Catholic Truth Society Postal Course #18: The Sacraments: Extreme Unction And Matrimony, by Father Herbert C Fincham

Of the Seven Sacraments instituted by Jesus Christ we have said something about Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Order, Penance, and Holy Eucharist, and we must now consider Extreme Unction and Matrimony. From what has already been said it is clear that a sacrament is an external ceremony instituted by Jesus Christ through which He promised to give grace to the soul. Clearly the grace can only come of the merits of Christ, and the purpose of the sacrament is as an infallible sign of the reception of that grace by all who put no obstacles in the way of its reception.

Conditions For Worthy Reception

These obstacles will vary with the different sacraments; thus with five of them, the sacraments of the living (i.e. of the soul living by grace), the lack of sanctifying grace is an obstacle to the reception of the special grace of the sacrament, but not to the character, powers or contract conferred by the sacrament. Thus a person confirmed in mortal sin would be marked as a# soldier of Christ; a man ordained in mortal sin would be a priest; and a person married in a state of mortal sin would be validly married. But none of them would have received the special grace of those sacraments. The other two sacraments. Baptism and Penance, exist primarily to confer or restore the life of the soul to those who lack it and so are called sacraments of the dead.

The Ministers Of The Sacraments

Two sacraments can be administered by lay people. Baptism and Matrimony, the rest are reserved to priests or bishops. The minister must fulfil the conditions laid down by Christ, or, in Christ’s name, by His Church, and must have the intention of doing what Christ willed to be done. As Christ appointed human beings to administer the sacraments, for example when He commanded the apostles to baptize, and forgive sins, He must have intended the administration of the sacraments to be a human act and not a mere magical formula. Human acts are acts done by intelligent beings for a purpose and this presumes intention, by which the nature of the act is determined. Thus if a priest, when instructing children how to baptize in the case of necessity, were to pour water over one of them and say the words but with no intention of administering the sacrament, the child would not be baptized, even though by chance he had not been baptized before.

Extreme Unction

Extreme Unction is the sacrament given to people in danger of death by sickness. A priest should always be called to any Catholic who is seriously ill, and this should not be left untO the danger of death is extreme. The great graces of this sacrament are needed by the soul as soon as grave illness makes the preparation for death more urgent and the attack of the devil more intense. Saint James (5:14,15) tells us that this anointing of the sick will raise up the sick man and even bring forgiveness of sins if necessary. We should pray that God may grant us this sacrament at the time of our death, and should remember our grave obligation to help other Catholics when they are ill by calling the priest.


One of the most wonderful truths stressed by Christ was that God is our Father. This not only seems to bring God nearer to us but raises up on high the dignity of human fatherhood. Moreover, the fact that God-made-man ordained to have a human Mother, whom He loved and honoured as the perfect Son of the perfect Mother, has enhanced the already unique and noble dignity of human motherhood. This has added a new and glorious dignity to the married state.

The Natural Mystery Of Generation

All men must feel awe when faced with the mystery of the generation of living beings and it is not surprising that natural instinct should have thought it somehow divine. For as all creation reflects the Creator, the procreation of living creatures proclaims more emphatically the all-powerful, living God. How the coming together of the male and female can reproduce a living being remains a mystery of nature, which we instinctively recognize to be a mystery of God.

Matrimony Is A Sacrament

God in the beginning ordained that man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh (Genesis 2:24); and, though the dignity of wedlock has not always been observed it has never been forgotten. Jesus Christ never destroys natural good, and so far from declaring wedlock evil. He raised it up immeasurably higher by making it one of His supernatural sacraments. As Saint Paul tells us when speaking of marriage, “This is a great sacrament, but I speak in Christ and in the church.” (Ephesians 5:32) Our Lord did this by reasserting that the bond between man and wife was made by God. “What God has joined together”… (Matthew 19:6,7) From which it follows that God would bless this union with special grace. This sacramental grace can only be gained by those who receive the sacrament worthily, in a state of grace and in accordance with the laws of Christ’s Church.

Catholics Must Obey Catholic Marriage Laws

The most important of these laws for Catholics to bear in mind is that the Church commands, in order to ensure the sacred character and solemnity of the marriage contract, that a Catholic must be married in the presence of a priest and two witnesses. This is necessary for the validity of the contract. In other words God, speaking through His Church, tells us that He will not join a Catholic in wedlock with anyone else, Catholic or non-Catholic, except when His Church witnesses their contract. In actual fact it is not the priest who administers this sacrament, hot the contracting parties, one to the other. Hence in extraordinary circumstances, when it is absolutely impossible to find a priest for at least one month, Catholics can validly marry in the presence of two witnesses.

