In Christianity, a pronouncement of forgiveness of sins made to a person who has repented. This rite is based on the forgiveness that Jesus extended to sinners during his ministry. In the early church, the priest absolved repentant sinners after they had confessed and performed their penance in public. During the Middle Ages, it became the custom for priests to hear confession and grant absolution privately. In Roman Catholicism penance is a sacrament, and the priest has the power to absolve a contrite sinner who promises to make satisfaction to God. In Protestant churches, the confession of sin is usually made in a formal prayer by the whole congregation, after which the minister announces their absolution.
Learn more about absolution with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Absolution is an integral part of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. The penitent makes a sacramental confession of all mortal sins to a priest and prays an act of contrition. The priest then assigns a penance and imparts absolution in the name of the Trinity, on behalf of the Church:
"God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Before the Second Vatican Council, and still practiced in traditionalist parishes, absolution was given in Latin, followed by another Latin prayer by the priest:
Absolution: "Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat; et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis (suspensionis) et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges. [making the Sign of the Cross:] Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."
Translation: "May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you; and by His authority I absolve you from every bond of excommunication and interdict, so far as my power allows and your needs require. [making the Sign of the Cross:] Thereupon, I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
Post-absolution prayer: "Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi, merita Beatae Mariae Virginis et omnium sanctorum, quidquid boni feceris vel mali sustinueris sint tibi in remissionem peccatorum, augmentum gratiae et praemium vitae aeternae. Amen."
Translation: "May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints and also whatever good you do or evil you endure merit for you the remission of your sins, the increase of grace and the reward of everlasting life. Amen."
Absolution forgives the guilt associated with the penitent's sins, and removes the eternal punishment (Hell) associated with mortal sins. The penitent is still responsible for the temporal punishment (Purgatory) associated with the confessed sins, unless an indulgence is applied.
General absolution, where all eligible Catholics gathered at a given area are granted absolution for sins without prior individual confession to a priest, is lawfully granted in only 2 circumstances:
(1) there is imminent danger of death and there is no time for a priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents,
(2) a serious need is present, that is, the number of penitents is so large that there are not sufficient priests to hear the individual confessions properly within a reasonable time (generally considered to be 1 month) so that the Catholics, through no fault of their own, would be forced to be deprived of the sacrament or communion. The diocesan bishop must give prior permission before general absolution may be given under this circumstance. It is important to note that the occurrence of a large number of penitents, such as may occur on a pilgrimage or at penitential services is not considered as sufficient to permit general absolution. Circumstance 2 is thus envisaged more for mission territories where priests may visit certain villages only a few times a year.
For a valid reception of general absolution, the penitent must be contrite for all his mortal sins and have the resolution to confess at the next earliest opportunity each of those mortal sins that is forgiven in general absolution. Anyone receiving general absolution is also required to make a complete, individual confession to a priest as soon as possible before receiving general absolution again. A contemporary example of general absolution was the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, where general absolution was granted to all Catholics endangered by the incident.
At minimum, Anglican prayer books contain a formula of absolution in the daily offices, at the Eucharist, and in the visitation of the sick. The first two are general, akin to the liturgical absolution in use in the Roman Church; the third is individual by the very nature of the case. The offices of the earliest Books of Common Prayer contained an absolution that read both as assurance of pardon, placing the agency with God ("He [God] pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent"), and as priestly mediation (God "hath given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people...the absolution and remission of their sins"). The following is the form of absolution for the sick in the Book of Common Prayer: "OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: And by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/occasion/sick_visit.html
The Lutheran tenet of justification by faith alone would make all absolution merely declarative, and reduce the pardon granted by the Church to the merest announcement of the Gospel, especially of remission of sins through Christ.
Zwingli held that God alone pardoned sin, and he saw nothing but idolatry in the practice of hoping for pardon from a mere creature. If confession had aught of good it was merely as direction.
John Calvin denied all idea of sacrament when there was question of Penance; but he held that the pardon expressed by the minister of the Church gave to the penitent a greater guarantee of forgiveness. The Confession styled "Helvetian" contents itself with denying the necessity of confession to a priest, but holds that the power granted by Christ to absolve is simply the power to preach to the people the Gospel of Jesus, and as a consequence the remission of sins: "Rite itaque et efficaciter ministri absolvunt dum evangelium Christi et in hoc remissionem peccatorum prædicant."