What Is Absolution?
Absolution is the remission of sin, or of the punishment due to sin, granted by the Church. (For remission of punishment due to sin.)
Absolution proper is that act of the priest whereby, in the Sacrament of Penance, he frees man from sin. It presupposes on the part of the penitent, contrition, confession, and promise at least of satisfaction; on the part of the minister, valid reception of the Order of Priesthood and jurisdiction, granted by competent authority, over the person receiving the sacrament. That there is in the Church power to absolve sins committed after baptism the Council of Trent thus declares:
“But the Lord then principally instituted the Sacrament of Penance, when, being raised from the dead, He breathed upon His disciples saying, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ By which action so signal, and words so clear the consent of all the Fathers has ever understood that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was communicated to the Apostles, and to their lawful successors for the reconciling of the faithful who have fallen after baptism”
(Sess. XIV, i). Nor is there lacking in divine revelation proof of such power; the classical texts are those found in Matthew 16:19; 18:18, and in John 20:21-23.
To Peter are given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Sin is the great obstacle to entrance into the kingdom, and over sin Peter is supreme. To Peter and to all the Apostles is given the power to bind and to loose, and this again implies supreme power both legislative and judicial: power to forgive sins, power to free from sin’s penalties. This interpretation becomes more clear in studying the rabbinical literature, especially of Our Lord’s time, in which the phrase to bind and to loose was in common use. (Lightfoot, Horæ Hebraicæ Buxtorf, Lexicon Chald.; Knabenbauer, Commentary on Matthew, II, 66; particularly Maas, St. Matthew, 183, 184.) The granting of the power to absolve is put with unmistakable clearness in St. John’s Gospel: “He breathed upon them and said, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins ye shall forgive they are forgiven them; and whose sins ye shall retain, they are retained'” (20:22-23). It were foolish to assert that the power here granted by Christ was simply a power to announce the Gospel (Council of Trent, Sess. XIX, Can. iii), and quite as unwise to contend that here is contained no power other than the power to remit sin in the Sacrament of Baptism (Ibid., Sess. XIV); for the very context is against such an interpretation, and the words of the text imply a strictly judicial act, while the power to retain sins becomes simply incomprehensible when applied to baptism alone, and not to an action involving discretionary judgment. But it is one thing to assert that the power of absolution was granted to the Church, and another to say that a full realization of the grant was in the consciousness of the Church from the beginning. Baptism was the first, the great sacrament, the sacrament of initiation into the kingdom of Christ. Through baptism was obtained not only plenary pardon for sin, but also for temporal punishment due to sin. Man once born anew, the Christian ideal forbade even the thought of his return to sin. Of a consequence, early Christian discipline was loath to grant even once a restoration to grace through the ministry of reconciliation vested in the Church. This severity was in keeping with St. Paul’s declaration in his Epistle to the Hebrews: “For it is impossible for those who were once illuminated, have tasted also the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, have moreover tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come and are fallen away, to be renewed again to penance” etc. (vi, 4-6). The persistence of this Christian ideal is very clear in the “Pastor” of Hermas, where the author contends against a rigorist school, that at least one opportunity for penance must be given by the Church (III Sim., viii, 11). He grants only one such chance, but this is sufficient to establish a belief in the power of the Church to forgive sins committed after baptism. St. Ignatius in the first days of the second century seemingly asserts the power to forgive sins when he declares in his letter to the Philadelphians that the bishop presides over penance. This tradition was continued in the Syrian Church, as is evident from passages found in Aphraates and Ephrem, and St. John Chrysostom voices this same Syrian tradition when he writes “De Sacerdotio” (Migne P.G., LXVII, 643), that “Christ has given to his priests a power he would not grant to the angels, for he has not said to them, ‘Whatsoever ye bind, will be bound,'” etc.; and further down he adds, “The Father hath given all judgment into the hands of his Son, and the Son in turn has granted this power to his priests.”
