of healing or not. I suppose some Caesareans are required by illness or physical problems, others are purely optional, and some are required by previous problems, which would occur during labor even if the mother is at this moment healthy.

  14. Moro says:

    I’m pretty sure abuses happen at healing masses. Some people might be suited to receive anointing, but I’ve seen my fair share of rather healthy people going up to get anointed.

  15. jhayes says:

    Although the person to be executed would not receive the Anointing of the Sick, he or she would be entitled to receive Confession and Viaticum (the Eucharist with the addition of “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life”)

    According to Canon 921, this applies to anyone in danger of death:

    Can. 921 §1 Christ’s faithful who are in danger of death, from whatever cause, are to be strengthened by holy communion as Viaticum.

    I would think they would also be entitled to receive the Apostolic Blessing

  16. Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. I always thought Extreme Unction was for the dying. Under any circumstance. Oh wait, its now called Anointing of the Sick so that means dying people don’t count? I am thoroughly confused.

  17. amenamen says:

    Don’t exceed fifty-five?

    This article revisits the question of anointing before surgery

  18. oh and the point about the executed getting Anointed after death brings to mind the old practice of Anointing the Dead after they are dead. My ancient mother insists that priests used to anoint the dead because ‘back then’ the Church admitted we don’t know when a soul leaves the body. Hours, days, weeks??

    My mother was so distraught after my sister died in a car accident because she begged the priest to give my sister Extreme Unction and he adamantly refused, saying the body was cold. My mother begged him, citing history and her personal experience that priests used to Anoint anyway, just in case – but to no avail. This guy was a ‘good’ priest thinking he was ‘goin’ by the book’ but, like all of us today, he had NO memory of what the Church used to do before the 50s, and didn’t believe my grief-stricken mother.

    Wondering here, so what if my sister’s soul had left and the Anointing was useless – an anointing wouldn’t have hurt. And if my sister’s soul was still there, waiting, what a cruel tragedy. Any of us that have been visited by a recently deceased soul…well, it makes ya wonder how long they can hang around.

    Reminds me of the loss of the practice of conditional baptism ALWAYS done for ANY convert in any circumstance ‘just in case’. The old practices of the Church are eradicated and denied these ever existed. It seems to me that in this era touted as the era of Mercy, that Mercy is not demonstrated so much.

  19. Heather F says:

    Moro, just because someone doesn’t look sick doesn’t mean they aren’t sick. You have no idea what their circumstances are. A lot of serious conditions are invisible to the casual observer. Someone could be newly diagnosed with a serious long-term condition, such as cancer or heart ailment or what have you. They could be going through a difficult period where a chronic serious condition they have been living with for a while is becoming difficult to manage (such a diabetic losing control over their blood sugar, or someone having a flareup of an autoimmune disease). They could be having a poor adjustment to a new medication regimen and experiencing potentially dangerous side effects.

    None of those things would necessarily be easy to spot. But they could all cause a person to be “in danger” due to their sickness.

    Regarding surgery, I’m afraid that Father Z seems to disagree with the Catechism on that regard:
    “1515 If a sick person who received this anointing recovers his health, he can in the case of another grave illness receive this sacrament again. If during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious, the sacrament may be repeated. It is fitting to receive the Anointing of the Sick just prior to a serious operation. The same holds for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced.”
    It doesn’t say exactly what constitutes a “serious” operation, but does seem to imply that the impending operation itself is a valid reason to receive the sacrament. Elective surgery like a knee replacement, likely not. Pelvic fracture repair from an accident, more likely. Triple bypass, certainly. Tonsillectomy, probably not (unless there’s something like tonsil cancer involved–yeah, apparently that exists). Appendectomy, much more likely. Normal skin cancer removal, probably not. Melanoma, definitely. (Regarding the c-section question, some c-sections may be more “serious” than others but I certainly wouldn’t scruple over whether or not it was appropriate to receive it.)

