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Not much here about the putting away of sins

16 May 2014

Lavinia Byrne misses the positive side of confession

The Dark Box: A secret history of confession
John Cornwell
Profile Books £16.99
Church Times Bookshop Special Offer £14.99 (Use code CT381 )

WHY, oh, why the word "secret" in the title, and the conspiratorial black cover? On one level, this book could have made a great case for the practice of confession by laying out a straightforward history of it. I recall being told that crusaders were allowed to confess their sins into their horses' ears before battle. All was in the naming and telling of sins. Sound, if slightly batty, psychology. But John Cornwell's history is slanted. Despite his excellent credentials as a journalist, the tone that he adopts here is from the outset sceptical: he appears for the prosecution.

On the other hand, by exploring the dark side of "what went wrong", Cornwell does a necessary piece of work, exposing something grim. So read on if you can bear to. Both in the introduction and in chapters that trace the origins and rise of the practice of confession up to and beyond the Reformation, and then the emergence of moral theology, the examples he chooses demonstrate this dark side. So much for Part One of the book.

Part Two is "The Child Penitents". It takes up the story in 1903 when Pope Pius X was elected. Now Pius - later St Pius X - was the pope who allowed small children to receive communion, and so, of course, he lowered the age for the practice of confession. Cornwell is at his best when he lays out the context in which this pope flourished. We understand the networks and influences that led to his decisions, not all of which were innocent. Pius steered the Church towards rigidity and legalism by instituting a grand Code of Canon Law.

The impact of codification, notably of sexual sins, leads inexorably to the material that the author studies in Part Three, "Soul Murder". The title says it all. Cornwell details catastrophic sexual advances made in a box that gets darker with every tale, and, of course, their often tragic consequences. The confessional becomes a stage set for the grooming of small children.

In a curious way, despite being such a child, the author remains the seminary boy. He puts himself in the shoes of the confessor, of the priest who hears the sins and finds a host of abuses in the "crepuscular intimacy" afforded by the practice. Rarely, if ever, does he identify with the poor, sad sinner, the person who, through receiving the grace of the sacrament, is actually liberated and set free. He stands in judgement over all that went wrong, and rarely acknowledges what could go right.

Nevertheless, his book is chastening, and makes an important if distressing read.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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