1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Absolution

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Absolution (Lat. absolutio from absolvo, loosen, acquit), a term used in civil and ecclesiastical law, denoting the act of setting free or acquitting. In a criminal process it signifies the acquittal of an accused person on the ground that the evidence has either disproved or failed to prove the charge brought against him. In this sense it is now little used, except in Scottish law in the forms assoilzie and absolvitor. The ecclesiastical use of the word is essentially different from the civil. It refers not to an accusation, but to sin actually committed (after baptism); and it denotes the setting of the sinner free from the guilt of the sin, or from its ecclesiastical penalty (excommunication), or from both. The authority of the church or minister to pronounce absolution is based on John xx. 23; Matt. xviii. 18; James v. 16, &c. In primitive times, when confession of sins was made before the congregation, the absolution was deferred till the penance was completed; and there is no record of the use of any special formula. Men were also encouraged, e.g. by Chrysostom, to confess their secret sins secretly to God. In course of time changes grew up. (1) From the 3rd century onwards, secret (auricular) confession before a bishop or priest was practised. For various reasons it became more and more common, until the fourth Lateran council (1215) ordered all Christians of the Roman obedience to make a confession once a year at least. In the Greek church also private confession has become obligatory. (2) In primitive times the penitent was reconciled by imposition of hands by the bishop with or without the clergy: gradually the office was left to be discharged by priests, and the outward action more and more disused. (3) It became the custom to give the absolution to penitents immediately after their confession and before the penance was performed. (4) Until the Middle Ages the form of absolution after private confession was of the nature of a prayer, such as "May the Lord absolve thee"; and this is still the practice of the Greek church. But about the 13th century the Roman formula was altered, and the council of Trent (1551) declared that the "form" and power of the sacrament of penance lay in the words Ego te absolvo, &c., and that the accompanying prayers are not essential to it. Of the three forms of absolution in the Anglican Prayer Book, that in the Visitation of the Sick (disused in the church of Ireland by decision of the Synods of 1871 and 1877) runs "I absolve thee," tracing the authority so to act through the church up to Christ: the form in the Communion Service is precative, while that in Morning and Evening Prayer is indicative indeed, but so general as not to imply anything like a judicial decree of absolution. In the Lutheran church also the practice of private confession survived the Reformation, together with both the exhibitive (I forgive, &c.) and declaratory (I declare and pronounce) forms of absolution. In granting absolution, even after general confession, it is in some places still the custom for the minister, where the numbers permit of it, to lay his hands on the head of each penitent.

(W. O. B.)