Questions Answered – March 2020

Last Rites for the Clinically Dead?

Question: Is it possible to perform the sacrament of the sick on someone who has been pronounced clinically dead? If so, up to how long after clinical death can this sacrament be performed?

Answer: This issue is central to the pastoral care of the dying. Priest are often faced with a dilemma when they are called to spiritually assist those near death and discover on their arrival that the person has died. Traffic accidents lead to sudden death or the priest is too far away to arrive before someone has died and the issue of anointing is raised. What does one do in the circumstances?

This question may seem straightforward. A priest cannot give a sacrament to a dead person nor can a dead person receive a sacrament. So it would seem that one should just not anoint. But this is too rigorist and does not really correspond to the whole philosophical discussion involved in the question of death. The Church defines death as the condition in which the soul has left the body. Yet, the actual moment in which the soul leaves the body has never been defined by the Church and remains unclear. Clinical death is not metaphysical death. There is a process which occurs in death which may be only a few minutes to a few hours. The sacraments are only for the living. So there may be a time between clinical and metaphysical death when one could confer the Sacrament of Anointing without exposing the sacraments to ridicule.

Anointing, then, can be a special case. In the absence of the confession of sins, it can also forgive sins for those unable to confess. Hence its connection to the dying. This sacrament is defined in canon law as to whom it should be given: “The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age” (c. 1004, n. 1). The Catechism further clarifies:

The anointing of the sick is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived. (1514)

The reason this question is not so straightforward is the contemporary debate over when death occurs, which includes issues which are ad rem to problems in medicine of euthanasia, organ harvesting, and issues such as these. In the past, of course, the anointing was basically done only at the moment of death. It was known as Extreme Unction and, although there is still an aspect of the sacrament where it may be used to strengthen the person to face death, its primary purpose is to give spiritual strength during any serious illness. The most important preparation for death would be recourse to the Sacrament of Penance and the reception of communion. All the same, if one cannot or has not confessed, the presumption is in favor of repentance and this sacrament has an aspect of the forgiveness of sin.

The question of when death occurs cannot be reduced to a merely physical one determined by medicine. One must remember that medicine is primarily an art, not a science. Of course, there are scientific determinations involved, but their application to physical body is not always infallible. The National Council of Catholic Bishops issued a definitive interpretation of the answer to this question of anointing in 1983 which still applies:

When a priest has been called to attend those already dead, he should not administer the sacrament of anointing. Instead he should pray for them, asking that God forgive their sins, and graciously receive them into the kingdom. But if the priest is doubtful whether the sick person is dead, he may give the sacrament conditionally. (no. 269)

Obviously a priest confronted with a decision about anointing is not bound to rigorous medical procedures, even those which may be uncertain. The first judgment must then involve the possibility that life still exists in someone considered clinically dead. Morally the presumption should be very broad since there is no harm given to the spiritual order in interpreting the possibility of giving a sacrament conditionally. Besides it may comfort the family that every spiritual care has been taken for the salvation of the soul of the person.

The second decision, therefore, is based on the first. If life could still be present, justice and charity would not only permit the priest to anoint conditionally but would seem to oblige him to do so. Fr. Farraher, my predecessor in this column, wrote a prescient article on this responding to the debate in 1982 and summarized the manualist tradition on this problem this way:

If there is no further sign of breath or heartbeat, but the body is still quite warm, anoint, but conditionally, as above. If a doctor has already pronounced the person dead, we must be careful not to occasion ridicule of the Sacrament. If the conditions . . . quoted from Jone (i.e. apparent death precedes actual death). A person dying after a long illness may be anointed within a half hour after he has drawn his last breath. Anointing may be done as long as two or three hours after sudden death. One might explain to those present that real death in the sense of the soul’s leaving the body does not necessarily coincide with clinical or apparent death. If danger of ridicule still exists, or if it is not easy to explain (e.g., accident with many people around) you could still anoint, but quietly, with the single anointing on the forehead and saying the words sotto voce. If there is any chance that the Sacraments can help a dying person, we should give that person the benefit of the doubt. (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, May, 1982)

This analysis seems to still be the best practical norm guiding the answer to this problem.


Benedict XVI on the Sex-Abuse Crisis

Question: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has recently written a letter addressing the clerical abuse crisis. What do you think of what he attributes it to?

Answer: On April 10, 2019, Pope Emeritus Benedict released a letter in which he, as a former pope who was intimately present to the discussions occurring now concerning the sexual abuse of the clergy, sought to shed light on the historical and doctrinal difficulties which have led to the present crisis in the Church. That letter was divided into three parts. In the first part, the Pope analyses the cause of the crisis historically. In the second, the effects of this cause on the priesthood and in the third some suggestions as to the response of the Church.

He traces the origin of present Church problems to the sexual revolution of the ’60s, which among other things sought a complete freedom from any rules, norms, or laws concerning sexual freedom. He reflects his experience in Germany and Austria at the time by stating: “Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ’68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.” This not only led to a destruction of all sexual morals but was very problematic for those who were entering the priesthood and had been formed in such a climate.

This analysis corresponds to my own experience also. There was a book published in 1979 called Guidelines to Human Sexuality by various Catholic authors which was recommended to educational institutions by the Catholic Theological Society of America. This book dismantled all sexual sins and even tolerated bestiality. Many young people attending Catholic schools were infected by this book which a Catholic psychiatrist, Dr. Conrad Baars, christened “Guidelines to Quicksand.” Young people formed in this perspective did not easily understand what celibacy and chastity meant. Former generations were very naïve about sexuality. The generation formed since the 1960s were thoroughly knowledgeable about the physical act of sexuality but had almost no guidelines as to its spiritual dimension, a fact often lamented by Pope John Paul II.

The result of this wholesale sexual revolution was the destruction of a moral theology which was based on the natural law tradition. Though Vatican II was very solicitous to develop a moral theology which was scripturally based this could not be done systematically by recourse to Scripture alone. The consequentialist heresy became the commonly taught moral theology. The Pope notes fairly:

While the old phrase “the end justifies the means” was not confirmed in this crude form, its way of thinking had become definitive. Consequently, there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative value judgments.

The Church rightly reacted with first the Catechism of the Catholic Church and then the encyclical of John Paul II, Splendor of Truth. Both proclaimed moral absolutes were still in force, the latter including a specific reference to the natural law tradition of Aquinas. Sadly these documents simply increased formal dissent from the ability of the Magisterium of the Church to determine questions of this nature.

As a moral theologian this also corresponds to my own experience. Anyone who defended moral absolutes about sexuality, especially those connected to birth control, had a very difficult time obtaining a teaching position. Seminarians experienced the practical fruits of this when they objected to being propositioned for homosexual sex by other seminarians and were corrected for objecting by their own rectors. In many cases this could destroy one’s pursuit of a religious vocation and helps to explain part of the vocation crisis which is experienced now in the Church. Benedict states: “In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries.” An Apostolic Visitation was arranged which went nowhere.

This affected even bishops. “There were . . . individual bishops who rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern ‘Catholicity’ in their dioceses.”

The response of the Church has been feeble and ineffective. Various responses included temporarily removing a person from ministry to seek psychological counseling, protecting the rights of the accused at the expense of the truth, and, of course, simply treating the difficulties as a question of administrative process and not as an attack of the faith. Benedict says: “A properly formed canon law must therefore contain a double guarantee — legal protection of the accused, legal protection of the good at stake.” The fact that the latter was not safeguarded enough shows a deafness to the Catholic religion. “Only where faith no longer determines the actions of man are such offenses possible.”

This also corresponds to my own experience and teaching. The divine supernatural character of God’s revelation has too often been eclipsed or ignored by those entrusted with promoting it. Those who object to shady practices in parishes, dioceses, and religious orders are pushed to the margins and in some cases totally excluded.

The solution of the Pope is to return to teaching and promoting correct doctrine of what the love of God actually means. The Western world is a society without God and to the extent that clerics and theology professors give into this cultural climate there will always be destruction of the Church and her mission of mercy. Benedict boils it all down to: “the absence of God.”

I would say that I have wholeheartedly agreed with what Benedict said and I taught it for forty years. Somewhere along the line the whole sense of mystery in the Church was lost. This affected the Eucharist and the Magisterium, but above all moral theology, which is mystery practically lived. One cannot justify every action in the name of love of God because God is truth as well as love.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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