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Sick Children And The Canonical Right To Sacraments

by Peter John Vere, JCL/M (Canon Law)

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  • Description:
    An explanation of the canonical rights of sick children regarding reception of the sacraments of Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 47 - 51
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, May 2002

"You must remember," Father explained over lunch, "that I was in the seminary during the late 70s and early 80s. The Code of Canon Law was in revision, so our canon law formation was poor. We had a binder instead of a textbook, and every week we would remove pages from our binder and replace them with other pages, as the Code Commission changed its mind. Because of pastoral duties, I never had the chance to go back and review the new Code when it was promulgated. So if you think I may be in violation of the Code, please don't hesitate to approach me about it. I will head over to the hospital after lunch, can you please write me up something in case the bishop asks?"

Looking into my former pastor's eyes, I could see his explanation was sincere. He had not deliberately intended to violate the canonical rights of a devout family in our parish. Neither malice nor a rejection of the Code of Canon Law had motivated this priest's actions, rather, he had simply misunderstood the Church's current legislation. My former diocese had a rule preventing children under the age of twelve from being confirmed, and Father, being an obedient son of the Church, strictly enforced diocesan law in this matter. Usually this would not pose a problem, since canon law more or less allows the diocesan bishop to determine the age of confirmation within his diocese.

Yet in the present situation, a seven-year-old lay dying in the hospital. While chatting with this boy's parents after Mass one evening, I advised them canon 889 §2 gave their son the right to the sacrament of confirmation. The parents approached Father, who initially refused until they mentioned they had spoken with me beforehand. Father then contacted me and asked me to meet him sometime during the week. As I sat down after lunch to draft the canonical opinion Father requested in case the bishop should ask, I wondered to myself how many other priests were, through no fault of their own, genuinely unaware of the canonical rights children suffering some serious illness have to the sacraments.

Now as both a parent and a canonist, this is not the easiest topic to approach. Reflecting upon the joy my daughter brings to our young family, I know her death would be a touchy issue for my wife and me. Nevertheless, if my daughter's life were in serious danger, I know the Church would afford her certain canonical rights concerning the sacraments, and I would seek to have these rights fulfilled. Most Catholic parents are not canonists, and thus they are probably not aware of these rights. Because parents will usually turn to the parish priest for spiritual guidance when such a tragedy hits, pastors must be aware of children's sacramental rights should a child's life be endangered.

Baptism

The first of these sacramental rights, as most pastors are already aware, is Baptism. As you probably remember from your seminary formation in sacramental theology, the Church does not wish anybody to pass into the next life without the grace of Baptism — not even a child. If an unbaptized child is in danger of death, canon 867 §2 of the Church's Code of Canon Law states, "it is to be baptized without any delay." Now as a pastor you may be aware of the contents of this canon, but what about your parishioners? Have you taken the time to inform them they have both the right and the duty to baptize in danger of death? Have you reviewed the proper baptismal formula with them, as well as reminded them of their obligation to inform the local parish should circumstance necessitate an emergency baptism? This is a duty you should not neglect as a pastor. After all, you may not be around to take the call from the parishioner who gives birth prematurely.

Jumping ahead to canon 871, are you aware of the following obligation as a pastor? "Aborted fetuses, if they are alive, are to be baptized, in so far as this is possible." Now most pastors are aware of this obligation in the case of miscarriage. Yet I know of many good Catholics, including faithful pastors, who would be reluctant to baptize a child if that child was the victim of an induced abortion. I myself fell into this category before studying canon law, mistakenly believing baptism under such circumstances would compromise the Church's pro-life stance. I did not realize my obligation to baptize in such a situation, and I would venture to guess most of the laity are not aware of this obligation either.

