Anointing of the Sick

In Paul Turner's Blog by Paul Turner

In 2005, the CDF published a Note (attached) stating that the Church’s doctrine that only priests are ministers of the Anointing of the Sick isdefinitive tenenda. Accompanying the Note was both a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger as well as an “overview of the history of the doctrine on the subject, written by an expert  in this area.”

The Commentary traces this history (in my opinion, in an ahistorical/acontextual manner), citing, at one point, the Letter of Pope Innocent I to Decentius, Bishop of Gubbio (19 March 416). The author concludes: “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 Bishop Decentius’s question (via the Deacon Celestine) was whether or not bishops could also anoint, since James refers to presbyters. The Pope answers: “This text [James 5:14-15]—and no one can doubt it—must be understood of the faithful who are sick, for these can be anointed with the holy oil of chrism prepared by the bishop. This oil is to be used not only by priests [sacerdotes] but by all Christians who can anoint themselves or their families when sickness strikes. It is superfluous to ask whether the bishop can do what is surely allowed to the presbyters.”

So, it seems to me, that Innocent’s letter says exactly the opposite of what the CDF’s expert claims the letter says.

Any light that you can shed on this contradiction would be appreciated….


A: The Letter of Innocent does indeed invite all Christians to anoint the sick. I guess what the CDF may be saying is that it was only a sacrament when an ordained priest did it. In truth, the seven sacraments were not defined until several centuries later, so it’s anachronistic to apply later theological distinctions to this period.

It does seem to me that if the CDF ever revisits its decision, it could take a closer look at Decentius.