Absolution (n.) - The Sacrament of Penance

Absolution (n.) - The Sacrament of Penance

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The act of freeing someone from obligation, or punishment regardless of actual guilt.

History & Etymology

The Catholic Church has played a huge roll in the history of the Europe and the English language, and it was in the context of the Church and the Sacrament of Penance, colloquially known as Confession, that absolution became part of English.

One of the basic principles of Christianity is that when you convert or are baptized all of your sins are forgiven, and you are released from the eternal punishment associated with sin. One of the struggles of the early church was, “what about the sins that occur after baptism?” The Sacrament of Penance was the Catholic Churches answer.

This Sacrament consists of four parts, contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution. The prayer of absolution performed by the priest at the end of confession absolves the penitent of their sins. This forgiveness of sins was primary definition of absolution when it came in to general use in the 1400s.

Let’s take a look at the Catholic process of absolution for a moment.

For the penitent to receive absolution they must start with contrition. Contrition is when the penitent is genuinely sorry and remorseful for sinning against God, or their neighbor. This is formally represented when the penitent would approach a priest and say, “Forgive me father for I have sinned.” 

Next comes the confession where the Penitent tells the priest what sins they have committed. 

The next part is called satisfaction, or sometimes penance, this is where the priest gives the penitent a list of tasks, usually a number of prayers, alms, or even sometimes pilgrimage. These tasks are meant to help purify the penitent in a temporal since.

In the final part of the sacrament the priest says the prayer of absolution,

“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.”

This kinda confused me when I read about it, if the priest absolves them why do they have to why do they have to follow through on what equates to a punishment? I grew up a protestant and until recently I didn’t have a really good understanding of how salvation worked in the Catholic Church, and as I was researching this word I went down a rabbit hole of exploring Catholic beliefs and the reformation of Martin Luther.

From the perspective of a Catholic the priests absolution only absolves you of the eternal punishment for your sins. It absolves you of having to burn in hell fire for all eternity, but it doesn’t absolve you of any temporal punishment, or more accurately called correction or purgation. That’s where the satisfaction, or penance comes in. You may no longer be damned to hell, but you’re still drawn toward sin, and these penances are meant as an exercise to help you avoid that draw. Technically the penances aren’t required, but if you don’t that tendency towards sin still needs to be purged after death in purgatory. Doing the penance shortens your stay in purgatory, before entering heaven. Purgatory goes up, from the Catholic perspective if you end up in purgatory you are going to heaven, it’s just a matter of time.

That’s what absolution originally meant, it was a freeing from the eternal damnation of hell.

And just like with most words brought into english from the Catholic Church the word absolution comes from Latin. It began as a compound word from ab meaning “off or away from” plus solvere meaning “to loosen, dissolve, untie, release, or dismiss” forming absolvere which meant “set free, loosen, or acquit”.

I think it’s interesting that absolution contains the root word solution or solve. It’s like solving a problem is like untying a knot, and absolution is like stepping away from a knot or a problem without having to solve it. When you’re absolved of something you don’t have to solve it.

Absolution was then reinforced and re-borrowed from the Old French word absolucion in the 1200s bringing us to the word we have today.



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