  20. Marysann says:

    I was surprised to read of the little five year old girl who was given the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. It has always been my understanding that children who have not reached the age of reason, but who are in danger of death as this little girl seems to have been, are to receive the sacrament of Confirmation which would complete their initiation into the faith. I was taught that the sacrament of Anointing was only appropriate for those who are capable of committing sins because forgiveness of sin is one of its effects, and little children are not capable of committing sin. Could someone straighten me out on this please?

  21. Moro says:

    @Heather F-

    Sorry, I hope I didn’t come across as insensitive. Yes people can be but not look sick. But I’m thinking of people I knew personally who were healthy taking part in a monthly Anointing Mass. I even asked the priest about it and he said anyone with any illness, even just a little cough could come up. Granted this was one parish, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens elsewhere.

    This brings up another question – how sick is sick enough?

    Like a lot of things, this is a sacrament for which catechesis is greatly needed.

  22. Fr AJ says:

    This is all news to me. I anoint all my parishioners who are in the hospital without question if they ask for it or if a family member asks for it. I’ve always thought it appropriate to receive before surgery as one of the prayers in the Rite itself says where we pray for the doctors, etc.

  23. capchoirgirl says:

    As for the transplant question: before I received mine (double lung), I made a good confession and received anointing. Sadly I could not receive communion because you have to be NPO. I was very sad about that. :(
    I’ve been sick basically my entire life so I’ve received this sacrament a lot , mostly because my parents took me to a church whenever it was offered. I always sort of hated that, because I wasn’t any more sick than usual–sick was sort of my M.O. If I’m about to have surgery I usually don’t get it, because surgery is sort of par for the course for me. I will try to go to confession, however, if it’s a scheduled surgery.

  24. capchoirgirl says:

    Marysann: The age of reason is about 7 (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01209a.htm), when kids know right from wrong. So my assumption (and someone please tell me if I’m wrong) is that they aren’t morally responsible for sin they may commit before then because they really don’t know what they’re doing. (At least that’s my understanding of the article, and what my research and catechesis has taught me)

  25. New Sister says:

    Is injury considered “sickness”? I recall a publicized event from last year: gnarly car accident; girl trapped inside is injured but alert; priest happens upon the scene & anoints her. Was that not OK?

    & the priests who tried to reach (but were impeded from) the casualties at the Boston Marathon – would they have anointed those injured?

  26. Heather F says:

    Wow, Moro, I believe you, I’ve just never run into that. All the priests I’ve talked to have been clear that it isn’t to be administered frivolously for trivial ailments but that they wished people would avail themselves more of it instead of waiting until they are about to die or hoping desperately for a miracle, because they’ve seen how powerful the healing effect of it can be.

    As for “how sick is sick enough” as long as you haven’t been so badly catechized as to want it for every ache and sniffle, I’d think the appropriate response would be, if you think you might need it, ask. If you don’t really need it, the priest can set you straight, and if he thinks it might help, it certainly can’t hurt – it’s not like there is a finite supply of healing grace that needs to be hoarded and conserved.

    I asked a priest if it would be appropriate when I was diagnosed with an asthmatic reaction after a smoke inhalation injury and he said certainly and anointed me. I counseled an acquaintance to talk to her confessor about getting anointed when she was on a new regimen of psych meds and it was causing worrisome side effects, especially given that she had a bad medication reaction before that ended up with her hospitalized in a psychotic state.

    The sacrament shouldn’t be treated like popping an Advil but I’d rather err on the side of asking for it than scrupling over whether I am in a sufficient “state of sick” to be properly disposed, and that’s basically what the priest speaking at our RCIA class this week, who spent a number of years in hospital ministry, said about it too.

  27. APX says:

    Heather, I was told that Extreme Unction/Annointing of the Sick was for those who were actually at the point at which they were in danger of dying.

    I was recently diagnosed with a serious chronic disease that has wreaked havoc on me physically and has my cardiovascular and endocrine systems compromised, though every system in me isn’t working properly. My condition is unstable at the moment and can’t be treated safely until it is stable. As a result, I’ve been in and out of emergency a few times with possible heart attacks, really bad angina, and racing eratic heart rates.

