The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic, raises an interesting question.
According to news reports:
An El Paso source close to Justice Antonin Scalia tells ABC-7 that the 79-year-old died in his sleep last night after a day of quail hunting at Cibolo Creek Ranch outside of Marfa, Texas. The Justice did not report feeling ill and retired to his room after dinner. The source, who was traveling with Scalia, told ABC-7 an El Paso priest has been called to Marfa.
More details are not known, though it’s been reported (perhaps incorrectly) that a priest had given Justice Scalia “last rites.” (That is actually a misnomer. It is properly called called The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.) Could that have happened, though? It seems unlikely an anointing took place if he was clearly already deceased.
This is an issue many lay Catholics, particularly those who are grieving a sudden loss, may not understand. They may insist on an anointing without realizing it shouldn’t really be done.
The 1983 “Pastoral Care of the Sick, Rites of Anointing and Viaticum” translates par. #15: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)
And there is this:An unspoken criteria, alluded to in canon 1005, is that the sick person must be alive. All the sacraments presume that the recipient is in the “wayfaring state” and has not departed this life for eternity. However, the Church permits anointing if there is doubt. The pastoral practice is to favor the person and anoint them, provided it is not certain that they are dead. This anointing should be absolute rather than conditional, as in the past. In 1983 the Congregation for Divine Worship, in keeping with this canon in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, deleted the conditional form of anointing from the ritual (“Promulgato Codice,” Notitiae 19  551).
UPDATE: The New York Times has provided additional details surrounding the discovery of the body, in which a priest says he administered what he calls “last rites”:
Just after 11 a.m., after a morning of activities, Mr. Poindexter and a friend of Justice Scalia’s tried the door again, again to no answer. Once they entered the spacious room, it took no medical training, Mr. Poindexter said, to recognize that Justice Scalia was dead.
Mr. Poindexter called a hospital and, without identifying Justice Scalia, reported what had happened.
Within hours, Justice Scalia’s death set off an intense round of calls to local and federal officials as they tried to navigate the protocols associated with the death of a sitting Supreme Court justice.
Sometime after 3 p.m., the Rev. Mike Alcuino of the Santa Teresa de Jesús Church in Presidio arrived at the ranch to administer the last rites to Justice Scalia, a Catholic.
“It was just proper to call in a Catholic priest for the last rites,” Father Alcuino said on Sunday. He said that he had been alone with Justice Scalia when he performed the rites, which took about 10 minutes.
It seems clear from the information provided that the man was deceased. No sacrament should have been administered. A prayer and a blessing? Yes. A sacrament? No. (To put it bluntly: you don’t confer a sacrament on an inanimate object, which is what a corpse is.)
Meantime, remember Antonin Scalia and his family in your prayers. I would anticipate that his son, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, will celebrate the funeral Mass.
Here’s a prayer recommended for a priest to say for someone just deceased:
In your hands, O Lord,
we humbly entrust our brothers and sisters.
In this life you embraced them with your tender love;
deliver them now from every evil
and bid them eternal rest.
The old order has passed away:
welcome them into paradise,
where there will be no sorrow, no weeping or pain,
but fullness of peace and joy
with your Son and the Holy Spirit
forever and ever.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…