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.
Cornwell thinks it’s time to reform confession again, in large part because he sees it as a key—and underappreciated—enabler of the recent sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church. A former seminarian who has written extensively on the papacy and is perhaps best known for his 1999 bestseller “Hitler’s Pope,” Cornwell knows his subject well: He was raised Catholic, went to confession every week from the age of 7 to the age of 21, and was himself propositioned by a priest in the confessional. He ended up leaving the Church for decades, but has returned into the fold late in life, with some ambivalence.
Cornwell’s book moves briskly through the many phases of the history of confession: from its earliest manifestations, in the first centuries of Christianity, when it was a rare communal event; through the late Middle Ages, when it became a private act that profoundly affected, as he puts it, “the development of Western ethics, law, and perceptions of the self”; and into the 20th century, when, he argues, Pope Pius X’s momentous decision to lower of the age of confession, in 1910, opened the way to the sexual abuse of children. Today, Cornwell believes, confession could still be of great value, but only if church leaders are willing to reimagine its role.
Cornwell spoke to Ideas from his home in England.
IDEAS: What are the origins of confession?
CORNWELL: In the first centuries of Christianity, there was no such thing as confession. There was just “reconciliation” with your congregation or your Christian community, if you’d committed a huge crime like murder or idolatry or adultery. The presiding bishop or clergyman would say, “Do we allow this person back in?,” and it was either thumbs up or thumbs down. It was very communal. That broke down with the breakup of the Roman Empire, but then something new starts to take place within monastic communities in Ireland and Wales and places like that. An abbess or an abbot would have private conversation with somebody, give spiritual direction, and so forth. Confession grew out of that. But it wasn’t until 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, that all Christians in the Latin Church were bound under mortal sin to go to confession once a year, and it had to be private, and you had to tell all of your sins.
IDEAS: So that’s where the story of confession as we know it starts?
CORNWELL: Yes. I see three great enthusiasms for confession after that. The first runs through the Middle Ages and collapses very largely through the sexual abuse of women in the confessional.
IDEAS: You describe confession in those days as a very personal experience, with penitents sitting at the feet of confessors, and touching—holding hands, even embracing—as part of the encounter.
CORNWELL: That’s right. The dark box was only invented in the 16th century, during the Counter-Reformation, and it was specifically to keep penitents separate from their confessors, and to preclude the seduction that this kind of touching made possible. But now a new kind of seduction becomes possible. You have these women in the dark, whispering into the priests’ ears. It paved the way for abuse, and by the 19th century, the practice had again largely broken down because of that.
IDEAS: But not, as you say in the book, before helping to fundamentally change Western notions of ethics, law, and even the self.
CORNWELL: Yes. Confession in the box had an amazing shaping effect on the way that people thought about themselves. It helped foster a very private, and very modern, sense of interiority and guilt, and even new ways of articulating ideas about the body and sexuality. There’s a new focus on the idea of intention, too....You go into the dark box, deep into your disembodied soul, and consider the degrees of intentionality in your actions. The emphasis is on the private rather than the public nature of sin.
IDEAS: What’s the third period of enthusiasm?
CORNWELL: It starts with Pius X, who came in in 1903 and died on the eve of the First World War....He was a great pessimist. He observed the great rise of materialism and communism that was taking place, and believed that the church within itself was suffering from a kind of decay. In response, with the best of intentions, he launched an antimodernist campaign, and reformed the seminaries so they were much more austere and cut off from the world. But then you have this killer fact: He lowered the age of confession and made it something that had to be done weekly. This was a real game-changer. It redefined the church in the 20th century. It’s the narrative center of my story, and it ends with the abuse of not women but children.
IDEAS: How so?
CORNWELL: After confession was made a sacrament, in the 13th century, you didn’t make your confession until puberty or afterwards, at age 12, 13, or 14. And you went maybe once a year. Pius changed that in one fell swoop, by introducing weekly confession and insisting that it start at the age of 7. This made children of that age group suddenly accessible to priests on a routine and frequent basis, which had never happened before.
IDEAS: You make a direct link in the book between confession and the sex-abuse scandal.
CORNWELL: Many priests in the wake of the scandal have admitted to using it as a way of grooming and testing children for their vulnerability. This is something that the great John Jay Report, on pedophile priests, which was done in the US in the early part of the last decade, missed out on. They didn’t see the importance of confession. That’s why I think my book is important in an investigatory sense. I’m bringing that out. The statistics in the report show that a third of all of the crimes of abuse occurred in a confessional setting....The interesting thing is that from the late 1950s, when all of this started to rise, to the mid 1980s—this was the period in which priests were going outside the box. So you get confession as something that takes place in the privacy of a priest’s room, or in the sacristy, or in his car. But something else happens that is very important: Many priests squared the circle of their offending lives and their pastoral lives by going to confession themselves. There you have the morally weak aspect of confession: this belief that you can commit terrible sins and then go and get them washed away....There was a case in Australia not so long ago when a priest on trial admitted that he had confessed to sexually attacking children 1,500 times. He’d confessed it 1,500 times!
IDEAS: Does confession still have a future?
CORNWELL: Perhaps. I’m hoping that this book will encourage people high up in the church to rethink the whole theology of confession, to accept that it’s been trivialized, and to do some work to bring it back. I think confession should offer reconciliation to people who have gone through something big, a great trial in their life, and have lapsed. It should be there to allow them to share that with a priest, and it shouldn’t be downgraded to a 7-year-old’s perception of sin.
IDEAS: Can you imagine a revival of confession, maybe again as public act?
CORNWELL: That’s the big question. Hundreds of people wrote to me while I was writing the book to say that they favor a return to general absolution [the public and communal absolution of sin without private confession to a priest, an ancient practice revived in the 1970s, under Paul VI]. But John Paul II put a stop to that. If Francis were to make a change there, I think you’d find a lot of people coming back to Church. It could happen—but people have got to ask for it.
Toby Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, is the author of “Da Vinci’s Ghost” (2012) and “The Fourth Part of the World” (2009).