Q. 1. Recently, the five years old son of a good Catholic family in my parish died as a result of vehicle accident. When at the hospital, the parents asked the priest to anoint their son with the Last Rites. The priest refused to do so, saying that the boy did not need it because he was "innocent." Is this a new practice, that children do not need to be annointed with the Last Rites?
A. 1. To understand why the priest refused to anoint the child, it is necessary to understand some of the teachings of the Catholic Church that are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (C.C.C.).
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is to free one from sin:
"The Apostolic Constitution Sacram unctionem infirmorum, following upon the Second Vatican Council, established that henceforth, in the Roman Rite, the following be observed: 'The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed oil - pressed from olives or from other plants - saying, only once: "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.'" [C.C.C. # 1513]
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick includes the Sacrament of Confession:
"Like all the sacraments the Anointing of the Sick is a liturgical and communal celebration, whether it takes place in the family home, a hospital or church, for a single sick person or a whole group of sick persons. It is very fitting to celebrate it within the Eucharist, the memorial of the Lord's Passover. If circumstances suggest it, the celebration of the sacrament can be preceded by the sacrament of Penance and followed by the sacrament of the Eucharist. As the sacrament of Christ's Passover the Eucharist should always be the last sacrament of the earthly journey, the "viaticum" for "passing over" to eternal life." [C.C.C. # 1517]
To receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the person must have reached the age of reason:
"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." [Catholic Code of Canon Law # 1004 §1]
What is the age of reason?
"A minor before the completion of the seventh year is called an infant and is considered not responsible for oneself (non sui compos). With the completion of the seventh year, however, a minor is presumed to have the use of reason." [Catholic Code of Canon Law # 97 §2]
For the above reason, it is said that an 8 years old child has reached the age of reason.
Catholics know that very young children are mentally incapable of understanding right and wrong. As they get older, they can comprehend the significance of their actions and are then held accountable for their actions. It then become clear that a child who has not yet reached the age of reason, he/she cannot sin because he/she cannot choose between good and evil. He/she is intellectually unable to make such a conscious moral decision.
Therefore, it serves no purpose to administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to a child under the age of reason.