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True Confessions



Rob Hardy


In the movies, the confessional cabinet is one of the symbols of Catholicism. The setting might be used for jokes, as in Lovers and Other Strangers, or it might be completely straight, as in Hitchcock's I Confess. It isn't hard to understand why this should be. There is nothing like the confessional cabinet in other religions, and it contains an interaction that can easily be mined for dramatic potential. It can also be scandalously misused, and may be one of the reasons for the church's sexual abuse scandals. These are lessons within The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell. The author, who has written often on aspects of Catholicism, is fully qualified to do so. He was a seminarian and headed for the priesthood, when he decided to go another way. He abandoned, and then regained his faith, and writes with the view of improving his church. Nonetheless, this is a quietly angry manifesto against what Cornwell sees as a longstanding systemic flaw within the church organization. 




Confession was not present in the early church; sins were principally absolved with baptism given to adults. Grave sins after that were the subject of painful public ceremonies. From the very start, fornication, sodomy, and other sins of the flesh were key targets, and even enjoyment of sex the wrong way or at the wrong time within marriage. Around the fifth century, a practice of private, repetitive contrition became the pattern within monasteries and it spread; a monk or a nun might be the ear for these "auricular" confessions. There were harsh physical penalties given for infractions, like walking barefoot on rocky ground; what were called "penitential books" specified the punishments that fit the crimes. The church gradually moderated the harsh penances, but as the system of parishes grew around the thirteenth century, it made annual auricular confession mandatory. In this way an new sin was created and a new way for souls to be threatened with Hell; it was a mortal sin not to get to confession.  




Priests would hear confessions in limited privacy within the sanctuary where the penitent would kneel and the priest would sit. There were sometimes problems because of impatience in the gathered throng, and sometimes those waiting to confess enjoyed eavesdropping on those who preceded them. In such semi-public confessions, you'd expect that the confessor and confessee would behave themselves, but if no one was around, there was a chance to share intimacy in ways the church frowned upon. The inventor of the confession box was Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in the sixteenth century. He understood that sexual abuse was widespread within the practice of confession, and in 1576, confessees at his Duomo in Milan found the unfamiliar closets which had been built to his design. Over two centuries, the confessional box became the standard, although the cost for the hardware was a problem for poorer parishes. 




It may be that the use of the confessional box by adults is helpful to the church and to the penitent, although neither side was able to keep the device from desuetude. Cornwell writes that the boxes can still be seen in cathedrals and large city churches, and some still find them useful, but in lesser churches they are broken up and taken away or used as an handy on-site closet for janitorial supplies. There are dwindling numbers of priests and (despite the advocacy for confession by Pope Benedict XVI) fewer congregants who feel a desire for weekly confession. Part of the reason is the church's continued emphasis on sexual sin and the idea that the pleasure of sexual activity (even in marriage) is somehow tainted if it is separate from the one real purpose of such activity, impregnation. 




Cornwell cites as a moral disaster the decision by Pope Pius X in 1910 that the obligation of confession had to be extended to children as well, children as young as seven. Before that, there was the sensible idea that children had to be older to have a real sense of right and wrong. The slightest of problems with such a decision is that children easily became obsessed with purity and the sort of hairsplitting legalisms that the church used to determine morality and immorality. Cornwell has done plenty of interviews and gathered stories from people who remember confessing as children, and has also drawn upon the memoirs of famous writers. Mary McCarthy, for instance, in going through the indoctrination of first confession and first communion, fretted over her sacrilege of unthinkingly having taken a sip of water during the night when she was supposed to be fasting before her first communion. She had her new dress, veil, and prayer book, but the memory she took away is the despair of the mortal sin of taking communion without having fasted. Other children struggled to find sins to confess (how sinful can a little kid really be?), and some invented sins to tell in the box, only to find they had sinned again by lying.  




Worse than memories of childhood unease over such issues are the harmful interactions between priests and their little parishioners within the privacy of the box. Cornwell heard from one woman who at the age of ten was interrogated from the other side of the grill with questions about masturbation and oral sex in what she said was "explicit and obscene detail." A nine year old reported that her father was sexually abusing her, and got the admonition from the other side of the grill, "Try to avoid that occasion of sin." Many men remember as boys being grilled over "Have you been touching yourself?" when they had no idea what sex or masturbation was and feeling all at fault nonetheless. And worse in turn than the imposition of sexual guilt upon little ones was the physical imposition of sexual action which the confessional allowed. Such stories make depressing reading, even though we have sadly become accustomed to reports of priests abusing children. The other side of the confession process is that abusing priests would have to confess themselves. One priest admitted that decades ago on more than one occasion a priest came to him with confessions of child abuse. "I gave him three Hail Marys or something like that.... We didn't think such things were all that terrible years ago." A priest who abused little boys said that whenever he would confess, he'd be told to do penance in the form of prayer, and each time, "It was like a magic wand had been waved over me." 




The problem, says Cornwell, is that the church, especially through the confessional, was emphasizing the guilt and the shame of the erring priests. "What was lacking among the priestly penitent abusers, and evidently among many of their confessors, too, was a mature sense of the nature of clerical abuse as having grievous consequences for another person." Having been through seminary himself decades ago, Cornwell explains how the training of the time, emphasizing monastic removal from the outside world, would have fostered such a selfish view of where the problem lay. He was even confessionally abused himself. There may have been those who benefited from confession, and even more who found it a mechanical process, compared to those who found themselves thrown into sexual guilt and confusion because of it. Critics will say this book depicts only the darker side of the dark box, but Cornwell's church would be better off understanding the issues expressed in this thoughtful and heartfelt book. 




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