Contra Reginaldus on Anointing of the Sick

In his latest post at the New Theological Movement blog, Reginaldus teaches serious errors on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

1. Reginaldus claims that unless a person is spiritually sick — unless a person has committed some actual sin — he cannot receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick validly. It is not enough, in his view, for a person to have physical sickness.

“And, if physical sickness is a necessary quality in the recipient of this sacrament, how much more is spiritual sickness necessary! Unless a person be spiritually sick – unless he be weighed down by the weakness of actual sins, in particular – he is not able to receive this sacrament. The primary effect of Anointing of the Sick is spiritual healing, therefore one who has no need of spiritual healing (i.e. one who has not sinned) has no need of this sacrament. And, since the sacraments are not to be given without effect, only those who have committed some actual sin are able to receive this sacrament.” [Source]

However, there is no such teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nor in any of the various magisterial documents on the Anointing of the Sick. And there is no such law or norm in the Church. What Reginaldus is proclaiming about this Sacrament is NOT from spiritual or temporal authority of the Church. The Magisterium has NEVER proclaimed that actual sin is necessary to receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Reginaldus is distorting the meaning, purpose, and validity of this Sacrament.

Furthermore, the Church commends the dying to receive not only the Anointing of the Sick, but also Confession and Communion. After a dying person validly receives Confession, he has no sins on his conscience. And yet the Church gives him Anointing of the Sick. Therefore, actual sin is not a requirement for the validity of the Anointing of the Sick.

Sacred Scripture does not state any such requirement of spiritual illness, but only physical illness:

{5:14} Infirmatur quis in vobis? Inducat presbyteros Ecclesiæ, et orent super eum, ungentes eum oleo in nomine Domini:
{5:14} Is anyone ill among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

And the Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms this interpretation:

“Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.” (CCC 1500)

“The Church believes and confesses that among the seven sacraments there is one especially intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness, the Anointing of the Sick” (CCC 1511)

The Catechism teaches that, of the Seven Sacraments, Anointing of the Sick is particularly for the purpose of strengthening those tried by illness. Certainly, the most important effect of the Sacrament is on the soul. But this does not imply that the soul need be sick or sinful in order to be strengthened.

Reginaldus assumes that, in the absence of sin or spiritual sickness, the soul in a state of grace does not benefit from the Sacrament. Not so. The Sacrament of Confirmation is given to someone who is in a state of grace, to increase the blessings on that person’s soul. In the East, Confirmation is given even to an infant, after Baptism. The baptized infant is sinless, and yet he benefits from the Sacrament of Confirmation. When a person receives the Sacrament of Confession, his sins are forgiven, and yet he benefits spiritually from his subsequent acts of penance. Sin is not a requirement for any Sacrament, other than the Sacrament that forgives sins, Confession. And although the Anointing of the Sick can also forgive sins, its primary purpose is to strengthen the person in the face of serious illness or imminent death.

Can a sinless person receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick? Yes. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich tells us, based on her visions from God, that the Blessed Virgin Mary received Anointing of the Sick (also called Extreme Unction) shortly before her death:

“Peter, after he and the other Apostles had received Communion, brought Our Lady the Blessed Sacrament and administered extreme unction to her…. Peter approached her and gave her extreme unction, much in the way in which it is administered now.” (Emmerich, Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, p. 370.)

The Blessed Virgin Mary had no original sin and no actual sin in her entire life. And yet Peter, the first Roman Pontiff, gave her Extreme Unction (which is what the Anointing of the Sick is called when it is given shortly before death). Therefore, the Church can give this Sacrament to someone who is not spiritually sick, to someone who has no actual sins. (This point relates also to the subsequent discussion about young children.)

Now someone might object, saying that Blessed Emmerich’s assertion is from private revelation, not from Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, and therefore is not definitive by itself. True enough. But Reginaldus states no support for his claim from Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. He cites no magisterial source requiring spiritual sickness or actual sin in order to receive this Sacrament. There is no support for his position in any Church document. Scripture and the CCC require only physical sickness. And so the example of Peter giving this Sacrament to the sinless Virgin Mary, as described by Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, is relevant and worthy of consideration.

2. Reginaldus claims that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick cannot be given to children prior to the age of reason:

“As infants and children under the age of reason who have been baptized have most certainly not committed any actual sin, it is quite certain that they have not lost the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which was given through Baptism. Therefore, their salvation is not in jeopardy and a physical healing would in no way contribute to their spiritual healing.”

