Confession traditionally took place in a confessional booth or behind a screen.
Confession traditionally took place in a confessional booth or behind a screen.

The word "absolution" comes from the Latin word "absolvere," which means to "set loose." By extension, it came to mean "to acquit," in other words, to set a guilty party free from punishment. The Catholic Church uses the word to mean the granting of forgiveness for sin. Absolution is one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Through absolution, penitents are forgiven and brought back to fellowship with God and the church.

The Sacrament of Penance

Absolution is part of the sacrament of penance, also called the sacrament of reconciliation. The sacrament requires that an individual feel sorry for any sins committed. It also requires an intent to reform. The penitent confesses the sins in private to a priest of the Catholic Church. The priest imposes a penance, an activity by which the penitent can make satisfaction for the sins being confessed. The priest then pronounces the absolution using this formula: "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Scriptural Basis

The Catholic Church believes that priests of the church have the authority to absolve penitents of their sins because the authority was given to them by Jesus. In the Gospel of John (20: 22-23), Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." Catholics believe that this authority was passed down from the disciples to their successors, the clergy of the church.

Individual Confession

Protestants often use general confession in their services, an activity in which the whole congregation confesses sin together without going into specific, individual detail. Catholics, on the other hand, have always held to "individual, integral confession and absolution" as the ideal. In other words, In the Catholic church, absolution is typically only granted to a penitent who has confessed specific sins in a one-on-one session with a priest. In Catholic confession, confession, penance and absolution are targeted to specific events in an individual's life.

General Absolution

Catholic Canon Law does provide for general confession and absolution under certain limited circumstances. If a person or a group of people are in imminent danger of death, and there is no time for specific sins to be confessed, a priest may offer absolution to one or more people based on a general confession. Similarly, if a congregation has limited access to the services of a priest, the priest can offer general absolution before Mass. For example, if a priest is available to a remote area only for an hour each week, penitents can receive general absolution during that limited time when the priest is available. Penitents must, however, have the intent to participate in individual confession as soon as the opportunity becomes available.