Sacraments of Living vs. Sacraments of Dead

Sacraments are Efficacious Signs and Channels of Grace

To truly understand Our Lord’s plan of salvation for us, it is imperative that we as Catholics know with clarity the definition of a Sacrament. The Roman Catechism quotes from St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) and St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) in order to provide the best definition of the term:

“[T]here is [no definition] more comprehensive, none more perspicuous, than the definition given by St. Augustine and adopted by all scholastic writers. A Sacrament, he says, is a sign of a sacred thing; or, as it has been expressed in other words of the same import: A Sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, instituted for our justification.”

In similar language, the Baltimore Catechism states, “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” And the Catechism of St. Pius X defines grace as “an inward and supernatural gift given to us without any merit of our own, but through the merits of Jesus Christ in order to gain eternal life.”

Two Kinds of Sacraments

There are various ways to group the Sacraments. Some refer to the Sacraments of Initiation (i.e., Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation) as compared with the other Sacraments. Sacraments may also be grouped with those which may only be received once (e.g., Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders) from those which may be received often (e.g., Confession and Holy Communion). Another way to segment the Sacraments is to separate them into the Sacraments of the Living vs. the Sacraments of the Dead.

Sacraments of the Living: Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Extreme Unction.

Sacraments of the Dead: Baptism and Confession.

Sacraments of the Dead

Many people would assume that Extreme Unction (i.e., Last Rites) is a Sacrament of the Dead since those who receive it are in danger of death. Yet, this is not correct. The term “Sacraments of the Dead” refers to the state of the soul at the time of receiving it. Those who receive Baptism are in the state of original sin and may have also committed mortal sins. And while any baptized Catholic – in the state of mortal sin or not – may receive Sacramental absolution in Confession, its ability to restore a soul in the state of sin is why it is also a Sacrament of the Dead. As the Catechism of St. Pius X states: “These two sacraments, Baptism and Penance, are on that account called sacraments of the dead, because they are instituted chiefly to restore to the life of grace the soul dead by sin.”

Sacraments of the Living

Consequently, the other Sacraments (i.e., Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Extreme Unction) must only be received by a soul in the state of grace. The Catechism of St. Pius X again states: “These five sacraments — Confirmation, Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony — are on that account called sacraments of the living, because those who receive them must be free from mortal sin, that is, already alive through sanctifying grace.”

What Happens if I Receive a Sacrament in the State of Mortal Sin?

Those who receive a Sacrament of the Living in the state of mortal sin commit a grave sacrilege. The Catechism of St. Pius X again clearly states for our edification: “He who conscious that he is not in a state of grace, receives one of the sacraments of the living, commits a serious sacrilege.”

This is why we have a responsibility, for instance, to ensure that non-Catholics or Catholics in the public state of sin (e.g., unrepentant criminals, politicians who advance the murder of unborn children, etc.) do not approach the Communion rail. The act of receiving Communion is not a personal matter – we have a responsibility to ensure that sacrilege is not committed against Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Sins Against the Eucharist Are Extremely Serious

Since the Eucharist is our greatest good to which we are indebted it stands that the greatest punishments from Heaven are reserved for those who receive Communion with the guilt of mortal sin on their conscience. This applies to those who are validly married and then get civilly divorced and “remarried.” According to St. Cyril of Alexandria, people who receive Communion this way are throwing Christ to the infernal lions to be abused:

“They who make a sacrilegious Communion receive Satan and Jesus Christ into their hearts – Satan, that they may let him rule, and Jesus Christ, that they may offer Him in sacrifice as a Victim to Satan.” – St Cyril of Alexandria

Upon consecration of the bread and chalice at Mass, the substance of bread and wine ceases to exist and becomes the very substance of Jesus Christ without sharing in any other substance. The acknowledgment of this supernatural Mystery is the first and foremost requirement placed on us by the Church in order to receive Holy Communion, without which one may not receive Communion.

