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The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell

February 15, 2016

YDBAs someone who regularly made my confession (as an Anglican where less people went so there was more time to do it justice) I have long been fascinated by this sacrament and its considerable benefits but also by its ability to infantilise. Interestingly, and unbeknown to me before reading this book, the Council of Trent dealt with many of my scruples.

The author traces the history of cession from its roots in the epistle of James where congregants are urged to confess to each other to the current day’s ‘reconciliation’.

The fact that very few Romans Catholics go to confession (or avoid birth control) shows how the consensus fidelium has told the hierarchy what it thinks.

At one time, priests were hearing 30 confessions per day (that is surely five hours at the rate of one every ten minutes.)

The advent of the confessional box is reminiscent of ‘glory holes’. Jim Cotter comments on this in his article ‘The cottage and the confessional’

The ‘box’ encouraged introspection and there was more stress on the state of the indivisdual’s soul than on thwe social aspects of sin. There was a time when restitution and reparation were required before absolution could be given. The current discussion, in Anglican circles, about the possibility of breaking the seal of confession in cases of child abuse could have been avoided had this been followed through. See  my thoughts here.

There were extreme scruples such as fear of hell on receiving holy communion without fasting – the slip had been in swallowing a drop of rain during a downpour on the way to church. Boys were told that ‘touching themselves’ was a mortal sin so developed athletic ways of eliminating excess urine after urinating.

The manuals devoted five pages top masturbation, only a third of a page to rape and nothing to child molestation.

People were encouraged to return to abusive marriages, as is documented in Sex and the Confessional – N. Valentini & C. Neglio 

Three things particularly strike me:

Thee priests were often/usually sexually repressed themselves and stuck in a childish way of thinking so were not realty able to relate to their penitents appropriately.

Penitents thought that the seal of the confessional applied them as well as to the priest.

The liberal move away from the box to a more relaxed setting meant more abuse. The Church of England now advises clear boundaries between the sacrament, in church, and counselling elsewhere. This leaves those who do spiritual direction in their living rooms somewhat open to allegations. Hence many are joining trade unions in case they need legal support.

He confuses Mary Magdalene with the ‘woman who was a sinner’.

I had to look up ‘evomition’ – though its meaning might be obvious, it isn’t in many dictionaries = To eject part or all of the contents of the stomach through the mouth, usually in a series of involuntary spasmic movements; vomiting

There are more positive books on this subject, e.g.

Healing Religious Addiction

Confession: some questions answered

Sermon for Ash Wednesday


“For many children, the mental torture of confession began with the difficulty of finding ‘sins’ to tell. Many children invented sins only to regret it, realising that they had committed a sacrilege by telling a lie in confession.”

“The phenomenon of sexual solicitation in the confessional during this period is perhaps inseparable from the background of clerical frustrations, inadequacies, and stress. Alcoholism among mendicant confessors was common.”

“Sneaks and tittle-tattlers now became righteous informers and saviors of the Church.”

“What was lacking among the priestly penitent abusers, and evidently among many of their confessors, too, was a mature sense of the nature of clerical abuse as having grievous consequences for another person.”

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