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Anointing Before Surgery: When and Why? Dylan Schrader Because the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is no longer reserved for those on their deathbed, confusion seems to have arisen among the faithful, and even among priests, as to whether surgery always warrants anointing. Some authors hold that a person should be anointed before any surgery that requires anesthesia, since anesthesia always involves some degree of risk to life or health.1 I do not dispute that the sick or injured should be anointed before surgery if possible, provided they be properly disposed. What I dispute is the view that surgery is a reason for anointing, as distinct from an occasion for anointing. Such a position, I maintain, derives from a misunderstanding of the nature of the sacrament and from a misreading of the relevant norms. The Effects of the Sacrament According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects: — the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church; — the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age; — the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance; 1 For example: Kenneth D. Brighenti and John Trigilio Jr, The Catholicism Answer Book: The 300 Most Frequently Asked Questions (Naperville IL: Sourcebooks, 2007) 119; Bruce T. Morrill, Divine Worship and Human Healing: Liturgical Theology at the Margins of Life and Death (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2009) 177. Cf. Paul Jerome Keller, 101 Questions & Answers on the Sacraments of Healing: Penance and Anointing of the Sick (New York/Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2010) 108, recommending anointing before surgery (no mention of anesthesia) but without reference to the patient’s (presumably poor?) condition. Antiphon 16.1 (2012): 52-61 53 Anointing Before Surgery: When and Why? — the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul; — the preparation for passing over to eternal life.12 Note that some of these effects occur immediately: the increase or restoration of sanctifying grace (and consequently the forgiveness of sins); others naturally occur over time. These effects consist in a series of actual graces by which God continually strengthens the sick person, enables him to bear his suffering in union with Christ’s paschal mystery, removes from him the remnants of sin,3 prepares him for the struggle of death and, God willing, restores to him bodily health. Every grace is given for the duration of the infirmity.4 The special grace of anointing does not wear off but lasts as long as the recipient is ill; moreover, it bears an essential reference to physical frailty or infirmity owing to illness or old age.5 As Charles Renati explains: The particular contingency in the Christian life for which Extreme Unction was instituted is not primarily that of dying or of death. If it were, one would rightly expect it to be conferred on all who are in danger of death, no matter what the cause, whereas in fact it is refused to those who are in danger of death if they are not sick. Sickness is an indispensable condition for the anointing.6 For the recovery of spiritual health, and for cases involving danger of death from external causes, recourse should be had not to the sacrament of anointing but to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. 2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997) 1532. 3 Council of Trent, sess. 14, De extrema unctione, cap. 2, in Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, 36th ed., ed. H. Denzinger and A. Schönmetzer [henceforth: DS] (Fribourg: Herder, 1976) 1696, p. 400. 4 See Felix M. Cappello, Tractatus canonico-moralis de sacramentis, vol. 3, De extrema unctione, 4th ed. (Turin: Marietti, 1958) §205, p. 142. Some theologians see anointing as giving its recipient a “title” to the actual graces received throughout the duration of the infirmity in a way analogous to how a sacramental character imprinted...


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