Clement of Alexandria, who perhaps received his inspiration from the “Pastor” of Hermas, tells the story of the young bandit whom St. John went after and brought back to God, and in the story he speaks of the “Angel of Penance”, meaning the bishop or priest who presided over the public penance. Following Clement in the Catechetical school of Alexandria was Origen (230). In the commentary on the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses”, he alludes to the practice of penance in the Church, recalling the text of John 20:21. He asserts that this text is proof of the power to pardon sin conferred by Christ upon His Apostles and upon their successors. True it is that in writing of the extent of the power conferred, he makes exception for the sins of idolatry and adultery, which he terms irremissible, although Dionysius of Corinth (170) years before held that no sin was excepted from the power of the keys granted by Christ to His Church (Eusebius, Church History IV.23). In the Alexandrian Church we have also the testimony of Athanasius, who in a fragment against the Novatians pointedly asserts: “He who confesses his sins, receives from the priest pardon for his fault, in virtue of the grace of Christ (just as he who is baptized).” Asia Minor is at an early date witness of this power to absolve. St. Firmilian, in his famous letter to St. Cyprian, asserts that the power to forgive sins was given to the Apostles and to their successors (Epistle 75 of Cyprian), and this tradition is more clearly expressed both in Basil and Gregory Nazianzen (P.G., XXXI, 1284; XXXVI, 356, 357). The Roman tradition is clear in the “Pastor” of Hermas, where the power to forgive sins committed after baptism is defended (Sim., viii, 6, 5; ibid., ix, 19). This same tradition is manifest in the Canons of Hippolytus, wherein the prelate consecrating a bishop is directed to pray: “Grant him, O Lord, the power to forgive sins” (xxii). This is still more clearly expressed in the “Constitutiones Apostolicæ” (P.G., I, 1073): “Grant him, O Lord Almighty, by Thy Christ the fulness of Thy spirit, that he may have the power to pardon sin, in accordance with Thy command, that he may loose every bond which binds the sinner, by reason of that power which Thou hast granted Thy Apostles.” (See also Duchesne, “Christian Worship”, 439, 440.) True, this power seems to Hermas to be strangely limited, while Origen, Tertullian, and the followers of Novatian principles were unwilling to grant that the Church had a right to absolve from such sins as apostasy, murder, and adultery. However, Calixtus settled the question for all time when he declared that in virtue of the power of the keys, he would grant pardon to all who did penance — Ego . . . delicta pœnitentiâ functis dimitto, or again, Habet potestatem ecclesia delicta donandi (On Pudicity 21). In this matter, see Tertullian, “De Pudicitiâ”, which is simply a vehement protest against the action of the Pope, whom Tertullian accuses of presumption in daring to forgive sins, and especially the greater crimes of murder, idolatry, etc. — “Idcirco præsumis et ad te derivasse solvendi et alligandi potestatem, id est, ad omnem Ecclesiam Petri propinquam.” Tertullian himself, before becoming a Montanist, asserts in the clearest terms that the power to forgive sins is in the Church. “Collocavit Deus in vestibulo pœnitentiam januam secundam, quæ pulsantibus patefaciat [januam]; sed jam semel, quia jam secundo, sed amplius nunquam, quia proxime frustra” (De Pœnitentiâ, vii, 9, 10). Although Tertullian limits the exercise of this power, he stoutly asserts its existence, and clearly states that the pardon thus obtained reconciles the sinner not only with the Church, but with God (Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, I, note 3, 407). The whole Montanist controversy is a proof of the position taken by the Church and the Bishops of Rome; and the great Doctors of the West affirmed in the strongest terms the power to absolve granted to the priests of the Church by Christ. (Leo the Great, P.L., LIV, 1011-1013; Gregory the Great, P.L., LXVI, 1200; Ambrose, P.L., XV, 1639; XVI, 468, 477, etc.; Augustine, P.L., XXXIX, 1549-59.)
From the days, therefore, of Calixtus the power to absolve sins committed after baptism is recognized as vested in the priests of the Church in virtue of the command of Christ to bind and loose, and of the power of the keys. At first this power is timidly asserted against the rigorist party; afterwards stoutly maintained. At first the sinner is given one opportunity for pardon, and gradually this indulgence is extended; true, some doctors thought certain sins unpardonable, save by God alone, but this was because they considered that the existing discipline marked the limits of the power granted by Christ. After the middle of the fourth century, the universal practice of public penance precludes any denial of a belief in the Church’s power to pardon the sinner, though the doctrine and the practice of penance were destined to have a still further expansion.
