The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession

The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession

by John Cornwell
     
 

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Confession is a crucial ritual of the Catholic Church, offering absolution of sin and spiritual guidance to the faithful. Yet this ancient sacrament has also been a source of controversy and oppression, culminating, as prize-winning historian John Cornwell reveals in The Dark Box, with the scandal of clerical child abuse. Drawing on extensive historical

Overview


Confession is a crucial ritual of the Catholic Church, offering absolution of sin and spiritual guidance to the faithful. Yet this ancient sacrament has also been a source of controversy and oppression, culminating, as prize-winning historian John Cornwell reveals in The Dark Box, with the scandal of clerical child abuse. Drawing on extensive historical sources, contemporary reports, and first-hand accounts, Cornwell takes a hard look at the long evolution of confession.

The papacy made annual, one-on-one confession obligatory for the first time in the 13th century. In the era that followed, confession was a source of spiritual consolation as well as sexual and mercenary scandal. During the 16th century, the Church introduced the confession box to prevent sexual solicitation of women, but this private space gave rise to new forms of temptation, both for penitents and confessors. Yet no phase in the story of the sacrament has had such drastic consequences as a historic decree by Pope Pius X in 1910. In reaction to the spiritual perils of the new century, Pius sought to safeguard the Catholic faithful by lowering the age at which children made their first confession from their early teens to seven, while exhorting all Catholics to confess frequently instead of annually. This sweeping, inappropriately early imposition of the sacrament gave priests an unprecedented and privileged role in the lives of young boys and girls—a role that a significant number would exploit in the decades that followed.

A much-needed account of confession’s fraught history, The Dark Box explores the sources of the sacrament’s harm and shame, while recognizing its continuing power to offer consolation and reconciliation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Financial Times
“A meticulously researched, carefully wrought and quietly furious anathema upon the Catholic Church.”

Guardian, UK
“[A] powerful, persuasive, and disturbing book....The Dark Box is a major contribution to the Catholic church’s examination of conscience about the roots and circumstances of sexual abuse.”

Sunday Times, UK
"[An] absorbing history of the confessional...forceful."

Observer, UK
The Dark Box is a powerful, impassioned treatise about the dangers of confession.”

Times Literary Supplement
“A short but explosive book which is part religious history, part autobiography, part journalistic expose, and part manifesto for change...The Dark Box is a book that anyone concerned with the future of the Catholic Church should take seriously.”

Irish Independent
“A powerful and disturbing addition to the literature on the subject, and lays bare the dysfunctional nature of a church which has still come nowhere near to facing its own self-inflicted demons.”

Buffalo News
"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.”

The Spectator, UK
“I have a confession to make. I really enjoyed this book...smartly, smoothly written.”

National Catholic Reporter
“Cornwell uses his formidable talents to reveal the sacrament in a complete, compelling and original way.... His writing is informed by faith and unfaith as well as intellect and passion.”

U.S. Catholic
“A lucid and honest history of the development of sacramental confession, plus some rather balanced observations on its uses and abuses…this book delivers what it promises: a good history of the development of the sacrament of confession and its uses and misuses in the Catholic world.”

Commercial Dispatch, Ohio
“There may have been those who benefited from confession, and even more who found it a mechanical process, compared to those who found themselves thrown into sexual guilt and confusion because of it. Critics will say this book depicts only the darker side of the dark box, but Cornwell's church would be better off understanding the issues expressed in this thoughtful and heartfelt book.”

Kirkus
“A haunting study, both scholarly and personal, that situates the practice of confession as the source of the Catholic Church’s clerical abuse.... Enlisting a legion of voices attesting to their ‘soul murder’ by confessional priests, Cornwell offers another strong indictment of the church.”

John Heilpern, contributing editor, Vanity Fair
“With his brilliant The Dark Box, John Cornwell, a most fair-minded hammer and conscience of the Catholic Church, has gone to the terrifying roots of clerical sexual abuse throughout Catholicism's history. He has made the nightmare link between sacramental confession and the abuse of children, while anticipating the future of a church pre-occupied with sex, sin and damnation. I cannot imagine a more timely book than The Dark Box in Pope Francis' brave new inclusive age of love, reconciliation and social conscience.”

