The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession

By John Cornwell

Basic Books

304 pages, $27.99

By Michael D. Langan


John Cornwell, a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, has written a valuable book, “The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession.” However, it is advertised with the wrong question, to wit: “How did this once sacred pillar of the Catholic faith fall so far from grace?”

The answer is: Confession didn’t fall from grace.

Instead, it fell into increasing disuse beginning around 1970. This took place despite Pope John Paul II and others’ encouragement and modification of the sacrament over the past 40 years. The author says that perhaps 2 percent of practicing Catholics in the United States go to confession regularly, and even fewer in Europe, what he calls “a massive collapse” of usage throughout the world.

Cornwell argues that “the rejection of confession is a crucial symptom of a wider crisis within the Catholic Church.”

What does he mean? He writes, “A gulf has opened up between official teaching and practice. An alteration across a broad front … has affected how many Catholics understand sin, virtue and the nature of God. This shift, in turn, has created new insights into the meaning of God’s love and forgiveness.”

The author sets the scene in his prologue for what is to come: He remembers an experience as a young boy in a minor seminary. A priest propositioned him while hearing his confession. This event soured his trust in priests, and he eventually left the church.

(Later, Cornwell reconsidered the consolations of Catholicism with his marriage to a devout Catholic. He says that he now has not so much returned as progressed in his faith, remaining circumspect, although he considers himself a member of the Catholic faithful.)

So to the heart of the book: The first part, “A Brief History of Confession,” is followed by “The Child Penitents,” and then “Soul Murder.”

Let’s look first at what he’s circumspect about, beginning with his observations about the practice of confession itself in his section that he calls a “brief history.”

Cornwell notes that entering a dark box to confess one’s sins didn’t begin until the mid-16th century, following the Reformation and the fragmentation of Western Christendom.

Before that, “The principal rite of absolution of sins in the early Church was baptism, which was bestowed on adult converts.” In a somewhat later period of the church, penitents would confess in public their “major sins such as murder, idolatry and adultery” that excluded them from their communities,” says Cornwell. “Release us from our misery,” they would say to the bishop and congregation during Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.

Later, Irish monks off the coast of Kerry at a monastery known as Skellig Michael, founded in the sixth century, imposed private confession – “auricular confession” it was called – with stiff penances; walking barefoot on beds of rock, for example, a practice that spread to the church at large.

As time went on, pastoral common sense moderated harsh penances. Eleventh century theologian Peter Abelard and Benedictine monk Peter Damian of Ravenna were gentle on penitents and severe on lax clergy, the author relates. Annual confession became mandatory for adults in the early 13th century as the parish system developed.

Regrettably, scandals involving confession are nothing new. Through the centuries, Cornwell notes, some priests used the confessional as a device for their “hypocrisy, avarice, sexual debauchery and other forms of abuse.” Remember Chaucer’s Friar Hubert, “a hypocrite who exploits his eloquence both to preach and to sexually seduce.” (In addition to those early priests who fell from grace, a number of priests from the 1950s to 1980s must be added. The bad actions of these clerics culminated in numerous sex abuse scandals whose fallout is still being dealt with by the Catholic Church.)

Cornwell says that to understand the current crises in the Catholic Church requires an appreciation of the checkered history of confession as a powerful instrument not seen through the doctrinal lens of theologians, or even pastoral perspectives, but by the faithful at large and the “echo” they gave back to official doctrine. About this, he writes: “The Catholic faithful, en masse, have sent a definitive signal of dissent to the purveyors of ‘official’ doctrine on confession and the nature of sin.”

The second section, “The Child Penitents,” deals with a man who became pope at the turn of the 20th century, Giuseppe Sarto, age 68, who took the name Pius X when Leo XIII died in 1903. He was charismatic and holy; an autodidact, and a bit of a bully, according to Cornwell. It was he who determined to “reinvent” the church because he thought society was rejecting Christianity. Pius X’s dual strategy was to strengthen the faithful and reform the clergy.

Part of Pius X’s “reinvention” was obligatory confession in early childhood, begun in 1910. Cornwell claims that the institutionalization of confession occasioned “widespread oppression of young children and the opportunity of a minority of priests to abuse children sexually.”

Before then, a first confession was made at puberty, not at age 7. Changing confession to a younger age meant that instruction in sin and its different categories began at 5 or 6. This caused what Cornwell calls “an oppressive sense of guilt and shame, especially for their bodies,” in young children.

Another element of Pius X’s reorganization was to exclude all outside influences from seminaries. About this, Georges Bernanos, the French novelist, wrote: “It made schoolboys of us, children to the very end of our lives.”

The last section of “The Dark Box,” “Soul Murder,” deals with priests sexually abusing children. “Specialists in childhood trauma have used the term ‘soul murder’ to describe the profound damage that can occur when a priest abuses a young member of the faithful.” Cornwell uses what seem to be an unending number of first-hand accounts and empirical evidence to document his thesis of soul murder.

Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge, adds some good advice. He says he has some misgivings about Cornwell’s too-inclusive concentration on sexuality. Duffy writes in The Guardian, “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.”

Monsignor David Gallivan, recently retired pastor of Holy Cross Church in Buffalo, offers this insight: “Over centuries, as with several sacraments, we have become practitioners of ‘minimalism.’ That is, huge, life-altering experiences are compressed into the barest of elements required for ‘validity.’ Thus the timeless and yet historical events of the Last Supper, the self-gift of Jesus on Calvary and his Resurrection are reduced to a convenient 50-minute time slot. The lifelong requirements of true conversion are squeezed into five uncomfortable minutes of confession. Life and eternity are more demanding.”

Gallivan notes that “confession and penance are steps in a process. We move from sin by our admission, and recommitment through penance, to the graced state of a new union with God and the church.”

This book, perhaps threatening to some, performs a signal service. It is an examination of conscience for the Catholic Church about what it has done and what it has failed to do in the matter of helping Catholics come to terms with forgiveness.

Michael D. Langan was asked to be a candidate for the post of executive director of the U.S. Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection when he retired from the U.S. Treasury Department.