ASK FATHER: If the priest says an invalid absolution and I drop dead after… what happens to me?

From a reader…


Father, a question – if a penitent is in a state of mortal sin, and they go to confess their sins to a priest, and the penitent does everything necessary on their part for the sacrament to be valid, but then priest uses an invalid form of absolution – and the penitent may well have insufficient theological and liturgical knowledge to know that invalid form is invalid – is the penitent still in a state of mortal sin? If they have a sudden heart attack and die on their way out of the confessional, did they die in a state of mortal sin?

Frankly, we can’t know for sure about the state of the person in that scenario.  However, I think our God is a loving and merciful God, who knows us better than we know ourselves.

Just as “baptism of desire” is a thing, whereby the person isn’t baptized but God treats him as if he were, especially because he would have been if he could have been, I suppose that God will be merciful to the penitent sinner who has done his very best to confess all mortal sins in kind and number, with a firm purpose of amendment, and then longs for valid absolution.    Through no fault of his own he was denied valid absolution.   If he didn’t know enough to raise a question, he is not to blame.

How well this question underscores the importance of knowing by heart and really meaning a good, traditional Act of Contrition.  We should know it, understand all its components, and truly mean it when we say it both in and out of the confessional.  And we should say it often, as part of our regular prayers along with Acts of Faith, Hope, and Love. After all… we never know.


This raises a question, however, of ignorance which is either culpable or inculpable, ignorance of something important that we, as Catholics ought to know and, through our own fault haven’t made the effort to learn, or something important which is outside the normal stream of things Catholics could be expected to know.

If a priest doesn’t know what the true form of absolution is, and he blithely blathers in the confessional, I hold that he is culpably ignorant.  He is guilty of sin in regard to his lack of knowledge of something so fundamental to his work as a priest that he cannot be excused for not knowing it.   We hold doctors and dentists, etc., to know the basics of their trade and we hold them guilty if they don’t or if they don’t make some effort to stay abreast of new developments and to refresh their knowledge.  So too with priests.

Priests need refreshers and continuing education.  Priests need to know the basics.   A soldier or other warfighter who doesn’t know how to operate properly the system of weapon he has been given, such that in the fight he chokes and fumbles, endangers the mission and the lives of his squad.   He and his team and his officers are guilty for his incompetence.

Likewise, in the Church if a priest doesn’t know the form of absolution, or he is using the wrong form of absolution such that people get out of the confessional either scratching their heads or else not absolved, there will be actual hell to pay in the judgment of his formators and his superiors.

Is a woman employed by the French Department of a university a good professor if she can’t read French well enough to get through a novel by Victor Hugo?   And who hired her?  Who gave her her degree in the first place?

Is a priest of the Latin Church, of the Roman Rite, fully trained and equipped if he doesn’t know the language of his Church and Rite, Latin, and doesn’t know to celebrate both the Novus and Vetus Ordo?   NO.

And who is to blame for his not being properly trained?

BISHOPS.   They control the seminaries.  They control the curricula.

So, if a man does his best in the confessional and the dopey priest, for whatever reason, doesn’t give him a valid absolution, and if the penitent drops dead of a heart attack two steps away from the confessional door, is he doomed?

I can’t bring myself to think that he is.  I trust in God’s mercy.

On the other hand, I tremble for that priest in his particular judgment.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Save The Liturgy - Save The World and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. mlmc says:

    The sacraments are God’s usual form to dispense grace(or overtly visible form)- but God is not limited by the sacraments- they are for us but not only what he has for us. We poor humans have very limited perception and understanding of the divine love & mercy- having said that one should not therefore presume his forgiveness but one show be reassured of his promises. Remember the “game” is rigged- all of reality is & we have our adopted father in charge (Nepotism isn’t all bad). All you have to do is avail yourself of his offer to share in the divine life.

  2. acardnal says:

    And as Fr. Z has often mentioned, Canon 249 mandates that seminarians be skilled in Latin.

    Anecdotally, when I was an adolescent in the 1960s I always received absolution in Latin from the priest in the confessional. I had know idea whether or not he said it properly or not. I assume he did and I presume God’s mercy on me if he didn’t.

    Post-Vatican II, I have received absolution in the confessional in English that was sometimes not correctly recited according to the established rubric. The most common was, “. . . I absolve you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. . . .” Note the absence of the words “of your sins.”

  3. The Astronomer says:

    Brings to mind a priest in our local parish who modifies the absolution formula thusly “…and I, by His authority, absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

    I always leave with a gnawing in my guts that inserting the phrase by His authority ain’t quite kosher. But he’s the only priest out of three that hears Confessions, so…

  4. APX says:

    At the risk of getting lynched, I think sometimes those of us of a more traditional leaning tend to get too caught up in thinking of God as a someone who is all about rules and doing things exactly correct and if we don’t, God will punish us. I’m not saying we shouldn’t follow the rules to the best of our ability, but sometimes I think we miss the point of why we have rules, rubrics, etc and forget that our God is a loving God who wants us to serve him in this life, bring souls to him and be happy with him in the next life.

    I say this as someone who once got a really bad case of the scruples for a season and got so worked up and worried about my soul because a Catholic family I worked for wanted to me serve their children bacon ranch salad dressing, two of whom were old enough to be required to follow the laws on abstinence. My spiritual director/confessor got so fed up with my anxious scruples over salad dressing that he finally told me matter of factly and rather bluntly that, “[I’m] not going to go to Hell over salad dressing!”

    God loves us and doesn’t want to send us to Hell. We choose that for ourselves. Just do your best.

  5. Jim Dorchak says:

    I was able for the first time in a year to make a confession here in Chile.
    The confession was clandestine and yet complete with a good priest in good standing with the local diocese here. Although In Good Standing has a totally different meaning in the Diocese in live in because we do not have Mass or confession or other sacraments for that matter. Well the bishop is just too busy scheduling vaccinations in the Catholic Churches to allow for Mass. When we do have Mass which has only been twice in the past year, we are not allowed to sit next to our spouses (6 meters apart) since we may get our spouse sick if we sit too close. Yes this is the same spouse that we share a bed with as well as a house.
    It is just so wonderful how much the bishop cares about our health.

  6. Pingback: SVNDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  7. Cus says:

    When you make a confession in good faith, isn’t that valid irrespective of the deficiencies of the priest? We poor lay sheeple are not canon lawyers… Cf. canon 144 1§: in errore communi de facto aut de iure; in dubio positivo et probabili sive iuris sive facti!
    (And for some other cases canon 142 §2 and even canon 1335)

  8. Bosco says:

    I wonder if the Apostolic Pardon might cover such a circumstance?

Comments are closed.