Later patristic age
Following the golden age of the Fathers, the assertion of the right to absolve and the extension of the power of the keys are even more marked. The ancient sacramentaries — Leonine, Gelasian, Gregorian, the “Missale Francorum” — witness this especially in the ordination service; then the bishop prays that “whatever they bind, shall be bound” etc. (Duchesne, Christian Worship, 360, 361). The missionaries sent from Rome to England in the seventh century did not establish a public form of penance, but the affirmation of the priest’s power is clear from the “Pœnitentiale Theodori”, and from the legislation on the Continent, which was enacted by the monks who came from England and Ireland (Council of Reims, can. xxxi, Harduin). The false decretals (about 850) accentuated the right of absolution; and in a sermon of the same century, attributed perhaps wrongly to St. Eligius, a fully developed doctrine is found. The Saint is speaking of the reconciliation of penitents and warns them to be sure of their dispositions, their sorrow, their purpose of amendment; for “we are powerless,” he says, “to grant pardon, unless you put off the old man; but if by sincere repentance you put off the old man with his works, then know that you are reconciled to God by Christ, yea and by us, to whom He gave the ministry of reconciliation.” And this ministry of reconciliation which he claims for the priesthood is that ministry and that power granted to the Apostles by Christ when He said, “Whatsoever you bind upon earth, shall be bound in heaven” (P.L., LXXXVII, 609, 610). The theologians of the medieval period, from Alcuin to St. Bernard, insist that the right to absolve from sin was given to the bishops and priests who succeeded to the apostolic office (Alcuin, P.L., CI, 652-656; Benedict Levita, P.L., C, 357; Jonas of Orléans, P.L., CVI, 152; Pseudo-Egbert, P.L., LXXXIX, 415; Haymo of Halberstadt, P.L., CXVIII, 762 sqq.). Following the theologians, the canonists, such as Regino of Prüm, Burchard of Worms, Ivo of Chartres, furnish us with fuller proofs of the same power, and Harduin (Councils, VI, i, 544) cites the fifteenth canon of the Council of Troslé (909), which states expressly that penance through the ministry of Christ’s priests is “fruitful unto the remission of sins”. This epoch closes with St. Bernard, who takes Peter Abelard to task for daring to assert that Christ gave the power to forgive sins only to His disciples, and consequently that the successors of the Apostles do not enjoy the same privileges (P.L., CLXXXII, 1054). But while Bernard insists that the power of the keys given to the Apostles is lodged in the bishop and in the priests, he with equal stress insists that such power be not exercised unless the penitent make a full confession of wrong committed (ibid., 938). When the great scholastic epoch began, the doctrine which obtained was a power to absolve sins and this power distinctly recognized, in virtue of the power granted by Christ to His Apostles. On the part of the penitent, sorrow and a promise of better life were necessary, and also a declaration of sin made to him whom Christ had appointed judge.
At the beginning of the scholastic age, special stress is laid upon the power of contrition to secure pardon. St. Anselm of Canterbury, in a commentary upon Luke 17:14, likens this power to that possessed of old by the Jewish priest in the case of leprosy (P.L., CLVIII, 662; ibid., 361-430). At first sight, the doctrine of St. Anselm seemed to annul the power to absolve which antiquity had granted to the priesthood, and to reduce the office of reconciliation to a mere declaration that sin had been forgiven. Hugo of St. Victor (1097-1141) took ground against Anselm, not because Anselm insisted on contrition, but because he seemingly left no place for the power of the keys. But how admit the one and not the other? Hugo says the sinner is “bound down by obduracy of soul, and by the penalty of future damnation”; the grace of God frees man from the darkness brought on by sin, while the absolution of the priest delivers him from the penalty which sin imposes — “The malice of sin is best described as obduracy of heart, which is first broken by sorrow, that later, in confession, the sin itself, i.e. the penalty of damnation, be remitted.” There is some obscurity in the text, but Hugo seems inclined to hold that the priest absolves from the punishment due to sin, rather than from sin itself. The Master of the Sentences, Peter Lombard, took issue with Hugo, and asserted in clear terms that charity not only blotted out the stain of sin, but also freed the sinner from punishment due to sin. Not understanding, however, that penance as a sacrament is a moral unit, Peter Lombard in turn used language which is far from exact. He seems to hold that contrition takes away sin and its consequences, and when questioned concerning the power granted to the priest, he seems to recur to the opinion of Anselm that it is declarative. “They remit or retain sins when they judge and declare them remitted or retained by God” (P.L., CXCII, 888). He also grants to the priest certain power in reference to the temporal punishment due to sin (ibid.). Richard of St. Victor, though he speaks of the opinion of Peter Lombard as frivolous, in reality differs but little from the Master of the Sentences. Peter’s opinion indeed exercised great influence over the minds both of his contemporaries and of