From the Boston Globe:
Collapse is not too strong a word. Fifty years ago, the great majority of
Catholics in this country confessed their sins regularly to a priest.
Confession, after all, is one of the seven Catholic sacraments. But now
only 2 percent of Catholics go regularly to confession, according to the
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit organization
affiliated with Georgetown University—and three-quarters of them never
go, or go less than once a year. In many parishes, the sacrament is
currently available only by appointment, and in Europe it has declined
to such a degree that groups who study Catholic practice there have
stopped even asking about it on their questionnaires. Visit a Catholic
church today, John Cornwell writes in “The Dark Box: A Secret History of
Confession,” and you’re likely to find that church janitors have
transformed the box into “a storage closet for vacuum cleaners, brooms,
and cleaning products.”
To traditionalists, this might seem like yet another sign of decline
in the post–Vatican II era, but Cornwell shows that this isn’t the first
time Catholics have largely abandoned confession. The practice, it
turns out, has evolved dramatically over the centuries, from a rare
communal event to a regular private one, and at a number of points in
this evolution has broken down specifically because of concerns about
sexual abuse. The box itself is a relatively late innovation, designed
in the 16th century to keep priests and women apart.
Cornwell thinks it’s time to reform confession again, in large part
because he sees it as a key—and underappreciated—enabler of the recent
sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church. A former seminarian who
has written extensively on the papacy and is perhaps best known for his
1999 bestseller “Hitler’s Pope,” Cornwell knows his subject well: He was
raised Catholic, went to confession every week from the age of 7 to the
age of 21, and was himself propositioned by a priest in the
confessional. He ended up leaving the Church for decades, but has
returned into the fold late in life, with some ambivalence.
Cornwell’s book moves briskly through the many phases of the history of confession: from its earliest manifestations, in the first centuries of Christianity,
when it was a rare communal event; through the late Middle Ages, when it
became a private act that profoundly affected, as he puts it, “the
development of Western ethics, law, and perceptions of the self”; and
into the 20th century, when, he argues, Pope Pius X’s momentous decision
to lower of the age of confession, in 1910, opened the way to the
sexual abuse of children.
Today, Cornwell believes, confession could still be of great value, but only if church leaders are willing to reimagine its role.
Cornwell spoke to Ideas from his home in England.
IDEAS: What are the origins of confession?
CORNWELL: In the first centuries of Christianity, there
was no such thing as confession. There was just “reconciliation” with
your congregation or your Christian community, if you’d committed a huge
crime like murder or idolatry or adultery. The presiding bishop or
clergyman would say, “Do we allow this person back in?,” and it was
either thumbs up or thumbs down. It was very communal. That broke down
with the breakup of the Roman Empire, but then something new starts to
take place within monastic communities in Ireland and Wales and places
like that. An abbess or an abbot would have private conversation with
somebody, give spiritual direction, and so forth. Confession grew out of
that. But it wasn’t until 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, that all
Christians in the Latin Church were bound under mortal sin to go to
confession once a year, and it had to be private, and you had to tell
all of your sins.
IDEAS: So that’s where the story of confession as we know it starts?
CORNWELL: Yes. I see three great enthusiasms for
confession after that. The first runs through the Middle Ages and
collapses very largely through the sexual abuse of women in the
IDEAS: You describe confession in those days as a very
personal experience, with penitents sitting at the feet of confessors,
and touching—holding hands, even embracing—as part of the encounter.
CORNWELL: That’s right. The dark box was only invented
in the 16th century, during the Counter-Reformation, and it was
specifically to keep penitents separate from their confessors, and to
preclude the seduction that this kind of touching made possible. But now
a new kind of seduction becomes possible. You have these women in the
dark, whispering into the priests’ ears. It paved the way for abuse, and
by the 19th century, the practice had again largely broken down because
IDEAS: But not, as you say in the book, before helping to fundamentally change Western notions of ethics, law, and even the self.
CORNWELL: Yes. Confession in the box had an amazing
shaping effect on the way that people thought about themselves. It
helped foster a very private, and very modern, sense of interiority and
guilt, and even new ways of articulating ideas about the body and
sexuality. There’s a new focus on the idea of intention, too....You go
into the dark box, deep into your disembodied soul, and consider the
degrees of intentionality in your actions. The emphasis is on the
private rather than the public nature of sin.
IDEAS: What’s the third period of enthusiasm?
CORNWELL: It starts with Pius X, who came in in 1903
and died on the eve of the First World War....He was a great pessimist.
He observed the great rise of materialism and communism that was taking
place, and believed that the church within itself was suffering from a
kind of decay. In response, with the best of intentions, he launched an
antimodernist campaign, and reformed the seminaries so they were much
more austere and cut off from the world. But then you have this killer
fact: He lowered the age of confession and made it something that had to
be done weekly. This was a real game-changer. It redefined the church
in the 20th century. It’s the narrative center of my story, and it ends
with the abuse of not women but children.
IDEAS: How so?
CORNWELL: After confession was made a sacrament, in the
13th century, you didn’t make your confession until puberty or
afterwards, at age 12, 13, or 14. And you went maybe once a year. Pius
changed that in one fell swoop, by introducing weekly confession and
insisting that it start at the age of 7. This made children of that age
group suddenly accessible to priests on a routine and frequent basis,
which had never happened before.
IDEAS: You make a direct link in the book between confession and the sex-abuse scandal.
CORNWELL: Many priests in the wake of the scandal have
admitted to using it as a way of grooming and testing children for their
vulnerability. This is something that the great John Jay Report, on
pedophile priests, which was done in the US in the early part of the
last decade, missed out on. They didn’t see the importance of
confession. That’s why I think my book is important in an investigatory
sense. I’m bringing that out. The statistics in the report show that a
third of all of the crimes of abuse occurred in a confessional
setting....The interesting thing is that from the late 1950s, when all
of this started to rise, to the mid 1980s—this was the period in which
priests were going outside the box. So you get confession as something
that takes place in the privacy of a priest’s room, or in the sacristy,
or in his car. But something else happens that is very important: Many
priests squared the circle of their offending lives and their pastoral
lives by going to confession themselves. There you have the morally weak
aspect of confession: this belief that you can commit terrible sins and
then go and get them washed away....There was a case in Australia not
so long ago when a priest on trial admitted that he had confessed to
sexually attacking children 1,500 times. He’d confessed it 1,500 times!
IDEAS: Does confession still have a future?
CORNWELL: Perhaps. I’m hoping that this book will
encourage people high up in the church to rethink the whole theology of
confession, to accept that it’s been trivialized, and to do some work to
bring it back. I think confession should offer reconciliation to people
who have gone through something big, a great trial in their life, and
have lapsed. It should be there to allow them to share that with a
priest, and it shouldn’t be downgraded to a 7-year-old’s perception of
IDEAS: Can you imagine a revival of confession, maybe again as public act?
CORNWELL: That’s the big question. Hundreds of people
wrote to me while I was writing the book to say that they favor a return
to general absolution [the public and communal absolution of sin
without private confession to a priest, an ancient practice revived in
the 1970s, under Paul VI]. But John Paul II put a stop to that. If
Francis were to make a change there, I think you’d find a lot of people
coming back to Church. It could happen—but people have got to ask for
Toby Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, is the author of
“Da Vinci’s Ghost” (2012) and “The Fourth Part of the World” (2009).