The Anointing of the Sick and How the Holy Sacraments Fit Together

There has been quite the kerfuffle recently over the question of what to do about baptized Catholic politicians who promote grave evils that are contrary to the faith at its core (such as promoting abortion) and still present themselves for Holy Communion.

The question is of such importance that the U.S. Bishops are currently squabbling about how (and whether) to address it at their June virtual meeting or wait until they can address it in person. This column isn’t to address that specific problem (I’ve addressed them before in the bulletin and the parish blog, Several of the bishops are writing excellent pastoral letters on these questions as well. Instead, it is meant to back up a step and look at why such questions are so important.

The short version is because the sacraments fit together and we can’t just pull one out of its context as if it had no relation to the others. So part of a pastor’s task in helping Catholics to live out their faith in such a way as it will bring them to Heaven is to help them receive the sacraments properly in ways that benefit them in growing in holiness and receiving God’s grace (the gift of God’s divine life dwelling within them).

I preached about this a little bit on Holy Trinity Sunday. The Christian life and the life of grace starts with baptism. In His last words to His Apostles as he ascended into Heaven, Jesus summarized the mission he would entrust to them in two simple prongs: (A) Go and teach all nations everything I’ve taught you and make them disciples (followers) of Me and (B) Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Mt. 28). Even though baptism in the Church is now commonly administered to newborn babies, it is far more than a “welcome to the world” ceremony or chance to show off the new child. Instead, the Holy Trinity now dwells within that child as he or she becomes God’s son or daughter, and he or she becomes an heir to His Heavenly kingdom.

This sacrament is the foundation for the whole Christian life and is necessary for salvation. But baptism is only the beginning. Baptism opens up the possibility of living in Communion with God in this life and in the life to come. However, because we have free will and can choose to reject God, it is not a guarantee that we will remain in Communion with him throughout our earthly life.

The Church has traditionally used the terminology that someone is “in a state of grace” to mean that he has not deliberately taken action to break that Communion that God gives to us as a gift. We can’t read someone’s soul to know what is behind his actions, but objectively, certain actions make it impossible for the grace of God to continue to dwell within a person. That is, he is no longer in a state of grace.

Recent controversies are bringing to light the fact that many, many Catholics are ignorant of this teaching, so to the bishops’ credit some of them are beginning to re-emphasize this in their letters to their flocks. If someone is not in a state of grace, he should definitely want to be. That is why the Lord, in his mercy, gives us the sacrament of confession so we can restore that communion. But we can’t presume to “jump the gun” and attempt to enter into Communion before we are forgiven.

In fact, the general principle is that, if we are not in the state of grace, then when we receive a sacrament, it has no positive effects in us. (There can be an exception in danger of death). Worse, it is spiritually dangerous for us to do so (see 1 Cor 11:27-29). We can block the grace that would otherwise come from that sacrament by a stubborn refusal to repent and confess. That is one of the reasons I am so insistent that couples should make a good confession before they get married and that our parish teens make a good confession before they receive the sacrament of confirmation. (I can’t require someone to receive a sacrament, but I can and do strongly encourage it, for the good of the faithful).

That brings me to the sacrament of the sick, also known as anointing of the sick or (when administered near death) last rites. The same principle applies here. Except in danger of death, if the sacrament is administered to a person who is not in a state of grace, the healing grace can not be received. Thus if a person asks to receive it, he should have no known serious unconfessed sins. For this reason the priest often administers the sacraments back to back: first confession, then the anointing. (This requires privacy of course).

It has become quite common for people to request the sacrament (for example, before surgery) in a group setting and not ask for confession. I can’t know that they need to go to confession (I can’t read souls!) but I suspect that many of them think that the sacrament of the sick is a substitute for confession. It is not. The healing of the soul has to happen before the healing of the body.

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