There are a number of errors in Reginaldus’ position on this point. First, he assumes that young children have no use of reason at all, day after day, year after year, until some point in time, when they suddenly have full use of reason (about the age of 7). This claim is thoroughly refuted by the common knowledge of everyone who has spent much time with young children of various ages.

The use of the faculty of reason gradually increases in the child. For example, language requires the use of the faculty of reason. An infant babbles because he cannot use reason. He can make sounds and imitate sounds, but these have no meaning to his mind yet. But even a two year old has some ability to use language in a meaningful way. This indicates the dawning of the use of reason. And children in preschool and kindergarten can often read and write, to some extent, which also requires reason. Also, young children can understand right from wrong to some limited extent. They can understand that it is wrong to hurt another person, and they can express sorrow if they have done something wrong. They can understand and follow rules. All of this requires some limited, but gradually improving, use of reason.

It is absolutely absurd for Reginaldus to claim that the ability to use the faculty of reason occurs all at once, as if the young child has no ability at all to reason, then suddenly has the full ability to reason. This false premise results in a number of serious theological errors in his writings, including his claim that young children who are unbaptized usually commit a mortal sin at the moment that they suddenly are able to reason.

Second, he concludes, from his false premise that young children have no ability to reason at all, that young children have no actual sins at all. Along with his claim that the ability to use reason is given suddenly all at once, he holds that the ability to sin occurs at the same time, suddenly all at once. Again, this contradicts the observation of young children that they can understand right from wrong, to a limited extent, even from a young age. And this understanding of right and wrong increases gradually as the years pass. With the increase in understanding of right and wrong, there is a corresponding gradual increase in responsibility for one’s actions, and in culpability for one’s wrongdoing. A young child can commit a slight venial sin. A somewhat older child can commit a more substantial venial sin. At some later age, an older child is able to understand right from wrong sufficiently to be able to commit a mortal sin, at least as a sheer possibility.

Given this understanding, it is not true that young children who are seriously ill cannot receive spiritual benefits from this Sacrament, such as the forgiveness of sins and spiritual comfort and strengthening.

Third, he makes the point that young baptized children are certainly in a state of grace, since they could not have committed a mortal sin at such a young age. True, but this is not relevant to the validity of the Sacrament. As already discussed, sinfulness is not a requirement for the Anointing of the Sick. Reginaldus claims that because young baptized children cannot commit a mortal sin, prior to the age of reason, their salvation is not in danger. True, but again, this is not relevant to the validity of the Sacrament. The danger of loss of salvation is not a requirement for reception of this Sacrament. These criteria that he presents are not requirements in any magisterial document, nor in Canon law, for a valid Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

Fourth, he claims that “their salvation is not in jeopardy and a physical healing would in no way contribute to their spiritual healing.” His assumption that young children cannot sin at all is false. But his conclusion that the Sacrament and its possible physical healing cannot contribute any spiritual healing or benefits is also false. Even a sinless person, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, can benefit from reception of a Sacrament, as when Mary received holy Communion. The purpose of the Sacraments is not merely to place us in, or return us to, the state of grace. The Sacraments also provide many spiritual benefits, even if the person is sinless. For example, a baptized infant is sinless, and yet he benefits from reception of holy Communion and Confirmation (as is the practice in the East).

Fifth, Reginaldus claims that this Sacrament cannot be given to young children in danger of death, even if it might heal them, saving them from death, because such healing would not be conducive to salvation.

“Finally, we may consider a possible objection: It would seem that the sacrament should be given to young children in danger of death, because they still have need of physical healing (which is an effect of this sacrament). In response to the objection, we reply that the physical healing which may be caused by the sacrament is not given for its own sake, but rather as a means to assist in the salvation of the individual. Thus, if the sacrament effects a physical healing of the body, it is only insofar as that healing is conducive to the spiritual healing of the soul. ‘The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects: […] the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of [the sick person’s] soul.’ (CCC 1532)”

However, if a young child is near death, and is healed by the Sacrament, he or she can then go on to learn the Faith in ever greater depth, exercise the virtues in ever greater breadth, and become more and more like Christ as time passes. Certainly, such a benefit is not merely physical, but also spiritual. Therefore, the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is conducive to salvation, even in the very young.

