ASK FATHER: Effect of Sacrament of Anointing in someone in mortal sin

From a reader…


If a hospital patient that is able to confess still gets the sacrament of the sick does it just forgive venial sins or mortal ones too?

First, let’s be clear about something.   The sacrament of anointing is not to be given to just anyone.  There are conditions for reception of this sacrament.  I’m afraid it is poorly understood and sometimes abused.

The Sacrament of Anointing, is one the sacraments “of the living”, that is, they are to be received by one who is in the state of grace.

If a person is compos sui and can make his own decisions and understand what is going on, he must be given a chance to make his confession before being anointed.   Even if his communication is impeded, he should indicate by signs and respond to the priest’s questions.

If a person is not sui compos, cannot respond, and isn’t aware of what is going on, such a person can be anointed and, in that case, the sacrament can also impart forgiveness of mortal sins.

If a person in the state of mortal sin – who is able to confess and receive absolution – receives the sacrament of anointing, the sacrament will not be effective in them in the way Christ and the Church intend.   If a person is NOT able to confess, then the sacrament also forgives mortal sins so that the sacrament can be effective.

Also, it is good to review the law for the administration of this great sacrament:

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 death from 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 really 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.  Of course some people who are in need of surgery are in danger of death from the condition that requires the surgery.  However, if I need to have surgery to set a broken bone in my wrist, I’m am not in danger of death.


Danger of death… sick and old age.



You don’t know when it is going to be your turn.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. cengime says:

    You could also mention the text of James 5 (“is any among you sick? … the prayer of faith will save the sick…”), the Council of Florence in the Bull of Union with the Armenians (“this sacrament should not be given to any but a sick person whose death is feared”), and the fourteenth session of the Council of Trent (“this anointing is to be administered to the sick, especially those who are in such a condition as to appear to have reached the end of their life, whence it is also called the sacrament of the dying”), which theologians generally cite as proof that it is de fide that the subject of the sacrament must be dangerously ill. This is a necessary condition for validity.

    Priests who don’t know any Latin have no excuse, because there is a note in the English translation of the Rite of Anointing that explicitly says it may not be given to any person who is not ill.

  2. Ave Crux says:

    Father Z: this raises a question that’s been on my mind for some time.

    Churches in my area of the country in the Northeast regularly have Masses of Anointing saying that anyone who is ill may come to the Mass and be anointed.

    The announcements seem to make it clear that the Sacrament will be administered to all those who are ill and not necessarily only those in danger of death, but also those with chronic illnesses (I would think at least debilitating illnesses).

    Such illnesses do not pose an imminent danger to death but certainly compromise their ability to function on a day-to-day basis.

    Someone I know for example has lyme disease and fibromyalgia and is greatly debilitated to the point of no longer being able to function as a normal person would, and only for a few hours a day, and would like to receive this Sacrament for the help it might give.

    Can such persons receive the Anointing for the Sick, and is it invalid if a person is actually not in danger of death, as I once had the impression from something I read?

    Thank you for these clarifications as it comes up frequently in the area in which I live.

  3. beelady says:

    I’d like to encourage anyone who meets the requirements to receive this Sacrament.
    My husband received it almost exactly one year ago today. He had developed a heart condition that gave him a 30% chance of sudden death within a year.
    Praise God! – he is still living and may even be well enough to return to work in a few weeks.
    The Annointing brought him an incredible sense of peace and took away nearly all of his fear of death.
    I believe it also brought about his cure!

  4. cengime says:

    Ave Crux:

    It is not necessary that there be imminent danger of death, as long as the person is suffering from illness or infirmity which might be reasonable foreseen to lead to their death. This is the difference between saying that the sacrament is given in periculo mortis (in danger of death) and in articulo mortis (in one’s last agony). In fact, to delay the sacrament until there is no hope of recovery is an abuse reproved by the Roman Catechism. The time to receive the sacrament is when the subject is still able to actively participate and the bodily healing it produces still may restore him to health.

