Even subsequent to publication in the press of the text of the
Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Minister of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, drafted for
the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the Bishops' Conferences and the
Oriental Synods, the above-mentioned Congregation has deemed it
appropriate at this time to publish the text in L'Osservatore Romano,
together with the text of the accompanying letter, addressed to the
Presidents of the Bishops' Conferences and the Oriental Synods, signed by
the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Dicastery. The
following is a translation of the Note, the commentary on it and
the accompanying letter, dated 1 March 2005, all of which were written in
1 March 2005
To the Cardinals and Bishops, Presidents of the Bishops' Conferences
In recent years, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has
been asked various questions on the minister of the Sacrament of the
Anointing of the Sick.
In this regard, this Dicastery deems it appropriate to send to all
Pastors of the Catholic Church the enclosed Note on the Minister of the
Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (cf. Enclosure, n. 1).
For your convenience, we also send you an overview of the history of
the doctrine on the subject, written by an expert in this area (cf.
Enclosure, n. 2).
In communicating to you the above, I make the most of this occasion to
offer you my distinguished respects and confirm that I remain yours
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
The Code of Canon Law, in can. 1003 § 1 (cf. also can. 739 § 1 of the
Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches) exactly reflects the
doctrine expressed by the Council of Trent (Session XIV, can. 4: DS 1719;
cf. also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1516), which
states that "only priests (Bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the
Anointing of the Sick".
This doctrine is definitive tenenda. Neither deacons nor lay
persons may exercise the said ministry, and any action in this regard
constitutes a simulation of the Sacrament.
From the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
Rome, 11 February 2005, the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Archbishop Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
Titular Archbishop of Sila
In these last decades theological tendencies have appeared which cast
doubt on the Church's teaching that the minister of the Sacrament of the
Anointing of the Sick "est omnis et solus sacerdos". The
approach to the subject has been mainly pastoral, with special
consideration for those regions in which the shortage of priests makes it
difficult to administer the Sacrament promptly, whereas the problem could
be overcome if permanent deacons and even qualified lay people could be
delegated to administer the Sacrament.
The Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine the Faith intends
to call attention to these trends to avert the risk of possible attempts to
put them in practice, to the detriment of the faith and with serious
spiritual damage to the sick, whom it is desired to help.
Catholic theology has seen in the Epistle of James (5:14-15) the biblical
foundation for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The author of
the Epistle, having made various recommendations concerning Christian
life, also offers a directive for the sick: "Is there anyone sick among
you? He should ask for the presbyters of the Church. They in turn are to
pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord. This prayer
uttered in faith will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will
restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be
In this text, under the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church has
identified down the centuries the essential elements of the Sacrament of
the Anointing of the Sick, which the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, ch. 1-3,
cann. 1-4: DS 1695-1700, 1716-1719) systematically proposes: a) subject:
the seriously ill member of the faithful; b) minister: "omnis et
solus sacerdos"; c) substance: the anointing with blessed oil; d)
form: the minister's prayer; e) effects: salvific grace, the
forgiveness of sins, the relief the sick person.
Now, apart from the other aspects, the concern here is to underline the
doctrinal factor relating the minister of the Sacrament to whom the
Note of the Congregation exclusively refers.
The Greek words of James' Epistle, "τους
εκκλησιας" (5:14), which the Vulgate translates as
"presbyteros Ecclesiae" in accordance with tradition, cannot be referring
to the elders the community in terms of age but to that specific category
of the faithful who, through the imposition of hands, the Holy Spirit had
ordained to tend the Church of God.
The first Document of the Magisterium that speaks explicitly of the
Anointing of the Sick is a Letter of Pope Innocent I to Decentius, Bishop of
Gubbio (19 March 416). The Pope, commenting on the words the Epistle of
James in reaction to the interpretation which claimed that only presbyters
could be ministers of the Sacrament with the exclusion of Bishops,
rejected this restriction, stating that presbyters are ministers of the
Sacrament and Bishops are too (cf. DS 216).
