Vatican: Only a Priest Is Minister of Anointing of the Sick

In a Note From the Doctrinal Congregation

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 24, 2005 ( The Vatican has reiterated that that only a priest — that is, bishops and presbyters — may administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

The Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith emphasized that point in a Note published in response to several questions it had received in recent years.

«Neither deacons nor lay persons therefore may exercise such ministry and any action in this connection is a simulation of the sacrament» and would be «invalid,» said the dicastery. Canon law provides sanctions for such an action, it added.

The congregation’s «Note on the Ministry of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick» was published Friday in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

It had been issued by the congregation last Feb. 11, World Day of the Sick, with the signature of its then prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI).

The Note, also signed by the dicastery’s secretary Archbishop Angelo Amato, is addressed to the dicasteries of the Roman Curia, bishops’ conferences and Eastern synods.

In an accompanying letter, the then prefect said he was attaching a brief note on the history of the doctrine in this regard prepared by an expert.

Trent’s teachings

The «brief note» is a commentary, also published in the Vatican newspaper, which explains that «in these last decades theological tendencies have been manifested that cast doubt on the Doctrine of the Church, according to which the minister of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick ‘est omnis et solus sacerdos,'» in keeping with the formulation of the Council of Trent (1542-1563).

«The topic,» it continued, «is addressed with preference from the pastoral point of view, especially taking into account those areas in which the scarcity of priests makes the timely administration of the Sacrament difficult, while such difficulty might be resolved if the Permanent Deacons and also qualified lay persons could be delegated ministers of the Sacrament.

«The Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith intends to call attention to these tendencies, to avoid the danger of the existence of attempts to put them into practice, in detriment of the faith and with grave spiritual harm of the sick whom one wants to help.»

The commentary continued: «Catholic theology has seen in the Letter of James (5,14-15) the biblical basis for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The author, after giving several counsels relative to Christian life, also offers a norm for the sick: ‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.'»

«In this text, the Church, under the action of the Holy Spirit, has identified in the course of the centuries the essential elements of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick,» the commentary stated.


The Vatican Note describes as «definitive tenenda» — to be considered in a definitive manner — the doctrine that makes the priest the only minister of the sacrament.

The Greek words of the Letter of James, which the Vulgate translates as «presbyteros Ecclesiae,» «cannot refer to the elders of the community, but to the particular category of faithful to whom, by the imposition of hands, the Holy Spirit had placed to lead the Church of God,» the commentary explained.

Following a brief review of Church history, the commentary arrives at the Council of Trent, which spells out the form of the sacrament. Trent anathematized «those who deny that the Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven Sacraments and that the minister of that Sacrament is solely the priest.»

The doctrine of Trent was codified in the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917, repeated almost verbatim in the existing Code of Canon Law (see Canon 1003.1) of 1983 and in the Code of the Canons of the Eastern Churches of 1990 (Cf. Canon 739.1).

The commentary reminds about «the particular dignity and efficacy» of the sacrament, underlining that the priest, being its minister, «makes present in an altogether particular way the Lord Jesus Christ, Head of the Church,» because «He who acts in this Sacrament is Jesus Christ,» while the priest is the «visible» instrument.

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