Missing or Faulty Forms of Absolution

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Missing or Faulty Forms of Absolution

ROME, 28 OCT. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What would be the consequences of a priest who did not use the formula of absolution during a confession — maybe no formula, much less the correct one? If this invalidates the sacrament, what should the penitent do? Would it be necessary to repeat the confession in the case of mortal sin? What about a "devotional" confession or one where only venial sin was confessed? — B.H., Iron Mountain, Michigan

A: A slight lapse or omission in reciting the formula of absolution would not affect its validity, provided that the words "I absolve you from your sins" are said. While a priest should always recite the complete formula of absolution, in urgent cases, especially when there is imminent danger of death, the above essential words would be sufficient for validity.

Of course, here we are dealing with the Roman rite. Eastern Catholic Churches have other valid formulas, most of which do not contain the "I absolve you" expression.

It is a liturgical abuse to shorten the absolution formula because there are many penitents awaiting confession. It is legitimate in such cases, however, to encourage the faithful to use one of the brief acts of contrition found in the rite of penance.

As the formula of absolution is the form of the sacrament of reconciliation, the recitation of its essential part is required for validity and its complete omission would void the sacrament.

In this case God would certainly restore a sincere penitent to the state of grace in spite of the priest's omission. But this would not remove the obligation of confessing a mortal sin again and receiving absolution. It would not be necessary in the case of venial sin.

If a penitent realizes that a priest has not granted absolution or has omitted the essential words, then the proper thing to do is to tell the priest immediately and request absolution before leaving the confessional. It is probable that such an omission is the result of a momentary distraction or fatigue and not some perverse theological or spiritual reason. In these cases the priest will more than likely apologize and grant absolution immediately.

We must remember that the faithful have a right to receive the Church's sacraments from the sacred ministers, and the ministers have a corresponding duty to provide that sacrament to any member of the faithful not impeded by law or censure.

If, unfortunately, the absolution was skipped due to some personal difficulty of the priest (such as lack of faith in the sacrament) and he persists in his refusal after being remonstrated with by the penitent, then the penitent should inform the bishop so that he may take appropriate action in helping this minister to overcome this crisis and return to a truer vision of his sacred mission.

If, as has sadly happened at least once, a priest undergoing a spiritual crisis deliberately attempts to deceive the faithful by reciting a blessing or some other formula instead of absolution, then he commits the very grave crime of simulating a sacrament.

This particular case of simulation is extremely rare and so is not explicitly mentioned in canon law. However, if a priest doing so was sufficiently sane of mind to know what he was doing, then he could be punished with suspension and other just penalties.

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Follow-up: Missing or Faulty Forms of Absolution [11-11-2008]

In the wake of our Oct. 28 discussion of a priest not using a valid form of absolution, some readers suggested that I should have also dealt with the case where absolution is denied due to some defect or impediment on the part of the penitent.

Actually, in my earlier reply I deliberately omitted this very complex subject as it would have taken me away from the immediate question. I preferred to limit myself to the question at hand because it was clearly a case of lack of proper sacramental form by the priest and did not concern his being obliged to deny absolution.

It is, however, important to remember that there are times when a priest must necessarily deny absolution. This would be the case, for example, if it is clear that the penitent lacks contrition or is subject to excommunication or some similar censure. In such cases, the priest must, in conscience, inform the penitent why he is unable to grant absolution, and then tell the penitent what he or she needs to do to be absolved.

It would be a grave injustice toward God, the Church and the penitent himself to lead him to believe he has received absolution when in fact it could not be granted. If the priest also simulates the form of absolution while not actually giving it, then he commits a grave fault.

A reader from Singapore asked what the minimal formula for absolution was. St. Thomas Aquinas and the majority of classical theology manuals held that the nucleus of the formula was the expression "I absolve you." A few also sustained that the words "from your sins" were also necessary. All agreed that the Trinitarian invocation and the other prayers were not required for validity but were necessary for the sacrament's licit celebration in non-emergency situations.

Something similar could be said for elderly priests who never learned the new formula of absolution. Any absolution formula that was once officially approved would certainly be valid. They would probably also be licit if never formally abrogated.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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