    On February 20, 1801, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith gave a response to a question of whether missionaries may give extreme unction to someone they would not see for a long time who was expected to die within the year, but might live for many months more: affirmative. It is not necessary that the danger of death be imminent, or even certain, as long as it is sufficiently proximate and prudently judged.

    Which doesn’t mean these “healing Masses” are not an abuse. The same note in the English text of the Rite of Anointing says not only that it may not be given to anyone “whose health is not seriously impaired” (periculose aegrotans), but that “it may not be given indiscriminately”. Priests have a duty to form “a prudent or reasonably sure judgment” that a person is periculose aegrotans and not expose the sacrament to nullity; “if necessary,” the rubrics say, “a doctor may be consulted.”

    Moreover: usually these healing Masses are held every month, and you see the same people go up each month. It is an abuse to repeat the sacrament in the course of the same illness unless the patient recovers, then relapses into new danger of death; or if the patient’s condition becomes more grave. (c. 1004 § 2)

  5. Gregg the Obscure says:

    “However, if I need to have surgery to set a bone from breaking my wrist, I’m am not in danger of death.” Have you been reading my mail, Father?

    I have two broken bones in my wrist and two in my elbow, which has given this Lent a rather different aspect. I am consulting with a surgeon next week.

  6. Titus says:

    The scene at Lord Marchmain’s deathbed in Brideshead Revisited is an excellent demonstration of the principles at work here.

  7. Ave Crux says:

    @Cengime: thank you for your very comprehensive reply. What you have shared raised two questions for me:

    One is about severely chronic and debilitating illnesses which are non life-threatening and one is about nullity:

    1) so if someone is severely disabled (i.e. cannot leave home for more than a few hours, loss of memory, serious pain and prostration if activities aren’t limited, can no longer work, etc.) from an illness which will not cause death but is so debilitating they can no longer lead a normal life and it’s definitely chronic (e.g. the person I mentioned with Lyme disease, fibromyalgia/CFS) then they should NOT receive the Sacrament?

    2) is the Sacrament administered invalidly if there is neither a remote nor proximate danger of death from the chronic illness? And….

    If it is administeted invalidly, does this incur the penalty of simulating a Sacrament?

    Thanks for any clarifications.

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    The wording of the 1917 CIC and 1983 CIC are pretty similar as to when the anointing may be received, even though the understanding of the Sacrament has become more nuanced in modern times:

    1917 CIC: Can 940 §1. Extrema unctio praeberi non potest nisi fideli, qui post adeptum usum rationis ob infirmitatem vel senium in periculo mortis versetur.

    1983 CIC: Can. 1004 — § 1. Unctio infirmorum ministrari potest fideli qui, adepto rationis usu, ob infirmitatem vel senium in periculo incipit versari.

    The difference is that the 1983, which deals with the sacrament under the auspices of the Anointing of the Sick, says to anoint when the person begins to be [incipit] in danger, and the 1917, which deals with the Sacrament as Extreme unction, says in danger of death [mortis]. Periculo may be translated as either risk or danger. Essentially, they say the same thing, with death being more specifically referenced in the 1917 and the time to start anointing spelled out more in the 1983. In either case, the time to anoint is danger of death due to infirmity or old age, as Fr. Z, says.

    The words, versetur and versari are interesting. Versari is the present active infinitive and versetur is the third person singular present active subjunctive of versor, which means [according to this reference:
    1. passive form of [verso]
    2. to keep turning, to keep going round, to spin, to whirl
    3. to turn over and over
    4. to stir
    5. to manoeuvre

    or [according to this reference:
    1. be
    2. live, dwell
    3. move about

    In either case, the sense is to be turning towards or moving towards or potentially inhabiting, so “turning towards” death is a good sense of the phrases. This refers, then, to a serious illness which has death along its possible trajectory, but death, itself, is not certain at that precise moment (such as in old age).

