A confessional at San Lorenzo Church in Piazza Castello

The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, by John Cornwell, Profile, RRP£16.99/Basic Books, RRP$27.99, 320 pages

John Cornwell’s subtitle errs on the side of modesty. Far from being merely a history of the Catholic sacrament of confession, his book is a meticulously researched, carefully wrought and quietly furious anathema upon the Catholic Church as constituted from the Council of Trent in the 16th century up to the present day. Or rather one should say the Roman Catholic Church, since it is at the Vatican that he directs his mildly expressed yet damning accusations.

Cornwell, the author of a number of books on the papacy, states a touch ruefully early on in The Dark Box that he is a “member of the Catholic faithful”, having returned to the fold after a period of apostasy. He was born in 1940 and was brought up by a Catholic mother and a religiously sceptical father. At the age of 13 he entered a junior seminary, where he spent five years before setting out upon the serious business of becoming a priest. However, after a couple of years of intensive indoctrination he decided the priesthood was not for him; as a student at Cambridge he abandoned his faith, later returning to the Church when he married a woman who was, like his mother, “a devout Catholic”.

Ireland, it seems, has the dubious honour of being the place where “auricular” confessions began, among the monks on Skellig Michael, a rock off the Kerry coast, where a monastery had been set up in the sixth century. It was the fancifully named Innocent III, elected Pope in 1198, who, through the Fourth Lateran Council, made the sacrament obligatory for all the faithful. As Cornwell points out, this meant that a new, mortal, sin had been created, “a new way in which individual souls could be excluded from the Christian community and merit Hell”. This was not the least of Innocent’s initiatives: he dispatched the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land, which resulted among other things in the sack of Constantinople, and sent a military crusade to slaughter the Cathars in southern France.

It was another prince of the Church, the wealthy ascetic Cardinal Carlo Borromeo (1538-84), who created the confession box, the dread of which haunted the childhood of every Catholic with, in Cornwell’s elegant formulation, its “atmosphere of crepuscular intimacy”. Before Borromeo, priests heard confession seated on a chair in the church sanctuary, the penitent kneeling before or beside him. “There were unruly scenes,” Cornwell writes, “when people refused to wait their turn, and there was a tendency among penitents to eavesdrop.” One imagines scenes out of Chaucer, or by Brueghel.

The early form of confession led to all manner of excesses, including “sexual solicitation, sale of absolution, loose living”, which Borromeo was determined to stamp out. Joyless the Cardinal may have been, like so many of his semi-fanatical successors, but he meant well: confession, for him, Cornwell writes, “provided a window onto individual consciences, a crucial means of improving the moral lives of the faithful, which in turn, he believed, would improve civil society”.

One topic hotly debated, over centuries, turned on the question of what age a child should be when he or she must begin to attend confession. Most churchmen fixed on 14, as that was the age at which they considered a young person became capable of distinguishing right from wrong. It was the postman’s son Giuseppe Sarto, elected Pope Pius X in 1903, who directed that all Catholic children should make their first confession at the age of seven.

It can be argued that it was Pius X, a cunning and unbending dogmatist, who gave the Church the shape it would maintain throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. His attitude to the world bears remarkable similarities to that of Islamic fundamentalists of our own day. In Pius’s eyes the greatest threat to the Catholic faith was Modernism, in part exemplified by “atheistic communism”, and the Modernist trend must be challenged at every level by the Church Militant.

Part of Pius’s campaign was the setting up of a worldwide espionage network, run by Monsignor Umberto Benigni. The scheme, Sodalitium Pianum (Sodality of Pius), which officially did not exist, was, Cornwell writes, “nothing less than a modern-style Inquisition – to ferret out dissent wherever it might exist, and report it back to appropriate Vatican departments to be dealt with …Sneaks and tittle-tattlers now became righteous informers and saviours of the Church.” Benigni’s agents are reminiscent of the Watergate burglars, carrying out, at his direction, all manner of dirty-trick operations, including “the clandestine photographing of documents on private premises and the interception of private correspondence”, the use of aliases and disguises, and the employment of double agents.

By mid-century, Pius and his successors had imposed a stultifying regime on the business of priest-making, involving “six years of full-time cloistered residence” for young men who had already spent five or six years in a junior institution similarly cut off from the world. As the French novelist Georges Bernanos wrote, “It made schoolboys of us, children to the very end of our lives.”

Within the hothouse that the Church now became, sexual predators were not only tolerated but protected. The confessional, Cornwell argues, spiritually oppressed and traumatised countless children, but it also left very many of them in the hands, literally, of paedophile priests: “abusive relationships between cleric and child have almost invariably begun as a continuation of the sacrament of confession”. The resultant damage to tens of thousands of lives is incalculable; as Cornwell writes, “the nature of priestly abuse of the young in the 20th century comprises not only forms of sexual molestation, but the wider phenomenon of psychological oppression. The two forms of confessional terrorism are inextricably related …”

One of the most telling, and most chilling, citations in the book is Cornwell’s report of an interview he made with a now laicised priest, who of the many confessors he questioned was the only one to admit that a priest had come to him on more than one occasion to confess sexual abuse. “‘What did you say to him?’ I asked. ‘I didn’t say anything,’ he replied. ‘[For penance] I gave him three Hail Marys or something like that …We didn’t think such things were all that terrible years ago.’”

John Banville is author of ‘Ancient Light’ (Penguin)


Letter in response to this article:

The penitent and protection / From Mr David J Critchley

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