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A Lapse in the Formula of Absolution

Date: November 21, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I recently made a confession (of mortal sins) where the priest used the full absolution formula, but instead of saying, "I absolve you FROM your sins ...," he said, "I absolve you OF your sins ..." Do I need to redo this confession? Last year's story of the priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit who found out he was never validly baptized because the deacon said, "WE baptize you" instead of "I baptize you" has me concerned. -- J.P., New Jersey

A: We can address this from two angles in both cases, following the principles articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas and most classical theological manuals.

A first question involves what the absolute minimal formula required for the validity of the sacrament.

St. Thomas and the majority of classical 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.

A second approach is the Thomistic doctrine that holds that a change of wording that does not compromise the sacrament’s meaning would still be valid, albeit illicit. Hence a slight lapse or omission in reciting the formula of absolution would not affect its validity, provided that the essential words are said and the meaning is not changed.

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.

In the above-mentioned case of the invalid baptismal formula the change from “I” to “we” constituted a change of meaning of the formula to such a degree as to render the sacrament invalid.

The change in the form of absolution from “from” to “of” does not clearly constitute a change of meaning. For example, both of and from can be translated as “de” in Spanish, and it is quite possible that a priest whose maternal tongue is not English could easily be confused with the terminology without changing the meaning of the formula.

However, all priests should learn the proper formulas, and under no circumstances may a priest, or anyone else, ever put the validity of the sacraments at risk by using matter or forms that are merely probable.

As to the particular case mentioned by our reader, for both reasons given above, I think the penitent can be reassured as to the effective validity of the sacrament.

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