Should one approach the Communion rail in denial of this dogma, the verdict of Holy Scripture applies: “Therefore whosoever shall eat of this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and the Blood of the Lord… For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:27, 28)

What Happens if I Receive Confirmation, Matrimony, or Extreme Unction in the State of Mortal Sin?

If you received either of the first two Sacraments in the state of mortal sin, you do not need to receive them again. Assuming they were administered with valid matter and valid form,[1] they were validly received. However, the soul in question would receive none of the graces from these Sacraments due to the obstruction on the soul from mortal sin. It is only after valid absolution and the soul’s restoration to God’s friendship in the state of grace that the soul then receives at that time the graces of the Sacrament. However, since the reception of these Sacraments in the state of mortal sin is a sacrilege, this sin should be confessed in the confessional along with all other mortal sins since the previous valid Confession. The same would be true for a man who receives Holy Orders in the state of mortal sin.

Concerning Extreme Unction, one of the three effects of Extreme Unction is “To remit venial sins and to cleanse our soul from the remains of sin” (Baltimore Catechism, Q. 967). The Catechism next adds: “Extreme Unction will take away mortal sin if the dying person is no longer able to confess, provided he has the sorrow for his sins that would be necessary for the worthy reception of the Sacrament of Penance.” 

This is possible because there are three dispositions necessary for Extreme Unction on the part of the one receiving the Sacrament: “1. Resignation to the Will of God with regard to our recovery; 2. A state of grace or at least contrition for sins committed, and 3. A general intention or desire to receive the Sacrament” (Q. 960). The Baltimore Catechism further clarifies: “Extreme Unction takes away mortal sin when the sick person is unconscious or otherwise unaware that he is not properly disposed, but has made an act of imperfect contrition” (Q. 446).

As a result, Extreme Unction is not a Sacrament of the Dead meant to remedy mortal sin; it is a Sacrament of the living which presupposes the state of sanctifying grace in the soul. It is meant to increase sanctifying grace and cure the soul of the result of either original or actual sins which have already been forgiven. As a result, it should always be preceded by confession or, if this is not possible, by an act of perfect contrition, if the individual is in the state of mortal sin. To scorn the Sacrament and to knowingly receive it in the state of mortal sin without contrition on the soul and without any sorrow for sin would surely be a sacrilege as well.


God Himself became man. He took on a human nature and, not losing any of His Divinity, chose to become like us and suffer to redeem us according to His Divine Plan. May we feel in our hearts such love for the Incarnation of Our Lord in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary every time we hear the Creed. May we feel within us a heartfelt love for the Three Divine Persons when we see the three bows of the head next time at Mass during the Creed. Let us join the priest and bow our heads at these same words. And may we triumphantly sign ourselves with the Sign of Salvation at the end of the Creed to publicly profess our own belief in the Symbol of our Faith.


[1] For a Sacrament to be validly conferred and for the recipient to receive the inward grace it signifies, it is necessary for the Sacrament to be conferred using valid matter and form, together with the intention to do what the Church does. The Roman Catechism explains: 

“Every Sacrament consists of two things: matter, which is called the element, and form, which is commonly called the word. …In order to make the meaning of the rite that is being performed easier and clearer, words had to be added to the matter. Water, for example, has the quality of cooling as well as of making clean, and may be symbolic of either. In Baptism, therefore, unless the words were added, it would not be certain which meaning of the sign was intended. When the words are added, we immediately understand that the Sacrament possesses and signifies the power of cleansing…But although God is the author and dispenser of the Sacraments, He nevertheless willed that they should be administered by men in His Church, not by Angels…Since the ministers of the Sacraments represent in the discharge of their sacred functions, not their own, but the person of Christ, be they good or bad, they validly perform and confer the Sacraments, provided they make use of the matter and form always observed in the Catholic Church according to the institution of Christ, and provided they intend to do what the Church does in their administration.”

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