    To attempt to treat it now, or to have any surgery would cause my thyroid to go crazy and send me into thyroid storm, which has about a 90% mortality rate according to my doctor. However, because I am not yet “at the point of death”, I don’t qualify for the sacrament.

  28. capchoirgirl says:

    The CC doesn’t say that about the anointing: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a5.htm

    In particular:
    1514 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.”130

    1515 If a sick person who received this anointing recovers his health, he can in the case of another grave illness receive this sacrament again. If during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious, the sacrament may be repeated. It is fitting to receive the Anointing of the Sick just prior to a serious operation. The same holds for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced.

  29. Bonomo says:

    Many years ago, I read an autobiography of a priest (the name and title escape me right now) and he spoke of priests — possibly including himself — who had the duty of standing UNDER a gallows during executions by hanging to anoint the condemned during the interval between the time they are hung and the time they actually die. They could not be anointed *before* the trap door was opened, because they were not sick; the anointed could only be done after they were dropped, and dangling from the ropes.

  30. APX says:

    No, but our priests do.

  31. Luvadoxi says:

    Heather, I’m not so sure about knee replacement. I just had bilateral knee replacement 5 months ago and chose not to have anointing. However, although elective, it was explained to me that it was “major surgery” with risk of death, etc. Never having had major surgery before I really didn’t think about what that means. This is blessedly becoming such a common surgery and boon to people crippled by severe arthritis, that people think it’s routine. Believe me, it’s *major surgery*! I still don’t know if anointing is appropriate, since I don’t think people die from arthritis (do they?) but I had to have two blood transfusions during and the week after surgery, so I tend to think maybe danger of death applies. Just my thoughts–I don’t know, though.

  32. Volanges says:

    Moro, I understand your concern. I attended a Healing Mass, once. I was the only one who didn’t go up for the sacrament. Teenagers, non-Catholics, everyone else went up. One teen who said “But I’m not sick,” was prodded by her mother, “What, you think you’re perfect?!?” Sorry, Mom, it’s not about being ‘perfect’ or not, it’s about being sick.

  33. robtbrown says:

    IMHO, anointing before major surgery makes sense. A priest friend told me that the husband of his housekeeper (whom I met) went in for gall bladder surgery and died on the table. He was 46 years old.

  34. The Masked Chicken says:

    [These are just my thoughts, for what they are worth]

    It might be helpful to look at the actual canons:


    Can. 1004 §1. The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.

    §2. This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person, having recovered, again becomes gravely ill or if the condition becomes more grave during the same illness.

    Can. 1005 This sacrament is to be administered in a case of doubt whether the sick person has attained the use of reason, is dangerously ill, or is dead.

    Can. 1006 This sacrament is to be conferred on the sick who at least implicitly requested it when they were in control of their faculties.

    Can. 1007 The anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin.”

    In Can. 1004 §1, the phrase, “begins to be in danger,” is an interesting turn of phrase. Nowhere is, “begins to be in danger OF DEATH,” explicitly stated. In fact, one might argue that an alternate translation might be, “turns towards,” or “comes into focus of”, instead of, “begins to be in danger,” [of death] – one might look at, “versari,” in the original. The language is couched in the language of a journey. Here and there, your traveling life’s highways and bi-ways will bring you closer to and farther from some serious danger to life or limb. Someone who is trapped in a car is not sick, but they are in danger. A bomb tech is not sick, but he is in danger. A man with a toothache is not in danger, with respect to his person, even though he is sick. The delineating quality for anointing, it seems to me, is a pronounced danger. A headache is not dangerous, usually, but in a person with a brain tumor, it can signal imminent death. Is a soldier going into battle in danger? Not in any focused way. Thus, the anointing would be inappropriate, but, if he were being shot at, death comes into focus and, if we could stop time at that instant, one could make an argument for anointing before the bullet hits. Heck, one could make an argument that just releasing the lever during a hanging brings death into focus. A protracted illness, such as arthritis, is only remotely dangerous.

