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History of confession is a tale of sexual obsession, exploitation

  • "Concrete Confessional," a work of street art by Banksy, is seen in New York in October 2013. (Newscom/ABACAUSA.COM/Dennis Van Tine)
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ss04252014p01phc.jpgTHE DARK BOX: A SECRET HISTORY OF CONFESSION
By John Cornwell
Published by Basic Books, $27.99

John Cornwell may be our most gifted and persistent chronicler of Catholicism in the context of the modern world. In Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, he raised essential questions about the Vatican's response to the greatest evil of the 20th century. In Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, he presents the great English cardinal as a flesh-and-blood person. Now, in The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, Cornwell uses his formidable talents to reveal the sacrament in a complete, compelling and original way.

Beginning with childhood recollections that are at once particular and universal, Cornwell recalls the ritual he was required to perform before first Communion, and the rote practice that followed through the rest of his childhood. He describes with real poignancy the boy who felt true sorrow over the idea that a 7-year-old could offend God and the distrust that arose when a priest propositioned him during a confession.

Despite the guilt heaped upon him in childhood, and the predation he was subject to as an adolescent, young Cornwell wanted to be a priest. He devoted seven full years to training for the priesthood. Sex and science, two forces that have undone many vocations, ended his pursuit of ordination. However, after a long time spent hovering "between agnosticism and atheism," his marriage to a devout Catholic woman who raised their children in the faith brought him back to the fold.

His writing is thus informed by faith and unfaith as well as intellect and passion. The combination proves highly effective, as Cornwell explores spiritual and psychological truths even as he reveals the history of a sacrament that has varied greatly over the centuries. Confession may be good for the soul -- at least sometimes -- but it has also been used to evil effect by those who would use the secrecy of the sacrament and the power of the priesthood to exploit the vulnerable.

The vulnerable come to mind at many turns in Cornwell's narrative. They appear first as 6-year-olds who, Cornwell reminds the reader, were required throughout much of the 20th century to learn all the different "categories of sins" as well as all "the punishments due for sins in Purgatory and Hell." Many readers will be surprised to learn that prior to 1910, young children were not subjected to this rather terrifying information, because they were deemed incapable of sinning in any meaningful way. For this reason, Catholics didn't begin making confessions until the age of 12. Depending on local custom, some waited past their 18th birthday.

It was Pope Pius X who commanded that youngsters be instructed in the realities of sin and damnation prior to first Communion. He instituted this change as part of his larger campaign against the effects of modernism. As only the second pope to reign after the church lost its territories on the Italian peninsula, Pius had lived through the last years of the Papal States and witnessed the decline of church power. He believed that confession for the very young, as well as more frequent confession by all Catholics, would give them spiritual nourishment and serve as a bulwark against the secular world.

As Cornwell reveals, the piety imposed on early 20th-century Catholics, as hierarchs urged them toward frequent confession, was itself a modern phenomenon. Originating in monasteries during the first millennium, confession was not required of all Catholics until the 13th century. Even then, it was typically practiced just once per year. Cornwell notes that this requirement was imposed, at least in part, by church leaders who expected priests to interrogate penitents and learn if they might be heretics.

Confession and the authority to grant absolution also greatly enhanced the power of the priest. With sins absolved, the believer would gain heaven. Without absolution, death could bring the spiritual pain of purgatory or the eternal damnation of hell.

From the very beginning of confession, practices varied widely among both priests and laypeople. Some clergy emphasized compassion and forgiveness and faithfully kept secret what they heard. Others exploited their power and the information captured during the sacrament. The 11th-century monk Peter Damian famously excoriated clerics for the sexual abuse of minors, which often began with the penitent-confessor relationship. In the later Middle Ages, as Cornwell tells us, "criminality among confessors was widespread and entrenched." Much of the criminality involved sexual assaults and priestly transgressions against the church's sexual mores, which had become enshrined in law.

In its best passages, The Dark Box connects the sexual obsessions of the earliest priestly celibates with the abuse of confession and the suffering of untold millions of everyday Catholics. For centuries, priests functioned as "forensic" interrogators, coercing or merely persuading men, women and children to reveal the secrets for which they should feel most ashamed. The institutional obsession with sexual sin tells us that clergy were themselves tortured by guilt.

However, this understanding doesn't change the fact that the shame heaped upon the laity caused incalculable and unnecessary suffering. Cornwell entered the seminary at a time when Catholic shame was under attack from modern psychology and its far healthier regard for sexuality. He came to realize that his classmates suffered greatly under the teachings of the church, and that their responses ranged from the suicidal to the cruel. "For some," he writes, "priggishness was a full-time job."

Fortunately for us, Conwell adds kindness and compassion to the candor that resides at the heart of his book. He also writes from the perspective of a man who has found the love and maturity at the center of Christianity. In his view, the soul is renewed by God's forgiveness, and not the legalisms and rituals of the church. This is also the view of many who responded to a survey Cornwell conducted for the British Catholic journal The Tablet, and it represents the gentle triumph of the same modernism that Pius X sought to defeat by requiring regular visits to the dark box of the confessional.

About that box: It was designed by 16th-century Cardinal Charles Borromeo, who was outraged by the many complaints of sexual abuse lodged against priests. Borromeo's box put a physical barrier between penitent and confessor, but priests continued to abuse their power by sexually exploiting men, women and children. Real solutions to this problem would arrive only in the late 20th century, as the laity began to challenge church teachings on sin and began to confess, to each other and to legal authorities, the truth of their experiences.

[Michael D'Antonio is author of Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal.]

This story appeared in the April 25-May 8, 2014 print issue under the headline: Confession .

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