Garry Wills, author of Why I Am a Catholic
“A maxim often cited from the fifth-century theologian Prosper of Aquitaine is Lex orandi lex credendi -- the way we pray is the way we believe. In accord with this norm, the fact that Catholics have by and large given up going to confession means that they have stopped believing in it. Cornwell tells us why we should.”

Gary Kearns, Maynooth University College, Ireland
“An elegant and profound reflection upon what turned out to be a tragic experiment in church discipline.”

David Lodge
"A brilliant book, and an important one. Confession turns out to be the key that explains so much that is discreditable in the history of the Catholic Church, especially over the last 100 years. You show that "Saint" Pius X created a kind of spiritual totalitarian state similar to the secular dictatorships of the same period, complete with a loyalty oath to the leader. The practice of frequent confession and communion which he initiated, instilled in Catholics from an impressionable early age, combined with the moral theology of mortal sin, ensured a cowed obedience, or encouraged an Orwellian double-speak, until, with John XXIII and Vatican II, Catholics suddenly started thinking for themselves and deserted confession in droves. Interesting that it was a sexual issue, contraception, not a doctrinal one, that caused the old
consensus to collapse."

Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-04
A haunting study, both scholarly and personal, that situates the practice of confession as the source of the Catholic Church's clerical abuse. In this deep-reaching history that also encompasses the voices of the deeply scarred, provocative English historian, memoirist and novelist Cornwell (Fellow/Jesus Coll., Cambridge; Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, 2010, etc.) focuses on Pius X's lowering of the age of first confession from 13 to age 7 from 1910 onward as the spur to the church's worst sexual abuses. The discrepancy between Catholic teaching and practice has dogged the church for centuries, and confession evolved from a way to reconcile penitent sinners back into the fold into an outlet for the severe repression of priests. A form of "repetitive, private contrition" had been practiced in early monastic communities in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Making "auricular" confession once a year was set forth by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. A whole clerical class of "specialist confessors" sprang up, obsessed with the examination of conscience, ripe for inquisitional manipulation. Sexual abuses around confession helped galvanize the Protestant Reformation; in response, the "little black box" became a familiar item of church furniture in Milan's Duomo in 1576, prompting a dangerous shift from the "public or social nature of sin to the scrupulous examination of recollected motivation." Sexual solicitation, of both men and women, during confession was not uncommon, especially as clergymen were trained to be isolated, regimented and repressed (Cornwell enlists as evidence his own seminarian training in England in the 1960s). Yet it wasn't until children were included as penitents, as part of Pius X's staving off the ills of secular modernism, that the most egregious abuses were indulged and tolerated. Enlisting a legion of voices attesting to their "soul murder" by confessional priests, Cornwell offers another strong indictment of the church.
Library Journal
02/01/2014
Author of the controversial Hitler's Pope, Cornwell draws connections among the first use of a confessional box in 1576, the lowering of the age for confession to seven in 1910, and the pederasty crisis in the Catholic Church. Cornwell's facts are fine, but many might have difficulty accepting his interpretation. While recognizing the good points of people and events, he tends to emphasize the dark side, as when he speaks of Pope Pius X as having a devout and avuncular exterior that hid a bullying streak. He does speak of the anti-Catholic literature that sensationalized the lives of priests but argues that priests lived lives that did not necessarily give the lie to such tales. Cornwell (divinity, Jesus Coll., Univ. of Cambridge) also blames the seminaries for (mis)handling teaching about sexuality. His examples don't always uphold his argument: he speaks of one priest who abused young girls while hearing their confessions seated by the altar. VERDICT This book will appeal to those who enjoyed Hitler's Pope and titles that expose the darker side of Catholicism. Unfortunately, there is no positive, recent history of confession to recommend in its place. Perhaps Cornwell's book will call one forth.—Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465039951
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
03/04/2014
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
1,243,042
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author


John Cornwell is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. The author of the New York Times bestseller Hitler’s Pope, he lives in Draughton, England.

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