the following generation. With William of Auvergne (who taught up to 1228, when he became Archbishop of Paris) comes the distinction between contrition and attrition in the Sacrament of Penance. Contrition takes away all stain of guilt, while attrition prepares the way for the real remission of sin in the sacrament. Theologians had recognized the distinction between contrition and attrition even before William of Paris, but neither Alexander of Hales nor Albert, the master of Aquinas, advanced much beyond the teaching of Peter Lombard. Both seemingly insisted on real contrition before absolution, and both also held that such contrition in reality took away mortal sin. They did not, however, deny the office of the minister, for they both held that contrition involved a promise of confession [Alb. Mag., IV Sent., Dist. xvi-xvii (Paris, 1894), XXIX, 559, 660, 666, 670, 700]. St. Bonaventure (IV, Dist. xvii) also admits the distinction between contrition and attrition; he asserts the power of contrition to take away all sin, even without the priest’s absolution, confession being necessary only when possible. As regards the priest’s power to pardon sin, he not only admits it, not only asserts that absolution forgives sin and its eternal consequences, but calls it the forma sacramenti. He even goes so far as to say that attrition is sufficient for pardon if accompanied by absolution (ibid., Dist. xviii). When questioned as to the manner in which absolution produces its sacramental effect, he distinguishes between two forms of absolution employed by the priest: the one deprecatory, “Misereatur tui” etc., and the other indicative, “Ego te absolvo”. In the former the priest intercedes for the sinner, and this intercession changes his attrition into real contrition and secures pardon for sin committed. In the latter, which is indicative and personal, the priest exercises the power of the keys, but remits only a temporal punishment due still on account of sin. This after all is but a new way of putting the theory of Peter Lombard (ibid., Dist. xviii). St. Thomas Aquinas treats this subject in his Commentary on the Master of the Sentences (IV, Dist. xvii, xviii, xix; Summa Theologica III, QQ. lxxxiv-xc; Supplement, QQ. i-xx; Opuscula, Do Formâ Absolutionis). Taking the many distracted theories of the schoolmen with this partial truth, he fused them into a united whole. In the commentary on the “Libri Sententiarum” he shows clearly that the ministry of the priest is directly instrumental in the forgiveness of sin; for “if the keys had not been ordained for the remission of sin, but only for release from the penalty (which was the opinion of the elder scholastics), there would be no need of the intention to obtain the effect of the keys for the remission of sin”; and in the same place he clearly states: “Hence if before absolution one had not been perfectly disposed to receive grace, one would receive it in sacramental confession and absolution, if no obstacle be put in the way” (Dist. xvii, 2, I, art. 3, Quæstiuncula iv). He sees clearly that God alone can pardon sin, but God uses the instrumentality of absolution which, with confession, contrition, and satisfaction, concurs in obtaining forgiveness, in blotting out the stain, in opening the kingdom of heaven, by cancelling the sentence of eternal punishment. This doctrine is expressed again with equal clearness in the “Summa” and in the “Supplement”. In the “Summa”, Q. lxxxiv, art. 3, he states that the absolution of the priest is the forma sacramenti, and consequently confession, contrition, and satisfaction must constitute “in some way, the matter of the sacrament”. When asked whether perfect contrition secured pardon for sin even outside the Sacrament of Penance, St. Thomas answers in the affirmative; but then contrition is no longer an integral part of the sacrament; it secures pardon because forgiveness comes from perfect charity, independently of the instrumentality of the sacramental rite (Supplement, Q. v, a. 1). Duns Scotus not only grants the power of a solution in the forgiveness of sin, but goes a step farther and asserts that the sacrament consists principally in the absolution of the priest, because confession, contrition, and satisfaction are not integral parts or units in the sacrament, but only necessary previous dispositions to the reception of divine grace and forgiveness. “There is no similarity, therefore, between the priest of the Law in regard to leprosy and the priest of the Gospel in regard to sin”, and he adds that the priest of the New Law, “exercet actum qui est signum prognosticum, efficax mundationis sequentis” etc. (edit. Vivès, XVIII, 649, 650, in Dist. XIX; ibid., 420, 421). Some think this opinion of Scotus more in conformity with the Council of Trent, which calls contrition, confession, and satisfaction not “the matter”, but quasi materia, “as if the matter”, of the sacrament; others doubt whether the Council thus meant to class contrition, confession, and satisfaction as mere necessary dispositions. This doctrine, as taught by St. Thomas and Scotus finds its echo in the Council of Florence, in the decree of Eugene IV, as it does in the Council of Trent, which defines (Sess. XIV, chap. iii), “That the form of the Sacrament of Penance, wherein its force principally consists, is placed in those words of the priest: ‘I absolve thee’ etc., but the acts of the penitent himself are quasi materia of this Sacrament.”