Nevertheless, these canons raise the following important question: what constitutes "danger of death" according to the canon law? Of course such a danger must be serious and real, but the danger of death is often difficult to measure both quantitatively and qualitatively. Therefore, preferring to err on the side of caution, the Church deliberately does not define the term "danger of death." Rather, the Church gives the individual the benefit of the doubt if such a danger appears, assuming both the prudent judgment and the common sense of the individual.

Therefore, if it is reasonably certain a priest cannot arrive in time to baptize a sick child, canon 861 §2 allows that "in a case of necessity, any person who has the requisite intention may do so . . ." As can be seen from this canon, the minister of baptism need only possess the requisite intention. As taught by the Ecumenical Council of Florence, in danger of death the minister of baptism need not be baptized to validly baptize. The person baptizing must simply intend to do what the Church wishes him to do under such circumstance. Of course, for validity the minister of baptism must use water and the Trinitarian baptismal formula, which is "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Confirmation

Yet returning to the situation described at the beginning of the piece, baptism is not the only sacrament available to infants and children in danger of death: under such circumstances Catholic parents also have the canonical right to see their children confirmed. This canonical right is clearly stated in canon 891: "The sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion, unless [ . . . ] there is a danger of death or, in the judgment of the minister, a grave reason suggests otherwise." In short, where an infant or child's life is seriously endangered, other than baptism all the usual requirements for confirmation cease. This would include diocesan legislation setting a minimum age for confirmation.

For example, John is a five-year-old suffering from leukemia. He was baptized into the Catholic Church soon after birth, and has regularly attended Mass with his parents who are both practicing Catholics. In fact, last fall he began his CCD instruction, but has yet to complete the necessary catechetical instruction for First Holy Communion, let alone confirmation. His life is now seriously endangered, and the minimum age for confirmation in his diocese is twelve. Because of the danger of death, a grave reason has presented itself, and thus John can and ought to be excused from fulfilling many of the usual requirements for the sacrament of confirmation. One of these requirements would be the minimum age set by the diocese, which the Code of Canon Law overrides as universal legislation applying to the whole Church. A pastor should also under such circumstances set aside the level of catechetical instruction normally required for the lawful reception of the sacrament. In fact, in laying down the usual conditions for the lawful reception of confirmation, canon 889 §2, nevertheless begins with the exception clause, "Apart from the danger of death . . . "

Yet most priests live within a fairly large diocese, whether with regard to population or geography. What if the bishop cannot arrive in time to confirm a dying child? Indeed this is a valid question, and one foreseen by the Church in making an exception to the law. In canon 883 we read, "The following have, by law, the faculty to administer confirmation: [ . . . ] 3º in respect of those in danger of death, the parish priest or indeed any priest." If a life is seriously endangered, confirmation does not require the bishop, for the Church's law permits any priest to administer the sacrament. Nevertheless, since priests do not always remember they have this faculty by virtue of the law itself, many dioceses will mention this fact when giving priests their diocesan faculties. I strongly recommend you check your diocesan faculties to see if indeed a reminder in this regard is present. If not, you may wish to contact your chancery office, and ask them to remind priests within the diocese that the faculty to confirm in danger of death applies to children as well as adults.

The Church takes the obligation of seeing that her faithful not depart this world without the grace of confirmation quite seriously. She even requires laicized priests, as well as priests under canonical censure, to administer the sacrament of confirmation where the danger of death exists and the sacrament has been requested. Therefore pastors, and indeed all priests, should be aware that children have a canonical right to receive confirmation when in danger of death.

Holy Communion

We are all familiar with Christ's following invitation in St. Matthew's Gospel, "Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me" (Matt. 19:14). Taking Our Lord's invitation to heart, the Church does not wish to deny children in danger of death the grace of the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, as with the sacrament of confirmation, the Church waives most of the requirements a child in danger of death must fulfill before being admitted to first Holy Communion.

This exception to the law is clearly noted in canon 913 §2, which states: "The blessed Eucharist may, however, be administered to children in danger of death if they can distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food and receive communion with reverence."

