QUAERITUR: “I forgive” instead of “I absolve”

From a reader:

I have a question about confession, ….  When I went this morning, the priest heard my sins and then said, "I forgive you your sins in the name of…" instead of the usual "I absolve you from your sins…".  I cringed a little when I heard that, and I automatically thought of your previous posts on absolution.  Am I making too much out of this, or am I right to think that it was questionable?  After all, he’s not the one who is forgiving the sins!

The priest does forgive your sins. The sacrament of Holy Orders brings the priest into such a close bond with Christ that he speaks in the first person in this moments.  Christ is forgiving in the person of the priest.  Christ is the true minister of the sacrament, but He does so in the person of the priest.  He uses the word in the first person saying: "Ego te absolvo… I absolve you".  The priest at Mass says, "This is my body…".   When the priest is absolving or consecrating he is alter Christus, "another Christ".  He acts in persona Christi, "the the person of Christ". 

As to the word "forgive" rather than "absolve"….

I suspect the priest is thinking that people will more immediately resonate with "forgive", a more common word, than "absolve".  Surely he isn’t trying to do anything wrong.

However, absolvo is not quite the same as "forgive", but words such as "forgive", "remit", "absolve" are very close in English. 

Absolvo is "loosen" or "acquit" or "declare innocent" of whatever the person had incurred.  "Absolve" sounds to my ears to be more thorough.  "Absolve" doesn’t merely "forgive" sins but also the effects of the sins.  There is also a juridical subtext in absolvo, which could be a helpful point of consideration.  I guess you could argue that for remit.

I don’t know if saying "forgive" instead of "absolve" makes the absolution invalid.  I suspect it is still valid, but I don’t know that.

I know without a shadow of a doubt that "absolvo" and "I absolve" are valid.

There is a reason why Holy Church says absolvo instead of dimitto, ignosco, condono, remitto even though Holy Church speaks frequently about the "remission" of sins. 

I think priests should use the words Holy Church designates for the forms of sacraments so that there isn’t any doubt in the minds of the faithful that the sacrament was valid. 

Latin priests would not make a mistake simply to use the Latin form for their Latin Church penitents. 

Latin form = zero doubt
approved English form = zero doubt
change the words  = some doubt

Why create unnecessary problems?

Just SAY THE BLACK WORDS in the text.

I think it is within a penitent’s rights to ask the confessor to use the proper form of absolution.  This might create a moment of tension and great tact should be used, especially if this is your regular priest.

If the priest will not use the form of absolution in the approved text, it might be necessary to ask the local bishop if saying "I forgive" is valid or not.


A Final Idea: You might go back to that priest for confession again and put to him a question about a doubt you are having.  You might say, "The last time I went to confession, the priest said ‘I forgive’ instead of "I absolve’.  That raised a doubt in my mind and really bothered me, since that is not the approved form of absolution.  Do I have to re-confess those sins?"  Maybe the priest will get the hint.

UPDATE: I close the combox.  I don’t see how all sort of people jumping in with advice will help at all.  If people have something to contribute, you can e-mail it to me.

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  1. Bobby Bambino says:

    Maybe now is a good time to ask; I’ve never quite understood what “Say the red, do the black” means. Can anyone help me out?

    [Simply put: Just say the approved words in the books and follow the rubrics as written. Don’t make it up as you go.]

  2. From a reader:

    “Ego te absolvo,” or the approved equivalent in other languages and rites, is considered the essential form of the sacrament, and cannot be changed without invalidating the absolution.  The Church’s teaching on form is taken from the Council of Trent, chapter III from session XIV.

    I am not sure if this is touched upon elsewhere in Church teaching, but I have long been told by many priests that “forgive” is a defect in form that invalidates.

    I respond that the plural of anecdote is not “data”. 

    The fact is that only the Latin is iron-clad.  After that we can be confident in the official translation.  But every translation involves choices of stressing this nuance or that concept.

    Would any of those priests wants to drill into the difference between “forgive” and “absolve” here?  It could be a good discussion.  But our discussion would be conjecture.

    Until the CDF issues an official clarification that the word “forgive” rather than “absolve” makes the absolution invalid, I don’t think we can simply accept that “forgive” makes the form invalid, no matter how many priests might had said that to you.

  3. From a priest reader:

    I have occasionally encountered a confessor who uses an English version of the traditional form, i.e. “Our Lord Jesus Christ absolves you, and by his authority…” I have never worried about this because I always understood that only “I absolve you from your sins in the name of…” was required for validity.

    I learned the traditional formula in Latin in a hurry; when I was a baby priest and wanted to learn the TLM I started to attend one on Sunday afternoons. Soon I was asked if I would hear confessions before Mass. When penitents would begin in Latin, I thought it seemly to absolve them with the traditional formula in Latin. Lucky for me it was reproduced in a helpful appendix in my treasured Breviarium Romano-Seraphicum.

    One thing that has puzzled me, though, is that some of our own older priests, in the new formula, instead of saying “through the ministry of the church,” say, “through the ministry of the priest.” I don’t know if this has any roots anywhere or if it is just some funny thing that crept into our practice.

    Hmm… I suppose they might be thinking “through my ministry as a priest”…. but… they should review the form and stick to it.

    Let’s not raise unnecessary questions when it comes to absolution.

  4. From a reader:

    What do you make of the approved French translation of the formula of absolution:

    Et moi, au nom du Père et du Fils et du Saint-Esprit, je vous pardonne tous vos péchés

    My understanding is that “pardonne” in French is essentially equivalent to “forgive” in English.  I believe there is another French word for “absolve” (“absoudre”, I think).

    What do I make of that?

    I have no opinion about the French translation, other than to say that if French priests don’t use the Latin form, they should use the approved form of the French translation whatever it may be.

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