In the closing years of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch asserts that Penance is in the hands of the bishop; soon the same power is recognized in the priests, and in St. Cyprian, the deacon on extraordinary occasions performed the office of reconciliation (Batiffol, Théol. pos., 145 sqq.). The deacon’s power is recognized later on in Alcuin, in a council held at York, 1194, and in the Council of London, 1200 (cap. iii).
The ceremonial rite connected with the sacrament of reconciliation has also varied with the changing discipline of the Church. The earliest tradition hints at a public penance — vide tradition supra — but very soon there appears the Presbyter Pœnitentiarius; certainly as early as 309 Pope Marcellus divided Rome into twenty-five districts propter baptismum et pœnitentiam, and Innocent I (416) mentions the “priest whose office it was to judge anent sin, to receive the confession of the penitent, to watch over his satisfaction, and to present him for reconciliation at the proper time”. The case of Nectarius who abolished the Presbyter Pœnitentiarius is classical (381-98). This reconciliation generally took place on Holy Thursday, and the bishop presided. Surely absolution was pronounced on Maundy Thursday. This all the sacramentaries attest (Duchesne, Christian Worship, 439, 440); but the practice of public penance has given rise to the important and difficult question, whether or not the absolution granted at the public function of Holy Thursday was really the sacramental absolution. Theologians have questioned this, many preferring to believe that the sacramental absolution was really imparted by the Presbyter Pœnitentiarius at the early stage of public penance, even before the satisfaction was complete. They allege as their reasons the long delay which otherwise would have been necessary and the fact that the bishop absolved on Holy Thursday, while the confession had been heard previously by the Presbyter Pœnitentiarius (Palmieri, De pœnit., App. II, nn. 8, 9). But there are many others who think the traditional truth concerning the Sacrament of Penance cannot be safeguarded unless it is admitted that, ordinarily speaking, sacramental absolution was given only after the completion of the penance imposed and in the public session of Holy Thursday. What was done, they ask, before the institution of the Presbyter Pœnitentiarius, or where there was no such functionary? And they answer the objections brought forward above by saying that there is no evidence in early history that a first absolution was imparted by the priests who determined the necessity of undergoing public satisfaction, nor are we permitted a priori to judge of ancient ways in the light of our modern practice (Boudinhon, Revue d’histoire de littérature relig., II, sec. iii, 329, 330, etc.; Batiffol, Théolog. posit., Les origines de la pénitence, IV, 145 sqq.). Moreover, there is full evidence of a reconciliation on Holy Thursday; there are canons as late as the sixth century forbidding priests to reconcile penitents, inconsulto episcopo (Batiffol, ibid. 192, 193), and even as late as the ninth century there is clear testimony that absolution was not given until after the imposed penance had been completed (Benedict Levita, P.L., XCVII, 715; Rabanus Maurus, P.L., CVII, 342; Harduin, Councils, V, 342); and when absolution was granted before Holy Thursday it was after the fashion of an exception (Pseudo Alcuin, CI, 1192): “Denique admonendi sunt ut ad cœnam Domini redeant ad reconciliationem: si vero interest causa itineris . . . reconciliet eum statim” etc. This exception gradually became the rule, especially after the Scholastics of the Middle Age period began to distinguish clearly the different parts which make up the Sacrament of Penance.
