By Timothy S. Flanders.
Any Law that is Against Justice Does Not Bind
Laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good…either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good.
The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.” Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience.
Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry or to anything else contrary to the Divine Law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts v. 29: we ought to obey God rather than men (I-II q96 a4).
Justice and Charity Bind the Priest to Administer the Necessary Sacraments During Plague, Even at the Risk of His Life
Prümmer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis, Vol III, no. 72ff:
The obligation to administer the sacraments comes from justice and charity.
Principle 1: Those who have the office of the care of souls are bound out of justice to administer the Sacraments to those under their care who reasonably ask for them.
The reason is because by receiving their office they act as pastors contracted especially to procure the spiritual salvation of those under their charge. The Sacraments are the ordinary means—most excellent and necessary—for spiritual salvation ….Reasonably request, if a certainly grave harm is caused to the pastor of souls by administering the sacrament which is equal to the grave harm caused to him who requests by denying the sacrament, there is in that case no obligation (at least not grave) of acceding to the request of the faithful. Otherwise, it is an obligation to administer the Sacraments—the obligation is more grave in proportion to how grave the loss would be for a denial of the Sacraments.
Since right is the object of justice, the souls under the priest’s care have a right to the necessary Sacraments for salvation by the contract of the priest to their souls in his incardination as their pastor. However, they must be reasonably requested. Prümmer discusses for instance a scrupulous soul asking for Confession every day—this is an example of an unreasonable request which would cause greater harm to the soul than denying the Sacrament. On the other hand, he also says a priest sins who makes it difficult for the faithful to get to confession on a reasonably regular basis. He continues regarding the time of plague:
4. The pastor of souls is bound to administer the Sacraments to the faithful when they stand in extreme spiritual necessity [i.e. about to die with no hope of recovery] even at the risk of his life or other great temporal harm. They are bound in time of plague or infectious disease to administer the Sacrament of baptism and penance even at the risk of their life, according to this Scripture: the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (Jn. x. 11). The same applies concerning the administering of extreme unction, provided there is a certainty that the sick man is not able to receive the Sacrament of penance.
5. The authors sharply dispute if during these times as well the pastor is bound to administer the Viaticum. …Gregory XIII replied that a priest must definitely administer baptism and penance; and thus he modified the decision of the Sacred Congregation of the Council which had arisen 15 days prior, in which it was the stated that a priest is bound in time of plague to administer to his parishioners infected with the plague at least the two Sacraments necessary for salvation, namely baptism and penance.
6. In time of plague or other contagious disease the priest can and should take all proper caution to not be infected himself, e.g. giving the Communion by means of a gilded spoon or by making the anointing by means of a rod with silk at the end of it. Benedict XIV by a decree of the Holy Office 1754 permitted this, but he strongly urged the Apostolic Vicar of Algeria that during the long plague he should ensure the administration of the sacraments of the Eucharist and extreme unction.
Since all who die in mortal sin suffer damnation eternally (De Fide, Ott, 479ff), those Sacraments which cleanse mortal sin are the most necessary Sacraments for salvation—Baptism and Penance. Baptism can be administered by a layman if a priest is not available (especially in danger of death), but the Sacrament of Penance cannot. This is why a priest must administer the necessary Sacraments for salvation even at the risk of his life because the soul is more excellent than the body. Prümmer goes on to talk about priests who are not pastors (eg. retired priests) are still bound by charity to administer the necessary Sacraments to those in extreme necessity even at the risk of their life.
The Perfect Act of Contrition is Not Sufficient for Most Souls
Prümmer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis, Vol I, no. 583:
A priest ought to administer the necessary Sacraments in places where infectious disease has spread, even at the risk of his life. For a man is able to be saved through the act of contrition, but not all who are sick are able to summon up within themselves the perfect act of contrition. Indeed, at death one’s necessity is extreme, and he who has lived in the habit of sin and wild living will not be able to summon the act of contrition.
This accords with what St. Alphonsus says in his sermon on the dying sinner. When a man has the habit of sin he will have great difficulty making a perfect act of contrition. Moreover, St. Alphonsus also observes (following Augustine and other Fathers):
God has indeed promised pardon to all who repent of their sins, but he has not promised to any one the grace to repent of the faults which he has committed. Sorrow for sin is a pure gift of God; if he withholds it, how will you repent? And without repentance, how can you obtain pardon? Ah! the Lord will not allow himself to be mocked. “Be not deceived,” says St. Paul, “God is not mocked.” (Gal. vi. 7.) St. Isidore tells us, that the man who repeats the sin which he before detested, is not a penitent, but a scoffer of God’s majesty. “Irrisor, et non pœnitens est, pui adhuc agit, quod pœnitet.” [De Sum. Bono] And Tertullian teaches, that where there is no amendment, repentance is not sincere. “Ubi emendatio nulla, pœnitentia nulla.” [De Pœnit.] (St. Alphonsus, Serm. XXI for Easter).
Instead, the dying sinner, if he does have any regret, he will probably have only a fear of hell (i.e. “attrition”) which is not sufficient for salvation unless the Sacrament of Penance is celebrated for his sake. This Sacrament will apply the merits of our Lord’s Passion to cover the defect of his contrition. This is why the priest is bound to administer Confession to dying sinners even at the risk of his own life.
Translations from Prümmer by T. S. Flanders. If you would like a PDF of these entire sections, please contact me.
Vol. III: citations:
Vol. I citation: