Confession: Is Validity Enough?

ConfessionConcerned Catholics have been asking us to reassure them about the validity of absolution in Confession, because Fr Tim Curtis SJ, PP of St Aloysius, Garnethill, changes the words of absolution to say “I absolve you from these sins and all the sins of your life…” The rest, we presume, is correct, but these words have stood out as being noticeably different from what we are used to hearing in Confession.   More than one reader expressed concerns at the time to Fr Curtis, who has always been polite, they say and even agrees, when asked, to repeat the words of absolution, omitting his own addition to the form. In fact, although what Fr Curtis is doing is not permitted, the absolution received by our concerned readers is valid, as we were assured by a traditional priest who answered our query as follows:

“The theologian Fr Diekamp writes that the “form would be invalid if it did not at least refer to the minister and recipient of absolution, for this is necessary to a judicial pronouncement. Thus to what is minimally necessary to the validity of this sacrament belong the words ‘I absolve thee/you’ or their equivalent.” [F. Diekamp Katholische Dogmatik nach den Grundsätzen des heiligen Thomas Münster 1954 (Aschendorff) 12th ed., Vol. III, p. 247.]

One might thus validly use a form of absolution which omitted the invocation of the Blessed Trinity, for example, but one would not do so lawfully. In answer to your query, then – “Is that allowed or does it, objectively, invalidate the Sacrament?” the answer is no, it is not allowed, but no, it does not invalidate the Sacrament either.  End.

The most recent penitent to contact us on this matter is our very own Petrus, who – as recently as yesterday – asked Fr Curtis to repeat the words of absolution, omitting his own addition, and Father did so. Petrus later emailed him and also contacted the Archdiocese of Glasgow.  Father Curtis replied to Petrus, apologising for causing him “worry” and assuring him that he would consult others on the form he used – to which Petrus responded as follows:

Dear Father,

Thank you for your reply.   Please be assured that I was not worried in the Confessional.  I’m a well informed Catholic, as all Catholics should be, therefore I know what the essential form is to ensure validity of the Sacrament eg.  “Ego te absolvo”, or “I absolve you”, in the vernacular.   

However, you know as well as I do that Sacraments must be valid and licit ie. lawful.  The formula you use doesn’t invalidate the Sacrament but it is unlawful.  

Furthermore, when I go to Confession, or any other Sacrament, I have the right to receive what the Church deems lawful and you have a duty to provide this.   I do not wish your individual stamp on the Sacraments and you have no right to do so. 

There really is no need for you to “consult” on this as the Church is clear – Sacraments must be valid and licit.  I have spoken to the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Glasgow and he writes”

“Archbishop Tartaglia expects that priests, in the administration of all the Sacraments, follow verbatim the approved formularies.”

A penitent should never, ever leave the Confessional wondering if their absolution is valid or not.  I know that other penitents have expressed these concerns to you.  Such is the seriousness of the situation and to ensure that other Catholics are aware and informed, this matter will be discussed over the next few days on the Catholic Truth Blog which can be accessed at www.catholictruthblog.com

Therefore I must ask once again, can you confirm that from now on you will use the correct form of absolution in the Sacrament of Confession?  End.

Comments are invited, but please do not quote questionable advice given or dubious remarks made in Confession as, due to the seal, priests cannot respond to allegations of unorthodoxy etc.  It would be, therefore, unjust to enter into what this or that priest is alleged to have said in Confession. A default “we don’t believe you” position will hold if any such comments are posted and they will be deleted the minute I see them.  Stick to the subject in hand, which is the importance of priests using the correct form and matter for the Sacraments, and not “doing their own thing”.  One penitent mentioned that, as she was leaving the confessional box, having explained her concerns about the change in the form as quoted above, Fr Curtis wished her “a happy new year” – not “have a great new year” or “hope 2015 is good for you” or any other form of the traditional new year greeting.  He stuck to the recognised “happy new year”. So, it’s not as if he doesn’t know that there’s a recognised form to be used on occasion – he just needs reminding that Confession is one such occasion…

The purpose of this thread then it to educate ourselves on the importance of the use of the correct form and matter for the validity of the Sacraments, but also to ask ourselves if technical validity is all that matters.  Hopefully, this thread will either encourage Catholics to not hesitate to ask a confessor to use the correct form if they encounter a Fr Curtis think-a-like, or, if necessary, avoid going to Confession in parishes where the priest(s) deviate from the Church’s form. We’ve named Fr Curtis since St Aloysius is a city centre (Glasgow) parish where lots of people go to Confession throughout the week and weekends, but we do not, of course, attribute any malice to him. When Petrus asked him why he added his own words: “… from these [not ‘your’] sins and all the sins of your life”, he replied to the effect that he wanted to send people away feeling reassured that all their sins had been absolved. So, good motivation. He means well.  However, it cannot be the case that we leave the confessional absolved from sins we haven’t confessed – we have to identify our sins.  What if I’d pinched my granny’s pension book a couple of years ago but had never confessed it?  Would that be absolved by Fr Curtis’s assurance that “all the sins of the past life” had been absolved – even if never confessed, never repented?

Anyway, your call – let’s hear it…