It is the teaching of the Council of Trent that the form of the Sacrament of Penance, wherein its force principally consists, is placed in these words of the minister, “I absolve thee”; to which words certain prayers are, according to the custom of Holy Church, laudably added etc. (Sess. XIV, iii). That the public penance was concluded with some sort of prayer for pardon, is the doctrine of antiquity, particularly as contained in the earliest sacramentaries (Duchesne, Christian Worship, 440, 441). Leo the Great (450) does not hesitate to assert that pardon is impossible without the prayer of the priest (“ut indulgentia nisi supplicationibus sacerdotum nequeat obtineri”). In the early Church these forms certainly varied (Duchesne, loc. cit.). Surely all the sacramentaries assert that the form was deprecatory, and it is only in the eleventh century that we find a tendency to pass to indicative and personal formulæ (Duchesne, loc. cit.). Some of the forms used at the transition period are interesting: “May God absolve thee from all thy sins, and through the penance imposed mayst thou be absolved by the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, by the Angels, by the Saints, and by me, a wretched sinner” (Garofali, Ordo ad dandam pœnitentiam, 15). Then come really indicative and personal formulæ, often preceded by the supplicatory prayer, “Misereatur tui” etc. These forms, while much the same in substance, vary in wording not a little (Vacant, Dict. de théol. 167). It was not until the scholastic doctrine of “matter and form” in the sacraments reached its full development that the formula of absolution became fixed as we have it at present. The form in use in the Roman Church today has not changed since long before the Council of Florence. It is divided into four parts as follows: —
- (1) Deprecatory prayer. “May the Almighty God have mercy on you, and forgiving your sins, bring you to life everlasting. Amen.” Then, lifting his right hand towards the penitent, the priest continues: “May the Almighty and Merciful God grant you pardon, absolution, and remission of your sins”.
- (2) “May Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you, and I, by His authority, absolve you from every bond of excommunication [suspension, in the case of a cleric only] and interdict as far as I can and you may need.”
- (3) “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” (While repeating the names of the Trinity, the priest makes the sign of the cross over the penitent.)
- (4) “May the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the Saints, what good you have done or what evil you have suffered be to you for the remission of (your) sins, growth in grace and the reward of everlasting life. Amen.” In the decree “Pro Armenis”, 1439, Eugene IV teaches that the “form” of the Sacrament is really in those words of the priest: “Ego absolvo te a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris” etc., and theologians teach that absolution would be valid should the priest use, “Absolvo te”, “Absolvo te a peccatis tuis”, or words that are the exact equivalent (Suarez, Disp., XIX, i, n. 24; Lugo, Disp., XIII, i, nn. 17, 18; Lehmkuhl, de Pœnit., 9th ed., 199).
In the Oriental churches the present forms are deprecatory, though they by no means exclude the idea of a judicial pronouncement on the part of the minister. Such are the forms of absolution among
Is the indicative form necessary? Many learned Catholics seem to hold that the indicative form as used at present in the Roman Church is necessary even for the validity of the Sacrament of Penance. The great Doctor of the Sacrament, St. Alphonsus (De Sac. Pœnit., n. 430), declares that no matter what may be the verdict from the point of view of history, it is of faith since the Council of Trent that the indicative form is essential. St. Thomas and Francisco Suárez also declare that the indicative form is necessary. Others equally learned, and perhaps better versed in history, hold that in the light of the Divine institution the deprecative form must not be excluded, and that the Council of Trent in its decree did not intend to make final pronouncement in the premises. They point out with Morinus (De Pœnit., Lib. VIII) that up to the twelfth century the deprecatory form was employed both in the East and in the West: that it is still in use among the Greeks and among Orientals generally. In the light, therefore, of history and of theological opinion it is perfectly safe to conclude that the deprecatory form is certainly not invalid, if it exclude not the idea of judicial pronouncement (Palmieri, Parergon, 127; Hurter, de Pœnit.; Duchesne, loc. cit.; Soto, Vasquez, Estius, et al.). Theologians, however, have questioned whether or not the deprecatory form would be valid today in the Latin Church, and they point out that Clement VIII and Benedict XIV have prescribed that Greek priests should use the indicative form whensoever they absolve penitents belonging to the Latin Rite. But this is merely a matter of discipline, and such decrees do not give final decision to the theological question, for in matters of administration of the Sacraments those in authority simply follow the safest and most conservative opinions. Morinus is followed by Tournély in asserting that only the indicative form is today valid in the Latin Church (Morinus, De pœnit., Lib. VIII; Tournély, ibid., do absolutionis formâ); but many hold that if the deprecatory form exclude not the judicial pronouncement of the priest, and consequently be really equivalent to the ego te absolvo, it is surely not invalid, though all are agreed that it would be illicit as contravening the present law and discipline of the Roman Church. Some, not pronouncing judgment on the real merits of the case, think that the Holy See has withdrawn faculties from those who do not use the indicative form, but in the absence of positive ordinance this is by no means certain.