The Sacred Dignity Of The Married State

The sacred dignity of the married state may be judged from the fact that the generation of the Divine Son is compared to the generation of a human child by use of the titles Father and Son. Moreover, Saint Paul, in a beautiful picture of Christian wedlock, compares the love of husband and wife to the love of Christ and His Church: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the church and delivered Himself up for it.” (Ephesians 5:25) Even the legitimate desire for the passionate embrace in w^lock is compared in Holy Writ with the longing for the mystical embrace of the soul by God: “In my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loveth; I sought him and found him not.” (Canticles 3:1) The mode of propagation of the human race is God’s ordinance and creation and it is only our sinful nature that has besmirched it by uncontrolled concupiscence.

All Indecency Profanes This Dignity

It is because we must have this very high and sacred ideal of wedlock that we object to all indecent talk and levity about sexual matters. Such talk is a lowering of our standards and a profanation of the sacred sanctuary of the sacrament of marriage. Apart from the union of one man and one woman in marriage for life, sexual intercourse, and all that might lead to it, or even the deliberate sinful satisfaction of sexual desire alone or in other ways, is an abuse of the God-given power of procreation arising from uncontrolled concupiscence. For this reason it is always gravely sinful. Other occasions of such sins may be venial sins, but if experience proves them to be a grave danger of falling, they become grave sins. Immodest dress, books, pictures, plays, dances, etc., are all to be avoided as dangerous occasions of sins against purity.

Impure Thoughts And Desires

Clearly it is most dangerous to let our mind dwell on sexual temptations, although such evil thoughts are not sinful unless we deliberately consent to them by allowing them to remain in our mind. Our Lord warns us that the desire for sin is as guilty as the deed: “It was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27,28). All excessive self-indulgence in food, drink, idleness may become a dangerous occasion of this kind of sin and so must be avoided. As with all forms of temptation, our great defence must always be prayer: “I can do all things in Him who strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13) At first glance it may seem strange that all these sins should be summarized in the Ten Commandments under the two headings, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and “Thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s wife,” both of which have reference to sins in the married state. The reason, however, is not far to seek. It is because they are all a profanation of the sacredness of wedlock, even as adultery is, though this adds the greater malice of a sin against justice to that against purity.

Marriage Is A Primary Vocation

The Church teaches that the married state is a primary vocation, by which is meant that it is the duty of married folk to put the duties of home and family before any other human obligation. God, of course, must come first, but marriage is a primary means of serving God through the faithful fulfilment of its great responsibilities. But, as God must come first, any vocation that dedicates us to the direct service of God, such as the priesthood or religious life, must also be a primary vocation. As no person can hope successfully to shoulder two primary vocations and always keep both first, the Church has for many centuries in most places forbidden those who are called to the direct service of God, in religion or the priesthood, to marry. (She tolerates the ordination of married men in a few parts of the East on account of ancient custom). It is not because she takes a fow view of the married state, as something in any sense intrinsically evil, but simply following the injunction of our Lord she ordains that the good should be sacrificed for the better (Matthew 19:12); or, more expressly, in the words of Saint Paul: “Both he that giveth his virgin in marriage doth well, and he that giveth her not doth better” (1st Corinthians 7:38).

Asceticism Gives Up The Good For The Better

The whole point of Christian asceticism, a point so often missed by non-Catholics, is that we do not sacrifice something bad to please God (for this we must do in any case), but that we give up something good in itself for the sake of something better. Thus possessions are not bad in themselves, though “desire of money is the root of all evil” (Knox has “love of money,” 1st Timohy 6:10); but it is better to give them up if God calls us to accept voluntary poverty, as was the case with the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-26). Again independence is not an evil thing but entire obedience may be better. Food and drink are good things, but the voluntary fast for the good of the soul is better. Marriage is a good thing, but celibacy and virginity may be better.

MLA Citation

  • Father Herbert C Fincham. “How We Are Saved”. The Catholic Postal Course, 1951. CatholicSaints.Info. 13 April 2016. Web. 18 November 2018. <>