    In Can. 1005, the phrase, “dangerously ill,” is used to clarify the type of illness being considered. The word, danger, has an archaic sense of, “jurisdiction,” so, in the broadest sense, a dangerous illness is one that places a person one step closer to eternal judgment. The word, itself, is roughly derived from the Latin, dominium, from the 13th-century, which meant, at that time, the right of a feudal lord to claim ownership of property. The meaning is clear: a dangerous illness is one that puts you in danger of being reclaimed by God. Thus, old age is a perfect fulfillment of the sacrament.

    The idea of a healing Mass (which, by the way, does not, technically, exist – it is an adaptation from Charismatic circles and is, ultimately, a Protestant invention) makes little sense. One might have an, ” in danger,” Mass, but there are no direct provisions for such a thing, although group anointings are envisioned by Canon Law, but each person must meet the criteria for the sacrament.

    So, APX, you should, definitely, be anointed. Do not wait.

    My opinion and just some things to discuss.

    The Chicken

  35. I am imposing moderation now. We are not going to get into “what about X…”, with opinions of the gallery to follow.

    I will probably be very selective about the comments in the queue.

  36. frjim4321 says:

    Fascinating topic and thank you for bringing it up.

    Yes, it certainly seems that the Sacrament of Penance is much more appropriate in this case.

    In actual practice I suspect that the Anointing of the Sick is given often in this case. However if anyone were to think this through carefully I would think they will find that Penance is more appropriate.

    It would seem to me that the most important effect of either sacrament is the forgiveness of sins, and so long as a person is conscious an auricular confession should be given, and then absolution as stated. Anointing would be redundant.

    [You make a good point. The Sacrament of Anointing must be received in the state of grace, if you are conscious and compos mentis. If you are unable to confess, the Sacrament also has the effect of forgiveness of sins. This sacrament is classified among the “sacraments of the living”.]

  37. Alice says:

    When I was a little girl in the 1980s, I went to several “Healing Masses.” These were votive Masses for the sick followed by a blessing for anyone who wanted to come up. The blessing was not a sacrament and the priests made that clear. Since it was just a blessing, anyone could come up and pray for healing for themselves or someone else. Perhaps it would be too “altar call-ish” for some, but I don’t think anything illicit went on and I think it helped people who were not “dangerously ill” but wanted to pray for healing of some sort in a formal way. It may come from the charismatic movement, but it would certainly be possible to offer a votive Mass to Our Lady of Lourdes and offer to bless those who want to be blessed with Lourdes Water or something in a more traditional parish.

    In the 1990s and beyond, the “Healing Masses” we attended were Masses with Anointing of the Sick for those who wanted to come up. Since my parents were drilling me on my Baltimore Catechism, I really felt these Masses abused the sacrament. Despite the fact that they should have known better, my parents would invite ailing non-Catholic friends to these Masses and tell them it was OK to receive the Anointing, but they couldn’t go to Communion. My parents even put me in the difficult position of having to disobey them when they told me to go up for something that I knew did not put me in danger. So, my personal experience is, Masses with Anointing are likely to be places where the sacrament is abused and I wish they would disappear. Priests can preach about the sacrament of Anointing and let people know how to receive it without offering it to be abused. Really, it’s possible.

  38. wmeyer says:

    To my layman’s eye, the constraints given in the canons seem to be somewhat at odds with the CCC 1514 and 1515. So as a layman, I ask: The rather easily understood paragraphs in the CCC seem to allow for a relaxed interpretation of when anointing is permitted, but are these paragraphs technically correct?

    I have received anointing myself, when it would have been difficult to make a case for my having been at risk of death. I did not request it; I was discussing with my confessor the seemingly chronic nature of an ailment which the specialists seemed unable to diagnose, and he suggested the anointing. It was effective.

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