A little over three weeks ago I published THIS POST on the formula of absolution. Since then I’ve received both some positive feedback from theologians, as well as a number of discouraging messages from people who say that they have been to confession with a priest who changed the words of the formula in some way, leaving them in doubt. We really must pray for priests a lot – I am sure that any priest who changes the words for a sacrament thinks that he is being helpful in some way, but it is the height of unhelpfulness for him to think that he can improve upon what the Church has decreed for the sacraments and the sacred liturgy. More than that, it goes against what the priest himself has promised to uphold.
With this post I wish to add greater precision to what I already wrote. Ordinarily, a priest should recite the entire formula of absolution, whether in the Ordinary Form or the Extraordinary Form – and I wrote out those formulae in my previous post. He should say all the words and not change any of them. He should especially be careful not to change or omit any of the words used in the actual declaration of absolution. In a pinch — for example, in an emergency scenario — he could just say “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
But what if he says something else? What if he leaves out some part or otherwise fudges it?
Here is what tried-and-tested theologians say on the matter: it is probably enough simply to say “I absolve you”. As long as at least that was there, then it was probably a valid absolution. (Bear in mind, a priest should NEVER do this bare minimum, and would likely sin if he did, to say nothing of causing wonderment.)
Here is an excerpt from the very useful manual known as Pohle-Preuss (third volume on the Sacraments), which explains this in greater depth – the paragraph that begins “Theologians generally hold” is the relevant part:
A further clarification about what I published before. I said that it would probably be valid if the form “I forgive you” were used instead of “I absolve you”. In fact, some traditional manuals and weighty theologians say that this is probably invalid. However, I do note that the approved translation of absolution in French is “Je vous pardonne…”, not “Je vous absous…”; in other words, French has a verb for “absolve” (absoudre), but instead they use the verb for “pardon” or “forgive” (pardonner). (‘Pardon’ and ‘forgive’ may have different nuances but they are the same etymologically.) My take-away from this is that the Vatican, if questioned on this matter, would have to come down on the side of saying that “forgive” is valid, since it is what is used in one of its approved translations. However, vaticinating about what the Vatican might say is probably not a good use of time – and what you have here is my opinion against that of weighty theologians. You decide.
Some scoffed at my last post because all of this is just so legalistic. You went to confession, the priest was nice, so who cares? To such individuals I would say: Christ gave us the sacraments precisely so that we could have moral certitude that the graces that we seek and that he wishes to give are actually conferred. The Church, using the authority given to her by Christ himself, therefore establishes set formulae so that we can know that what Jesus promised has been given. I can think of any number of other situations in life where such individuals (or any sane person) would certainly not settle for “close enough”… why allow for it in the far more serious circumstance of a sacrament?