“The point, which you seem to be missing completely, is that the little children have no need of the sacrament of Anointing! It would actually be offensive to anoint an infant, since this would say that the infant isn’t assured of salvation!” (from Reginaldus’ comments after his post)

The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick does not have the sole purpose of providing salvation. The Church does not teach that a person can only receive a Sacrament if it is necessary for their salvation. Also, he discusses and rejects giving this Sacrament to young children in danger of death, saying that it should not be given even if it would heal them and save their lives. So his claim that little children ‘have no need’ of this Sacrament is ridiculous — literally deserving of ridicule.

3. Reginaldus claims that the current norm of the Church, which is to only give the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to children who have the use of reason, is not a human law (i.e. not a norm or a changeable requirement of Canon law), but is essential for a valid Sacrament.

“(also, the restriction of Anointing to people of have come to the use of reason is NOT A HUMAN LAW, it is divinely instituted together with the sacrament itself — just like bread and wine are the matter of the Eucharist, so too the recipient of Anointing is a sick person who has had the use of reason … it is beyond the control of the Church [unlike whether infants can receive the Eucharist or Confirmation, which can change according to Church Law])”

The Church has authority over certain criteria for the valid reception of Sacraments. She can make and change laws and norms on these criteria, as She sees fit. However, other requirements for a valid Sacrament are not within the power of the Church to change. So Reginaldus is claiming that this Sacrament requires that the recipient “has had the use of reason”. Why the awkward phrasing ‘has had the use of reason’? It is because the Church does in fact give the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to persons who have lost the use of reason, e.g. unconscious persons, persons afflicted by dementia, etc.

Now it is part of Canon law that the Sacrament be given to those who have reached the age of reason. However, nowhere in law or teaching is it stated that this requirement is anything other than a changeable norm. There is no basis for the assertion that the Church is unable to give Anointing of the Sick to little children, especially those who are gravely ill and near death. As is often the case in Reginaldus’ posts, he makes assertions very emphatically and without any basis in Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. His basis (unstated in this case, but often stated in other cases) is the thinking of medieval theologians.

My Position On This Question

The requirement of the use of reason is certainly a part of the Sacrament of Marriage, of Confession, and of Holy Orders. For each of those Sacraments requires something of the person by way of the exercise of reason. But not so with the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, and Anointing of the Sick. The person who is sick need not have the exercise of reason, and can even be unconscious. The Sacrament remains valid even if the person never regains consciousness and subsequently dies. Therefore, this Sacrament does not require the use of reason for the participation of the recipient. The proper recipient of this Sacrament is any baptized Christian who is injured, or ill, or near death. I find no sound theological basis for the claim that little children are unable to validly receive this Sacrament, prior to the age of reason. There is nothing in 2000 years of magisterial documents, and nothing in Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture that states or implies that having reached the age of reason is a requirement for this Sacrament to be valid.

What does Sacred Scripture say about who may receive this Sacrament?

{5:14} Infirmatur quis in vobis? Inducat presbyteros Ecclesiæ, et orent super eum, ungentes eum oleo in nomine Domini:
{5:14} Is anyone ill among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

This verse is part of the Scriptural basis for the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Notice that the verse says “anyone”, a general term referring to any human person, not specifying age or condition, other than that the person have some type of illness (in the general sense of the word). The Latin term is general (quis) as is the Greek term (tis); neither term indicates that the person is an adult. James could have said ‘Is any man or woman ill….’ But he used the more general term.

Furthermore, little children achieve the use of reason gradually, not all at once. And so even a young child can have some limited understanding of the Sacrament.

My theological position is that the Church has the authority to permit the reception of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick by any of the following persons:
infants and young children with grave illness or injury, the severely mentally handicapped, even if they lack the use of reason, anyone else with a serious mental or physical injury or illness, the elderly if they experience substantial infirmity due to old age, and anyone who is near death.

{4:23} And Jesus traveled throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every infirmity among the people.

Jesus healed everyone of every sickness and every infirmity. And so should His Sacrament of Healing.

[My second post on this topic is here.]

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

See this webpage for a summary of Reginaldus’ theological errors, and his real identity as a Catholic priest.

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2 Responses to Contra Reginaldus on Anointing of the Sick

  1. Terence says:

    Fr. Reginaldus responds the following from his updated post:

    UPDATE: Because some have questioned whether this teaching is truly from the Church (as though the clear teaching of the current Catechism and the Code of Canon Law were not enough), I will add a citation from the Catechism of the Council of Trent: “Furthermore, all those who have not the use of reason are not fit subjects for this Sacrament; and likewise children who, HAVING COMMITTED NO SINS, do not need the Sacrament as a remedy against the remains of sin.”

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