Collapse is not too strong a word. Fifty years ago, the great majority of Catholics in this country confessed their sins regularly to a priest. Confession, after all, is one of the seven Catholic sacraments. But now only 2 percent of Catholics go regularly to confession, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Georgetown University—and three-quarters of them never go, or go less than once a year. In many parishes, the sacrament is currently available only by appointment, and in Europe it has declined to such a degree that groups who study Catholic practice there have stopped even asking about it on their questionnaires. Visit a Catholic church today, John Cornwell writes in “The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession,” and you’re likely to find that church janitors have transformed the box into “a storage closet for vacuum cleaners, brooms, and cleaning products.”
To traditionalists, this might seem like yet another sign of decline in the post–Vatican II era, but Cornwell shows that this isn’t the first time Catholics have largely abandoned confession. The practice, it turns out, has evolved dramatically over the centuries, from a rare communal event to a regular private one, and at a number of points in this evolution has broken down specifically because of concerns about sexual abuse. The box itself is a relatively late innovation, designed in the 16th century to keep priests and women apart.