A little box and a dark history: the collapse of confession

The Vatican would like Catholics to return to the confessional – but it could face a long wait

Mon, Mar 24, 2014, 14:45


Book Title:
The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession.


John Cornwell

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In a Vatican document in 2011 Pope Benedict XVI urged penitents to rediscover the sacrament of confession. “It is necessary to return to the confessional as a place in which to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but also as a place in which ‘to dwell’ more often,” he wrote.

He could have added that there was no need to worry about a queue, because, based on John Cornwell’s insightful and rigorously researched book, we can conclude that penitents sent a telepathic reply along the lines of “Good luck with that one” and instead logged on to reddit.com and online poker. Some less technologically inclined penitents possibly hit the allotment or the bingo hall in Cabra. What they did not do in any great numbers is flock back to the confession box, which was likely being used to store cleaning buckets and an overflow of hymn books.

The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession reveals the “massive collapse” in Catholics attending confession. Cornwell tells us that confession is “so poorly attended in recent years that in many parishes the sacrament is only available by appointment”. Curiously, despite adults turning their backs on it, it is still maintained as a tradition, albeit in an evolved “reconciliation” form, that seven-year-old children endure.

Cornwell argues quite effectively that this outright rejection of confession “is a crucial symptom of a wider crisis within the Catholic Church”. This isn’t an altogether startling revelation, as the wider crisis just seems to widen revelation by revelation, but what Cornwell’s book collates for the reader is a multicentury historical context of how this gulf between Catholics and this specific sacrament of their faith evolved. They have not necessarily abandoned other aspects of the faith to this extent.

The Dark Box details the maze of directives around confession, by sometimes slightly barmy-sounding theological characters, who underestimated the deviant holy man’s ability to manufacture opportunities for depraved acts, while using the channel of confession both as a grooming post and a spot to obtain absolution from those abusive acts.

I highly recommend a stable position, with back support, when reading this book, as your stomach will churn as you read of the miserable, twisted layers of abuse, fear, shame and sexual exploitation inflicted on innocent children, who through the confession box became easy targets for paedophiles.

Devout adults likewise had their trust abused by a church that sought only to control and regulate its congregation, rather than understand or protect them from the aberrant urges of some of its own. All was carried out under the guise of the liturgy, the word of God, the need to absolve for sin, and avoid purgatory in the next life.

In these moments of abject and unremitting failure the church merely offered a live preview of purgatory and, sadly, committed an untold amount of “soul murder”.

Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope and 20 other books, is a great guide to these disturbing waters. A former seminarian, he injects his personal history into the book in places, but it never overwhelms the wider text. Less proves more. When writing on a topic this emotive, it’s even more crucial to let the reader marinate into the material to understand the implications of it.