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Missing or Faulty Forms of Absolution

And more on civil marriages.
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source:

ROME, OCT. 28, 2008 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: 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

Answer: 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.

* * *

Follow-up: Civilly Married Couples

Pursuant to our
Oct. 14 article on the invalidity of civil marriages for Catholics, several readers made interesting comments.

One reader felt that in my effort to distinguish all the factors in play I had missed the point of the question.

He wrote: "I'm always pleased with your succinct and practical responses to the questions raised. This time, however, it seemed that the questions have not been answered to the point.

"If I may repeat them here, the questions were: 1) Are civilly married couples considered cohabiting if not married in Church? 2) If a civilly married couple, never married in church, divorce and one or both eventually want to get married in church with a different partner, will they be allowed to? You gave several situations, but you never mentioned the case when the couple has always been Catholic. If so, may I ask for the appropriate reply?"

Although it might appear that I lost the wood for the trees, I beg to differ from our reader and believe that I actually answered both questions.

In the very first line of the reply I said: "If at least one member of the couple is Catholic, then the Church would not recognize the civil marriage as valid and the couple's status would be practically the same as a cohabiting couple." I then proceeded to explain the reasoning behind the affirmation.

Later on I wrote: "Addressing the second question, we can say that if a Catholic had entered into an invalid civil wedding, and later divorced, in principle he or she could marry someone else in the Church." Of course, for a Catholic any civil wedding would be invalid.

Several other readers held that some points needed further explanation, especially regarding the entry of baptized Protestants into the Catholic Church. I am sure that our readers are aware that the constraints of a brief article for themes that would probably require a treatise occasionally lead to simplification of an issue. Otherwise the questions might never be dealt with at all.

That said, many of our readers' comments merit due attention. It is true that some Protestant groups take little interest in whether or not marriages are valid, and some defer entirely to civil society with respect to the formalities of the celebration.

The question that the Catholic Church asks does not regard the belief of a particular Protestant group. Rather, the Church asks if the original marriage between two baptized persons can be considered as valid. If this is the case, and that is the usual presumption, then it is ipso facto also a sacramental marriage.

The Church rarely casts doubt on the sacramental validity of Protestant marriages or of the natural validity of a well-established marriage of a non-baptized couple. In some cases, however, it recommends that converting couples renew their marriage commitment as a measure of prudence and certainty. This is usually and preferably done privately.

A reader mentioned the difficulties arising from the fact that some groups recognize the validity of divorce and remarriage while the first spouse is still living. This is certainly one of many possible difficulties, but as mentioned in the original article, before proceeding with any Catholic wedding canon law requires certainty with respect to the nullity or dissolution of all previous bonds.

It is especially important to clarify the situation when either member of a baptized couple had been involved in previous marriages before seeking admission to the Church. The fact that their former ecclesial communion accepted divorce would not by itself ensure the invalidity of the first marriage, and the situation would have to be duly clarified so that the couple enters the Church in a regular situation.

A special situation can arise if only one member of a couple enters the Church. As mentioned in our previous article, the marriage enjoys the presumption of validity. If the couple are not able to live together in peace when one of the two accepts baptism, then the marriage may be dissolved. This is a special privilege in favor of the faith, but it does not mean that the natural marriage was invalid.

Therefore, if a couple in this situation desire to remain as husband and wife, then there is usually no need for them to renew their promises. Any required dispensations from disparity of worship would be accorded by the person's admission to baptism. Something similar can be said if only one Protestant spouse desires to enter the Catholic Church.

If for some reason it is recommended that they renew their promises and the non-Catholic spouse is unwilling to go through with this ceremony (usually because he or she has qualms about casting doubt on the marriage), then the bishop has several canonical instruments that allow him to assure validity without repeating the promises.

Finally, a Catholic who went through civil divorce for grave financial reasons asked if he should have followed the recommendations of Social Security agents who advised him that, given his situation, he would have been better off if he had never married but had simply moved in with his partner.

Christian marriage is both religious and social insofar as it proclaims a mutual commitment to God and to society in general for the purpose of mutual help and the rearing of children. As a stable institution that is the bedrock of society, the law should favor marriage over other forms of union, and those who marry should not be penalized by that very fact. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

Because of the role of marriage in society, the Church is very wary of letting couples marry whose union cannot be recognized by civil society. However, in some grave situations, and especially in order to favor an established couples living in the state of grace, the bishop may occasionally permit that a religious wedding take place that will not be civilly recognized. This is usually a temporary situation, such as when the minimum age for civil marriage is older than the Church's. But the permission might well be granted in other extraordinary circumstances as well.

It is never a good thing to enter into a sinful state (such as cohabitation) no matter what the financial benefits obtained or the penalties avoided.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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