Any Catholic over the age of 50 will have vivid memories of a now largely abandoned spiritual discipline, weekly or monthly visits to church to confess one’s sins to a priest. Beforehand, you prayerfully examined your conscience, working through the ways in which you might have broken the commandments, or succumbed to the “capital” or deadly sins – pride, envy, lust, wrath, avarice, gluttony and sloth. When your turn came (there was usually a queue) you entered the “dark box” of John Cornwell’s title, where, behind a shuttered grille, the priest waited for you to unload your fardle of failings. He might ask for clarification or offer advice before imposing a “penance” (usually reciting a few Hail Maries). Then, while you said an “act of contrition”, expressing sorrow and resolve not to sin again, the priest pronounced absolution.
This ritual might be a cursory routine lasting a couple of minutes or a searching ordeal that probed the soul. As parish priest and university chaplain, the future Pope John Paul II regularly detained penitents for up to an hour. Protestants dismissed confession as a licence to commit sin, confess glibly, then sin again. Posh Catholics in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited spoke of “going to scrape”, which perhaps lent credibility to the Protestant charge. But one way or another, in the years after the Second Vatican Council, those long queues dwindled to nothing, as Catholics in their millions simply stopped attending. Despite vehement attempts by John Paul II to promote its revival, frequent confession is now the custom of the few.
Private confession originated among soul-searching Irish monks in dark-age Europe. Backed by a ferocious tariff of punishments or “penances” for grave sins, the practice spread to the wider church, as a way of regulating the morals of a half-Christianised and often brutal lay world. Pastoral common sense gradually moderated the penances, and annual confession became mandatory for adults in the early 13th century as the emerging parish system gave everyone access to a local priest. This new discipline was in part a way of policing morals, in part a forum in which, as anxiety grew about heresy, orthodox Christian teaching could be transmitted and quizzed. From the 16th century onwards spiritual directors saw the sacrament as a means of promoting a more interiorised religion among the pious, while revivalist Catholic preachers saw it as an instrument to convert and civilise rural populations, whom they perceived as barely Christian and sunk in sin.
John Cornwell summarises these developments with admirable verve in his first three chapters. Despite its subtitle, however, his powerful, persuasive and disturbing book is not in fact a history of confession. It is instead an impassioned response to the crisis in the Catholic church over sexual abuse by clergy. Cornwell has a stark and challenging case to argue. Confession, he believes, has been on balance a malign institution, both religiously and psychologically. The obsessive emphasis of Catholic moral theology on sexual sin fostered joyless self-loathing among Catholics at large, while its rule-bound legalism propagated an infantile understanding of sin as mere contravention of external rules, rather than radical failure in virtue. The “dark box” itself was a well-intentioned innovation of the 16th century, designed to ensure that confessions were heard in church, not a priest’s bedroom. Ironically, Cornwell argues, it provided an ideal environment – dark, intimate, where the priest sat judicially before the subjugated penitent – for clerical domination and the solicitation, seduction or sexual grooming of the young and vulnerable. And Cornwell sees Pope Pius X’s decision in the early 20th century to extend the obligation to confess to children as young as seven as a moral disaster, putting them at the mercy of rogue clergy, teaching them to think badly of themselves, and to imagine God as “trivial, petulant” and “obsessed with cleanliness”.
Cornwell underpins his case with his own experience as a pious young Catholic and trainee priest, with literary and historical testimony, and with extracts from over 300 autobiographical letters written in response to an article in the Catholic magazine the Tablet. Most of these letters make sad reading, with more than 60% of male correspondents, some in their 80s, dwelling on the shame of confessing sexual sins (above all, masturbation), and the lifelong legacy of anxiety and guilt. And Cornwell compellingly deploys modern reports on clerical sexual abuse from Ireland and America to argue that a high proportion of the abusers first targeted and groomed their victims in the confessional.
Anyone who experienced a pre-conciliar Catholic upbringing will recognise the force of Cornwell’s case. The exodus from the confessional queue speaks volumes for itself. Most clergy of course were neither prurient nor predators, but the institutional church has undoubtedly been far too interested in what the faithful do in bed. Yet Cornwell at times lays it on with a trowel. The fact is that, religious or otherwise, we are all far too interested in what people do in bed. Sex is a problem for the Catholic church because it is a problem for the human race. Human sexuality can be a source of life, joy and tenderness. But from the Trojan war to the poisonous antics of Jimmy Savile, it is also the cause of some of the world’s grossest ills, and in our society is routinely the locus of betrayal, infidelity and broken promises.
To interpret confession so exclusively in terms of dysfunctional sexuality is surely to take too narrow a view of a wider-ranging institution. In one of the most effective sections of his book Cornwell examines the Jesuit Henry Davis’s 1930s standard textbook on moral theology. He rightly highlights the book’s pervasive legalism, with its grotesque discussions of whether or not biting one’s nails, swallowing one’s tears or licking the blood from a cut finger broke the Eucharistic fast, and so debarred one from receiving communion. Davis’s hair-raising discussion of sexual sins (couched in Latin, to avoid putting ideas into the heads of the laity) is just as tellingly dissected. But it is not in fact the case that sexual sin is the “dominant topic” in this and other textbooks. Davis devotes three times as much space to sins against honesty and property as he does to sex, and most of his long discussion of marriage is concerned with its contractual rather than its sexual aspects.
There are 10 commandments, and only two of them concern sex. The Dark Box doesn’t discuss the thousands of catechisms and devotional works produced down the ages to help lay-people examine their consciences, but by and large those works treat sex with notable reticence, devoting far more space to other kinds of sin. The clergy who promoted the confessional from the 16th century onwards were indeed negative about sex, but they confronted communities where people were at least as liable to steal each other’s corn, to gossip or lie, to fiddle the scales in their shops, and to settle their arguments with knives or bottles. The role of confession in moderating these sins, cultivating civility and a sense of right and wrong, is also a necessary part of the story. The Dark Box is a major contribution to the Catholic church’s examination of conscience about the roots and circumstances of sexual abuse. But for a rounded historical assessment of confession itself, we will need to look for a different kind of audit.
• Eamon Duffy’s books include The Stripping of the Altars.
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