In any case, Pope Innocent I's Letter, like other testimonies of the
first millennium (Caesarius of Arles, the Venerable Bede), provides no
proof of the possibility of introducing ministers who are not priests to
administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
The following data can be found in the Magisterium and subsequent
legislation until the Council of Trent: Gratian, in his Decretum (c.
1140), interprets almost literally the enacting part of the
above-mentioned Letter of Innocent I (part 1, dis. 95, can. 3).
Then in the Decretals of Gregory IX, a Decretal of Alexander III
(1159-1164) is inserted in which he responds in the affirmative to the
question of whether the priest can administer the Sacrament of the
Anointing of the Sick on his own, without another cleric or lay person
being present (X. 5, 40, 14).
Lastly, in the Bull Exsultate Deo (22 November 1439) the Council
of Florence asserts as a pacifying truth that "the minister of this
Sacrament is the priest" (DS 1325).
In response to the Reformers' contestation that the Anointing of the
Sick was not a Sacrament but a human invention, and that the "presbyters"
mentioned in the Epistle of James were not ordained priests but elders of
the community, the Council of Trent amply expounded on Catholic doctrine
in this regard (Sess. XIV ch. 3: DS 1697-1700). It anathematized those who
denied that the Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven sacraments (ibid.,
can. 1: DS 1716) and that the minister of this Sacrament is only the
priest (ibid., can. 4: DS 1719).
From the Council of Trent to the codification of 1917, only two
interventions of the Magisterium in some way touched on this topic. They
were the Apostolic Constitution Etsi Pastoralis (26 May 1742, cf. §
5. n. 3: DS 2524) and the Encyclical Ex Quo Primum (1 March 1756)
by Benedict XIV.
In the first Document liturgical norms are presented on relations
between the Latins and the Oriental Catholics who, fleeing the
persecutions, had arrived in Southern Italy; whereas in the second
Document, the Eucologio (ritual) of Orientals who had returned to full
communion with the Apostolic See was approved and commented upon (it
should be noted that the Orthodox also consider that the minister of the
Anointing is only the Bishop or the presbyter).
With regard to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, it is
implied as a peacefully acquired truth that the minister of the Sacrament
be "omnis et solus sacerdos".
The traditional doctrine expressed by the Council of Trent on the
minister of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was codified in the
Code of Canon Law promulgated in the year 1917 (can. 938 § 1; and repeated
with almost the same words in the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983
(can. 1003 § I) and in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches
in 1990 (can. 739 § 1).
All the Rituals of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick have,
moreover, always presumed that the minister of the Sacrament be either a
Bishop or a priest (cf. Ordo Unctionis Infirmorum eorumque pastoralis
curae, Edito typica, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1972,
Praenotanda. nn. 5, 16-19). Therefore, they never contemplated the
possibility that the minister be a deacon or a lay person.
The doctrine which holds that the minister of the Sacrament of the
Anointing of the Sick "est omnis et solus sacerdos" enjoys
such a degree of theological certainty that it must be described as a
doctrine "definitive tenenda". The Sacrament is not valid if a deacon or a
layman attempts to administer it. Such an action would be a crime of
simulation in the administration of a sacrament, to be penalized in
accordance with can. 1379, CIC (cf. can. 1443, CCEO).
To conclude, it would indeed be appropriate to recall that through the
sacrament he has received the priest makes present in a quite special way
the Lord Jesus Christ, Head of the Church.
In the administration of the sacraments, he acts in persona Christi
Capitis and in persona Ecclesiae. The person who acts in this
Sacrament is Jesus Christ; the priest is the living and visible
instrument. He represents and makes Christ present in a special way, which
is why the Sacrament has special dignity and efficacy in comparison with a
sacramental: therefore, as the inspired Word says concerning the Anointing
of the Sick, "the Lord will raise him up" (Jas 5:15).
The priest also acts in persona Ecclesiae. The "presbyters of the
Church" (Jas 5.14) pray on behalf of the whole Church; as St Thomas
Aquinas says on this subject: "oratio illa non fit a Sacerdote in persona
sua..., sed fit in persona totius Ecclesiae" (Summa Theologiae, Supplementum, q. 31,
a1, ad 1). Such a prayer is heard.