    The reason I bring this up is because, while the sacrament, ordinarily, considers physical illnesses, there are some restricted classes of mental illnesses for which the sacrament might be appropriate. A classic example would be severe depression with suicidal ideation or where the person is no longer eating, etc. The person is, in a real sense, deliberately or uncontrollably turning towards death, so it seems to me, at least, to satisfy the requirements for the Anointing. Another example would be Alzheimer’s disease, which is, as of this time, always fatal, but doesn’t display physical symptoms until the disease has progressed. Likewise, what if the person is paranoid due to a progressive dementia and refuses the Sacrament, but, when in good health wanted it? The illness has masked the real situation. On the other hand, social anxiety disorder, which, while distressing, rarely leads to death, would, probably, not fulfill the requirement. In case of uncertainty as to whether or not a particular mental illness satisfies the requirements for the Sacrament, a doctor should be consulted.

    The other point I wanted to raise is the desire for the Sacrament. If it is reasonable to assume that an unconscious person near death would have requested the Sacrament, it may be given. In today’s culture, however, with so many people disaffected from the Church, it can be difficult to know if a desire exists or not. Indeed, they may not even know about the Sacrament (or, worse, believe in universal salvation and not see the need for the Sacrament). Deathbed conversions are well-known, but the assumption in former times, that any dying Catholic would want the Sacrament, sadly, is not that simple an assumption to make, today. Would a couple who are cultural Catholics be eligible? They may have missed Mass for years or been married outside of the Church. If the spouse decides that she wants her husband anointed, should a priest do so? I do not know how priests handle these increasingly common situations, because some seem to fall into the Amoris laetitia area. Hopefully, these situations are discussed in seminary training.

    In any case, here is Fr. McNamara’s take on the issue of mental illness and anointing of the sick:

    The Chicken

  9. cengime says:

    @Ave Crux:

    1. Whether someone with a debilitating illness that will not kill them should not receive the sacrament? I say yes, they should not. Florence, Trent, and Vatican II have all taught that the proper subject of the sacrament is a sick person of whose death fears are entertained. Pope Paul VI in Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum, the rubrics of the Ordo Unctionis Infirmorum, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirm that the subject of the sacrament must be dangerously ill. The Council of Trent teaches that this sacrament “was regarded by the Fathers as the consummation of the whole Christian life.” Its principal effect is to heal and strengthen the soul for the final death struggle. We can sympathise with tender-hearted priests who don’t want to be stingy with the grace of the sacrament, and say things like that it is for anyone struggling with physical, mental, or emotional difficulties, but we just cannot give the sacraments to others than those they were instituted for. We cannot give the sacraments to those incapable of receiving their effects.

    2. Whether the sacrament is invalid if given to those not dangerously ill? Yes. The consensus of theologians firmly holds that dangerous illness is a condition of validity and not liceity alone. This is explicitly taught in the manuals by Adolphe Tanquerey, Francisco a P. Solá, and Joseph Pohle, for example. Patrick Toner says the same thing in his 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia article “Extreme Unction”: “Grave or serious bodily illness is required for the valid reception of extreme unction. This is implied in the text of St. James and in Catholic tradition (see above, III), and is formally stated in [Florence and Trent].”

    Whether the priest who attempts the sacrament incurs a penalty? Only attempted Masses by laity amd deacons and attempted absolution by those unable to absolve incur a latae sententiae penalty under c. 1378. Simulation of the other sacraments “is to be punished with a just penalty” under c. 1379. But as to how exactly this applies—ask a canon lawyer.

  10. Ave Crux says:

    @cengime: Thank you for all the time and care you have taken to reply to my question. VERY helpful. May God reward you!

  11. New Sister says:

    The world now marvels at the heroic (and provided) death of Lcl Betrame: in addition to anointing of the sick, he received this amazing gift, hours before dying, “la bénédiction apostolique à l’article de la mort.”

  12. New Sister says:

    “No one, on his deathbed, ever regretted having been a Catholic.”
    ? Saint Thomas More

Comments are closed.