ASK FATHER: Does the Church “supply” what is lacking in doubtful absolutions?


From a reader…


I’ve heard you say that one of the cruelest things a priest can do is hear your confession and not (at least) say “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Now, if the priest or penitent were unaware of this mistake wouldn’t Canon 144 apply and thus make the absolution valid?

That’s not quite what I have said.  I have said, and I’ll say it again, that one of the cruelest things that priests can do is leave someone in doubt about the validity of sacraments, such as penance or baptism.   Fathers, say the words as they are in the book!  Don’t fool around with the validity of sacraments by “improving” them with your own musings.  You do not have the knowledge, wisdom or authority to do so.   Say The Black and Do The Red when it comes to the sacramental forms.  Better: use Latin.

Can. 144 says:

The Church supplies, in both the internal and external forum, the executive power of governance in common error, in positive and probable doubt, whether of fact or of law.

This is the famous ecclesia supplet.

Canon 144 only refers to the Church supplying “potestatem regiminis executivam”, the “executive power of governance”.

Keeping with confession as an example, and one that involves internal forum, can. 144 covers instances wherein a priest who lacks the faculty to hear confessions at all, or he just lacks them in a particular place or situation, nevertheless believes he has the faculty and the penitent also believes he does.   Thus, it doesn’t quite cover the situation of SSPX priests, who know very what proper authority as instructed about their state: they lack faculties.  They, however, do not obey proper authority.   They might honestly believe that they can receive confessions because of some state of “emergency” that the Church is in, but, intellectually, they know that the Church has told them that they don’t.  They aren’t ignorant of the facts, though they – even with sincerity – may not accept them.  Some lay people are up to date on the controversy, though most are not.

Can. 144 is not meant to say that the Church supplies anything that is missing from a juridic or sacramental act, as it is often erroneously cited.  Imagine a priest who, when presented a ciborium full of unconsecrated hosts at the Lamb of God, put in a few consecrated hosts, covered it and shook it up, saying, “ecclesia supplet”!  Yes, that’s a true story.

Can. 144 would not supply validity to an invalid, or even to a doubtful, formula.

So in this situation, the formula of absolution is still doubtful.  That said, the penitent’s sins are more than likely forgiven.   Also to be considered is what God does in the soul of the penitent who is sincerely sorry and has done her very best in confession of her sins.

Lastly, it is rare indeed that the priest screws up the form of absolution so badly that he invalidates the sacrament.   That’s a separate issue from causing wonder in the penitent, however.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. dans0622 says:

    I agree, Father. Canon 144 has nothing to do with this.

  2. DeGaulle says:

    Personally, I am often too nervous at confession to be absolutely sure what the priest has said. I trust him-am I too trusting? [Not at all. The cases of priests screwing around with validity of sacraments are as rare as hens’ teeth. Still, I would listen. I find it powerfully affirming and comforting at the same time.]

  3. AdIesumPerMariam says:

    I was put in that unfortunate situation this week. After consulting with a trusted priest who contacted 3 other priests and a Cannon Lawyer, I was told that the absolution was in fact invalid. All because the priest preferred to say “I give you absolution” rather than “I absolve you”. [Yes, that would be invalid from the point of view of the sacrament. It is hard to know what God did in your soul at that point, however.]

    In that situation, should the penitent not receive the Eucharist until confessing again if the absolution caused doubt or was deemed invalid? [No one is obliged to receive Communion. I would make a good confession, to a priest who isn’t daft, as soon as possible.]

  4. Xopher says:

    “Ecclesia supplet!”

    And all this time I thought that was just an alternative form of consecration. Just kidding.

    In all seriousness, though, I once had a NO priest encounter a similar situation in which he realized that he had pulled a very full ciborium from the tabernacle and inferred that it must have been refilled by an aloof acolyte and replaced. Since he wasn’t sure what was consecrated and what wasn’t, he didn’t use it. Everyone had to take a small piece of the one main host and/or receive the Precious Blood.

    I would not have conceived of the idea that a priest would try “ecclesia supplet” as Plan B.

  5. Luvadoxi says:

    I’ve had a priest say, “I forgive you.” I checked with another priest who listened sympathetically and, I think, with some wonder that a priest would do something like this, and he wasn’t sure about whether it was valid or not.

  6. YoungLatinMassGuy says:

    A good explanation on this I’ve found here:

    In short, “ecclesia supplet” is something that 99.99% of laymen will never have to deal with. Many of the times when it is claimed to be used are almost certainly incorrect and being used as an excuse to be both sloppy and lazy. Finally, if “ecclesia supplet” is indeed used properly, then 99.99% of laymen will probably never know about it, or even care for that matter.

  7. ChrisRawlings says:

    I recently had a foreign priest garble the absolution by swallowing part of it such that it sounded like “I absolve yousname of the…,” thus effectively (though unintentionally) leaving out the “of your sins” part. I figured that his intention was there although his English dictation was not, so it was valid.

    I also once had a priest answer his phone during my confession and then tell me something like, “you have no sins. God loves you.” Needless to say, I found another priest immediately afterward.

  8. Andrew says:

    If I go to a Catholic church in communion with the local bishop who is in communion with the Pope and – seeking sacramental forgiveness of my sins – I confess to a Catholic priest – I don’t expect to have to question the effectiveness of the sacrament and to shop around for the “best absolution” reconfessing my sins over and over. That just doesn’t seem right at all on various levels.

  9. agnus says:

    Sometimes He supplies even more…I had the experience of hearing an internal instruction as the priest began some liberal nonsense. Another time I was shy about bringing up a spiritual question and was surprised when the last comment from that priest was the answer to that very thing.

  10. discipulus says:

    At confession a few weeks ago, the confessor recited the words “I absolve you from your sins, In The Name of The Father, and of The Son, and of The Holy Spirit.” Would anybody know if this is valid? Thanks. [Yes, that is valid.]

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