Saturday, December 18, 2010

Invalid Absolutions?

I had to ring a priest friend for advice this morning – had the priest who'd heard my confession absolved me using a valid formula? would I have to go to confession again?

The "visiting priest" officiating in the confessional had said "...I absolve you from your sins, and may almighty God bless you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".  Now, interpolating a blessing was all very nice, but misguided – it left me puzzled and upset, trying to work out if I had to go to confession again.

My friend told me over the phone that this formula was invalid – I had rather hoped it wasn't – but that I would not need to go to confession again, as the Church supplies (Ecclesia supplet).

The same problem comes up regularly here in Launceston: another priest, the usual confessor in fact, always ends a divergent version of the absolution with "I absolve you from your sins, Father, Son and Holy Spirit".  Now, I suspect he is not attempting to absolve the Trinity, nor enumerating my sins as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but this odd apparent vocative or accusative, missing out "in the name of" by some sort of elision, is quite serious, and could invalidate it also, my interlocutor told me this morning.  It is at the least grammatically incoherent.

I was advised over the phone, therefore, to explain to the priest (if it happen again) that I have a Theology degree, and therefore know of what I speak, and then to get the priest to say the correct words...

This happened to me once some years ago – the priest tried, three times, to say the formula right, without success, and finally I had to say, "Father, repeat after me", and I taught it to him!!!  (To be fair, he told me afterward he had suffered a lapse of memory, and was going to bring the words written out with him in future.)

As I said to my friend very testily, if these priests can't learn the correct formula, let alone make up some sentimental nonsense of their own, they have no business being priests – let them go and dig holes, since literacy is not required in that case!

Another thought: after the words of consecration at Mass (the same in every Eucharistic Prayer), the sacramental formula most used by priests would be the words of absolution, since I doubt the average priest baptizes more than he shrives.  It is therefore most damning for a priest not even to know the correct words with which to absolve – it is after all easily found in the relevant liturgical book.

The lips of a priest should drip wisdom, and his flock seek God's law from his mouth, since he is an angel of the Lord (cf. Mal. ii, 7).  We have instead too many stammering, shitten shepherds, through sheer ignorance neglecting, even harming their flocks.

All this reminds me of the thousands of invalidly baptized babies in Brisbane, albeit in that case there was heretical malice aforethought, the priests involved wickedly refusing to employ the Trinitarian formula due to their fanatical misbelief.  It took Roman pressure to force the lazy Archbishop there to stop winking at their crimes and finally, after decades, to suspend them from the ministry.

I do feel rather aggrieved by all this – I just hope I haven't sinned again by slagging off at clerical misbehaviours, given that I have only this morning confessed, and, I think, been forgiven my own sins.  It's all very confusing.  And people wonder why I prefer the Traditional forms of the Sacraments... well, for a start there's more security that they'll be confected aright: those who use such forms tend to be careful, and not inclined to make it up as they go along.


Anonymous said...

Maybe a laminated A4 sheet with the right formula in every Confessional?? A lot have the Act of Contrition on the lay-side.

Joshua said...

Exactly - but for God's sake, quite literally, can't the priest just memorize the words?!

If he can't manage that, how'd he ever get ordained? What on earth did he learn in seven years in the seminary?

How dumb is dumb.

Schütz said...

This happened to me once some years ago – the priest tried, three times, to say the formula right, without success, and finally I had to say, "Father, repeat after me", and I taught it to him!!!

You have to be kidding me. I can hardly believe this, Josh. This really is something to grumble about!

Schütz said...

Mind you, I wonder what the reasoning is behind Mother Church doesn't "supplet-ing" in the case of invalid form of absolution, but not when an invalid form of baptism is used. Just curious.

Joshua said...

In that instance, the priest, quite a good one actually, suffered some sort of memory lapse, since usually he was fine - he was quite apologetic afterwards, and told me he resolved to always bring with him the necessary words written out, so as never to make such a mistake again.

His case was different to that of those priests I mentioned who evidently make up and/or change as they go along the words of absolution.

Rubricarius said...


It reminds me of a Baptism I assisted at some years ago (I shall not name the celebrant). After several prompts we eventually got to the key stage with the candidate, water and a conch shell. The priest said the four words 'N. Ego te baptizo' and then dropped the shell. 'Shall I repeat it or just continue' asked the priest. 'Repeat what?' I replied. 'The form of baptism' responded the priest. 'You haven't said it yet!'

I was rather glad I was present as one shudders to think what would have happened.

Terra said...

Joshua - This is appalling, but unfortunately totally unsurprising. I too have suffered many unfortunate confession experiences!

We the orthodox will persist and demand the words, or check our status - but how many others simply do not recieve the sacrament?

I suspect the argument that the church supplies in a case like this particular one rests on it being unintentional, and the correct intention being there. A strict view though would insist on matter, form and intention however! The classic precedent though goes back to St Boniface in the seventh century who appealed to the Pope over some baptisms where an uneducated priest couldn't quite get the gender of the Trinity correct in the Latin. The priest concerned certainly didn't hold any heretical views on the subject (unlike the Brisbane priests), just acted out of ignorance! The Pope held the baptisms to be valid (though as I recall he got an intensive course form the saint on how to do it properly in future!).

Fr Justin said...

'Moral and Pastoral Theology' by Fr Henry Davis SJ (1948) says the following: "The matter may be discussed for reassurance, post factum, that a confessor may know that he has validly absolved if he has used the words: 'Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis', or even simply, 'te absolvo'."

'Moral Theology' of Fr Heribert Jone OFM Cap (1962) concurs: "Certainly valid would be the form 'Te absolvo a peccatis tuis.'"

Presumably the Church hasn't become stricter on the topic in the reformed rites, so Josh, I think you can be certain you were validly absolved - the Trinitarian formula isn't required for validity.

(I'm not so sure that 'ecclesia supplet' would apply. I've read, and it makes sense, that God would not permit a penitent to be lost as a result of the sacrament being invalidated by some defect on the minister's part of which the penitent was unaware (e.g. defect of intention). And the Church explicitly supplies (Canon 144) in certain cases where the priest lacks faculties. But if the penitent was aware that a clearly invalid form had been used, I think it would be incumbent on him to seek a remedy.)

Br Albert, T.O.P. said...


Having read your piece on your experience in confession, I would have to say that I am sorry for your predicament. Having said that, you mentioned that you have been told that the "Church will supply" for a defective form. That is not the case. The Church can supply jurisdiction, but not for the necessary words of the form. Concerning the sacraments, the priest is the human instrument that God uses for the administration of the sacrament. He is bound to follow the safer path and use the form as Holy Mother Church prescribes. I think we would agree, for example, if a priest was saying Mass and at the consecration pronounced the words, let's just say, "this is Jesus' body". That would not then become the Blessed Sacrament. He is in the person of Christ. It must be done the way the Church has taught. Anything that changes the meaning would invalidate the sacrament. If by substituting words that mean the same the priest could validly consecrate, but he would commit a mortal sin(objectively) by doing so.
As to it being valid, in Latin "ego te absolvo" is the shortest form of absolution possible(not that those words alone should be used in non-emergency situations). I won't say either way, I am just supplying information.

Joshua said...

Thank you, Father and Brother!

I had erroneously assumed that the Trinitarian formula was necessary - but from what you say it appears that "ego te absolvo" would indeed be valid, if illicit.