Returning to our previous example of a young Catholic boy suffering from leukemia, he had not yet completed his catechetical preparation when his impending death became certain. Nevertheless, most children his age can minimally recognize the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ, or at least distinguish a consecrated Host from an ordinary slice of bread. These children will look upon the Eucharist with a child's simple reverence; however, even great theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas never came close to exhausting the sacred mysteries of this Most Blessed Sacrament. Therefore, if the rigors of his medical treatment would make the usual catechetical preparation required of this boy difficult, or if it is unlikely he will survive long enough to finish the necessary catechetical preparation, canon law allows you as a pastor to dispense from the usual conditions necessary for first Communion. In short, if you determine this boy understands the Eucharist as something sacred, and if you believe the graces present in the Holy Eucharist can comfort this child, as his pastor you are obliged to administer Communion to him in danger of death. Again, because most Catholic parents are not aware of this right, it will probably fall upon you as the pastor to inform them should the relevant circumstances arise.

Anointing Of The Sick

At first it should be obvious that a child suffering from a serious illness has the right to the sacrament of the sick. Nevertheless, there are still two popular misconceptions about this sacrament which sometimes render a family reluctant to accept the administration of this sacrament to their children, regardless of the severity of their child's illness. The first popular misconception is that this is the sacrament of the dying; the second popular misconception is that this is the sacrament of the aged. Although this sacrament lends itself to the elderly and the dying, as a sacrament the anointing of the sick is by no means exclusive to these two groups in it lawful administration. As a pastor, you will be called upon to gently clarify these misconceptions to parents whose children are suffering from some serious illness.

Here are conditions laid down by canon 1004 §1 governing who is eligible to receive the Anointing of the Sick: "The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, after having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age."

Two things stand out in this canon. First, the sacrament may be administered to one who is in danger due to sickness. The canon does not specify danger of death, but rather danger due to sickness. If a child is seriously ill, even if it is likely he will survive the sickness he is entitled to receive the sacrament. Of course there has to be some danger — one would normally not administer the sacrament to someone suffering from a common cold — however, the degree of danger is not specified. Therefore, if in your best judgment as pastor the child's illness is serious, then do not hesitate to administer the anointing of the sick.

Second, any baptized member of the faithful, having attained the use of reason, is entitled to receive this sacrament. Again, the canon does not state "having attained the age of reason," since the Church recognizes that some children attain the use of reason earlier than others. The Church also recognizes attaining the use of reason is not a sudden event in a child's life, but rather a slow process within the child's formative years. Thus a child much younger than seven may have attained sufficient use of reason to be comforted by the sacrament of anointing of the sick. What if you as a pastor are not sure whether or not a child has attained sufficient use of reason to benefit from the sacrament? Again, canon 1005 answers this question, legislating as follows: "This sacrament is to be administered when there is a doubt whether the sick person has attained the use of reason, whether the person is dangerously ill, or whether the person is dead." Hopefully, as a pastor you will never encounter the last doubt when administering the sacrament to a child suffering from some serious illness; however, you should be aware of your obligation to anoint the sick should any of these situations arise.

Facing the possible death of one's child is difficult for any family. It is also difficult for any pastor to whom the family has turned for spiritual comfort. In the case of Catholic families, however, the Church seeks to comfort her faithful by opening the door to early reception of the sacraments. Nevertheless, Catholic parents are not always aware that if their children's lives are seriously endangered, their children have certain canonical rights to the sacraments. As a pastor, you need to be aware of these canonical rights, so that you may be better able to spiritually comfort dying children and their families.

Mr. Pete Vere, J.C.L., was born in Sudbury, Canada. He earned his civil Master's Degree and ecclesiastical license in canon law from St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. He presently serves as Defender of the Bond for the diocesan marriage tribunal in Venice, Florida, and writes articles concerning canon law in his spare time. This is his first article in HPR.

© Ignatius Press 2002.

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