Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology


MORAL THEOLOGY cannot overlook the special law of God respecting the sick. There is a corporal work of mercy for all Christians, of which the Lord will say at the last: "I was sick, and ye visited Me;" but there is also a religious obligation of positive law laid down in rubric and canon: "When any person [i.e., any member of the Church] is sick, notice shall be given thereof to the minister of the parish; who coming to the sick person's house shall say," etc.

(The law respecting prisoners, i.e., under like conditions, is the same.) Here is an official duty and obligation, based on the law of God (S. Jas. v. 14). "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the Church" It is to be fulfilled in a solemn and official way, like any other function of the priest's office; e.g., vested with surplice and stole.

The canon of 1603 does not seem to require even official notice. "When any person is dangerously sick in any parish, the minister or curate having knowledge thereof, shall resort unto him or her," etc. But, of course, for an official visit, such as is contemplated by the rubric, some previous arrangement will be convenient.

This official and obligatory visit has other objects beside the provision, on the one band, for sacramental penitence and Holy Eucharist elsewhere discussed, and, on the other, such charitable consolation, advice, and prayer as any Christian may take to the sick-room. It is, so to speak, the coming of the Lord to His sick member, in the person of His minister, for spiritual strength and help. "The prayer of faith shall save the sick." This is the spirit of the office provided by the Anglican Church.

But it is still more distinctly presented in that rite of the primitive Church which God's Word appointed through S. James (v. 14); sc., "They shall pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." Unction of the sick helongs to the whole Catholic Church, Eastern, Latin and the Anglican Church retained it in the Prayer Book of 1549. It may be called sacramental in the general sense of the word; viz., "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace;" but it may be doubted whether it is a sacrament in the narrowest sense of the word. None maintain that it is "generally necessary to salvation," and the omission of the Unction of the Sick in the Prayer Book of 1552, and ever since, seems to leave the rite as a matter of counsel, not of precept, and to treat it accordingly as sacramental rather than as a proper sacrament. I mean that the Anglican Church appears to regard the outward and visible sign as not permanently fixed by Divine appoint inent. Thus if we read that the Lord (S. Mark vi. 5) laid His hands on the sick, His disciples (v. 13) "anointed them with oil and healed them." If S. James spoke of the anointing, the Lord, before He ascended, said that His disciples shall "lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." So, also, no form of words can fairly be pointed out as essential to this sacramental rite. Prayer over the sick was ordained through S. James, hut the Catholic Church has no such form of words for the unction as is essential to proper sacraments.

This seems necessary to he said when a law of the Catholic Church is in question. Viewing the unction of the sick, then, as a Divinely appointed means of grace, but not with us of precept, but only of counsel, if it be devoutly desired by those who are truly penitent, and have received absolution of their sins, they may with confident faith expect to receive (1) pardon for the feebleness of spirit which their sin has produced; (2) strength and comfort from the Holy Ghost for special trials of sickness, and support in the last dread hour of dissolution; or, if it so please God, restoration to bodily health. "The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him."

To those who cannot recognize and devoutly receive this spiritual help, it will not be given.

Catholic usage implies that the oil employed for anointing of the sick shall be blessed by a bishop, for its sacred use.

Finally, it must be added, whatever lawless custom may tolerate, that the law of the Church still binds every conscientious priest; and if he be called to do the last earthly office for those who are departed from this life, he may not use the Order for the Burial of the Dead "for any unbaptized adults, any who die excommunicate, or who have [while possessed of their ordinary faculties of self-government] laid violent hands on themselves," and so have died excommunicated by their own act. What the priest shall do when he is called upon in any such case, this is not the place to consider. But he is certainly bound to remember that these days are such as render disobedience to the law here given more than ordinarily sinful, because lawlessness makes man the master of his own life, and the priest is bound to protest in the name of God and His Church; and that protest can only be duly given by distinct separation in death of the voluntary suicide from him whose life has been surrendered when God called for it. Also, it must surely be remembered, in determining whether suicide has been voluntary or not, that a coroner's jury is not an ecclesiastical tribunal. That may have respectful attention, but the Church must judge for herself respecting her own offices, with all charity, but also with truth and loyalty to God.

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