The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted a dubium to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in May 2020 concerning the validity of the Sacrament of Confirmation if the anointing with Chrism is done with an ‘instrument’ (e.g. a cotton ball or swab, or while wearing gloves).
The purpose of the dubium was to ensure the continued validity of Confirmation while protecting the safety of clergy and faithful during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Although explicit permission exists for the use of an instrument in administering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (see Code of Canon Law, canon 1000 §2), no such permission is given for the Sacrament of Confirmation and so could not be assumed.
The Congregation’s response offers assurance to bishops and extraordinary ministers of Confirmation (i.e. priests delegated by law or faculty) that in a situation of necessity the anointing can be administered with an instrument, such as a cotton swab or while wearing gloves. “The use by the minister of an instrument (gloves, cotton swab…), does not affect the validity of the Sacrament.”
The Congregation’s formal response is reprinted in the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship Newsletter of July-August 2020 (see pp. 23-24).
Physically touching a person’s forehead with the thumb for the anointing with Chrism remains the usual practice in ordinary circumstances.
Not long after the publication of the Confirmation rite, a dubium was raised concerning the essential “laying on of the hand” in the sacramental form of Confirmation. According to the response of the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council (1967-1983), it is not necessary for the minister to physically place the fingers of his hand on the candidate’s head while anointing with Chrism; the imposition of
the Chrism itself with the thumb is a sufficient manifestation of the sacramental laying on of the hand (see Acta Apostolicæ Sedis 64 , pg. 526, and Notitiae 7 , pgs. 281-285).