Antiquity makes no mention of conditional absolution. Benedict XIV alludes in “De Synodo” (Bk. VII, c. xv) to a passage of Gandavensis (d. 1293), but it is doubtful whether the learned pontiff caught the meaning of the theologian of Ghent. Gerson in the fifteenth century, both in “De schismate tollendo” and “De unitate ecclesiæ”, stands as sponsor for conditional absolution, although Cajetan, a century later, calls Gerson’s position mere superstition. But Gerson’s position gradually obtained, and in our day all theologians grant that under certain circumstances such absolution is not only valid but also legitimate (Lehmkuhl-Gury, De pœnit., absol. sub conditione); valid, because judicial pronouncements are often rendered under certain conditions, and the Sacrament of Penance is essentially a judicial act (Counc. of Trent, Sess. XIV); also, because God absolves in heaven when certain conditions are fulfilled here below. The fulfilment may escape man’s judgment, but God no man may deceive. This very doubt makes conditional absolution possible. Conditions are either (a) present, (b) past, or (c) future.
Following a general law, whensoever the condition leaves in suspense the effect intended by the Sacrament, the Sacrament itself is null and void. If the condition does not suspend the sacramental efficacy, the Sacrament may be valid. As a consequence, all future conditions render absolution invalid: “I absolve you if you die today.” This is not true of conditions past or present, and absolution given, for example, on condition that the subject has been baptized, or is still alive, would certainly not invalidate the Sacrament. What is in itself valid may not be legitimate, and in this important matter reverence due the holy Sacrament must ever be kept in mind, and also the spiritual need of the penitent. The doctrine commonly received is that whenever conditional absolution will safeguard the holiness and dignity of the Sacrament it may be employed, or whenever the spiritual need of the penitent is clear, but at the same time dispositions necessary for the valid reception of the Sacrament are in doubt, then it would be a mercy to impart absolution even if under condition.
Closely allied to conditional is the absolution termed indirect. It obtains whenever absolution is granted for a fault that has not been submitted to the judgment of the minister in the tribunal of penance. Forgetfulness on the part of the penitent is responsible for most cases of indirect absolution, though sometimes reservation (see RESERVED CASES) may be.
Granting of absolution
In virtue of Christ’s dispensation, the bishops and priests are made judges in the Sacrament of Penance. The power to bind as well as the power to loose has been given by Christ. The minister therefore must have in mind not only his own powers, viz., order and jurisdiction, but he must also keep in mind the dispositions of the penitent. If
- (a) the penitent is well-disposed, he must absolve;
- (b) if the penitent lack the requisite dispositions, he must endeavour to create the proper frame of mind, for he cannot and may not absolve one indisposed;
- (c) when dispositions remain doubtful, he employs the privilege given above in conditional absolution.
When the minister sees fit to grant absolution, then he pronounces the words of the form (supra) over the penitent. It is commonly taught that the penitent must be physically present; consequently, absolution by telegraph has been declared invalid, and when questioned in regard to absolution by the telephone the Sacred Congregation (1 July, 1884) answered Nihil respondendum.
Absolution outside the Latin Church
In the Greek Church
The belief of the ancient Greek Church has been set forth above. That the Greeks have always believed that the Church has power to forgive sin, that they believe it at present, is clear from the formulæ of absolution in vogue among all branches of the Church; also from the decrees of synods which since the Reformation have again and again expressed this belief (Alzog on Cyril Lucaris III, 465; Synod of Constantinople, 1638; Synod of Jassy, 1642; Synod of Jerusalem, 1672). In the Synod of Jerusalem the Church reiterates its belief in Seven Sacraments, among them Penance, which the Lord established when He said: “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them, and whose sins you shall retain they are retained.” The formulæ of absolution are generally deprecatory, and if now and then the indicative form appears, it may be traced to Latin sources.
The belief of the Greek Church is naturally also that of the Russian. Russian theologians all hold that the Church possesses the power to forgive sins, where there is true repentance and sincere confession. The form in use at present is as follows: “My child, N. N., may our Lord and God Christ Jesus by the mercy of His love absolve thee from thy sins; and I, His unworthy priest, in virtue of the authority committed to me, absolve thee and declare thee absolved of thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.”
Denzinger, in his “Ritus Orientalium” (1863), gives us a full translation of the penitential ritual used by the Armenians. The present version is from the ninth century. The form of absolution is declarative, though it is preceded by a prayer for mercy and for pardon. It is as follows: “May the merciful Lord have pity on thee and forgive thee thy faults; in virtue of my priestly power, by the authority and command of God expressed in these words, ‘whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven’, I absolve thee from thy sins, I absolve thee from thy thoughts, from thy words, from thy deeds, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and I restore thee to the Sacrament of the Holy Church. May all thy good works be for thee an increase of merit, may they be for the glory of life everlasting, Amen.”
Dr. Hyvernat asserts that the liturgical books of the Copts have no penitential formulæ, nor is this surprising, for they inscribe in the ritual only those things not found in other rituals. Father du Bernat, writing to Père Fleurian (Lettres édifiantes), says, in reference to the Sacrament of Penance among the Copts, that the Copts believe themselves bound to a full confession of their sins. This finished, the priest recites over them the prayer said at the beginning of the Mass, the prayer asking pardon and forgiveness from God; to this is added the so-called “Benediction”, which Father Bernat says is like the prayer said in the Latin Church after absolution has been imparted. Dr. Hyvernat, however, asserts that Father Bernat is mistaken when he likens the Benediction to our Passio Domini, for it is like the Latin prayer only inasmuch as it is recited after absolution.
(For the earliest tradition in the Syrian Church see above, Absolution in Patristic age.)
The Syrians who are united with the Roman See now use the declarative form in imparting absolution. This formula is, however, of recent date. The present Jacobite Church not only holds and has held the power to absolve from sin, but its ritual is expressive of this same power. Denzinger (Ritus Orientalium) has preserved for us a twelfth-century document which gives in full the order of absolution.
The Nestorians have at all times believed in the power to absolve in the Sacrament of Penance. Assemani, Renaudot, Badger (Nestorians and their Rituals), also Denzinger, have the fullest information on this point. It is noticeable that their formula of absolution is deprecatory, not indicative.
The earliest Reformers attacked virulently the penitential practice of the Catholic Church, particularly the confession of sins to a priest. Their opinions expressed in their later theological works do not differ as markedly from the old position as one might suppose. 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. 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.”
In the “Book of Common Prayer” there is a formula of Absolution in Matins, at the communion service, 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. Of the third absolution the rubric speaks as follows: “Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort: 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.” This is the form generally employed by the Anglican clergymen when they absolve after having heard private confessions. These formulæ, even the last, are indeed vague, and in the light of Anglican interpretation (always excepting the advanced Ritualists) mean little more than the power to declare sins forgiven. (Convocation, 1873; Lambeth Conference, 1877; Liddon’s “Life of Pusey”).
The Ritualists, since the Pusey sermon of 1846, have held with more or less variance that Christ has granted to His priests the power to forgive sins. They have also held that this power should be exercised after confession has been made to the minister of the Church. Among Ritualists themselves some have insisted that confession to the priest was necessary either in re or in voto, others have not gone to such lengths. On the discussion in the year 1898, Dr. Temple wrote a Pastoral. One may consult with profit Mashell’s “Enquiry upon the Doctrine of the Anglican Church on Absolution”; Boyd’s “Confession, Absolution and Real Presence”; Father Gallwey’s “Twelve Lectures on Ritualism” (London, 1879).
By Edward Hanna
About this page
This page is borrowed from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01061a.htm
APA citation. (1907). Absolution. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 5, 2019 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01061a.htm
MLA citation. “Absolution.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 5 Oct. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01061a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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