The Dark Box: a Secret History of Confession
Profile Books, 288pp, £16.99
Nowadays the sacrament of confession occupies the same place in Catholicism as Morris dancing does in English cultural life. You’re glad that some enthusiasts are keeping it going and you appreciate its colourful history, but . . . hey nonny no . . . you hardly ever go. (I go once a year – my parents went once a week.) In the public image of the Church, however, confession has played a lurid, defining role. The roots of the Gothic novel were watered with English anti-Catholicism. The Europe of Mrs Radcliffe and Monk Lewis is infested with swarthy papist banditti, committing hideous depredations before strolling into the confessional to be forgiven.
The “dark box” is an evil laboratory in which young Catholics are implanted with an overwhelming sense of sin, but also, paradoxically, a facility that allows the worst sinner to go about his business without fear of damnation. It’s a dumbwaiter, able to drop you to hell or hoist you to heaven, the perfect setting for intrigue and betrayal. The confessional scene is a trope that has lasted all the way from Boccaccio to In Bruges.
It is a surprise to discover, reading John Cornwell’s book, that the box itself was invented in the 16th century specifically to prevent abuse. Until then the penitent knelt at the feet of the confessor – sometimes resting his or her head on his lap. Cornwell gives us a rollicking and sensationalist history of the sacrament. He shows us a Venetian confessor-seducer sprawled on his divan, encouraging young penitents to go into ever greater detail about their transgressions. He quotes the 19th-century nun-sploitation bestseller The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. He tells us more than we will ever need to know about clerical masturbation.
The book styles itself as a history of confession but it is entirely concerned with sex. It does not mention, for instance, the story of Guy Fawkes’s classmate Father Oswald Tesimond. Robert Catesby confessed the details of the Gunpowder Plot to him. Tesimond felt that as he had received the information under the seal of the confessional, he couldn’t warn the authorities. Caught in a conscience trap, he consulted his superior Henry Garnet, also under the seal of the confessional, thus dragging Garnet into the same predicament. Garnet solved it for himself by “equivocation” – writing to Rome to ask the Pope explicitly to ban acts of terror. As the plot unravelled, Tesimond ran off to France but Garnet was hanged, drawn and quartered. It is a story about terrorism and surveillance, in which the confession is a kind of analogue internet, sweeping information into a Vatican NSA.
Why did Cornwell miss this out? Because his book is not a history of confession at all but a polemical tract, which argues that confession played a crucial part in the priestly child abuse scandal. His contention is that it was the crepuscular intimacy of the confessional, with its toxic cocktail of guilt and authority, that attracted paedophiles into the priesthood. They saw it as the perfect grooming forum. The argument is often overstated and sometimes confused – it’s not clear whether the repressive 1950s or the permissive 1960s were the real problem – but it is deeply felt, important and powerfully expressed. The book has been welcomed by the Catholic hierarchy as an important contribution to the clean-up.
Cornwell quotes Frank O’Connor’s masterly short story “First Confession” to show how bewildered by guilt and vulnerable a child can be in the confessional. The narrator, seven-year-old Jackie, can’t even figure out where he is supposed to kneel and ends up perched on the tiny armrest halfway up the wall. Something that Cornwell doesn’t mention, though, is that Jackie has a reason to feel guilty. He “has it all arranged” to murder his grandmother and has recently gone for his sister “with a knife”. His confession gives rise to what is surely the funniest pause in literature. “And what,” said the priest, “would you do with the body?” There follows a touching, hilarious scene in which the wise priest allows the boy to talk himself out of his plot while seeming to help him plan it in more detail.
Cornwell doesn’t really countenance the possibility that it might be a good thing to go and talk to a disinterested party about your blackest thoughts. Just before he died, the founder of Factory Records, Tony Wilson, asked a priest, Canon Denis Clinch, to come and see him, “not as a mate. I need you to hear my confession.” “Your confession, Tony!” said the canon. “Will I need to pack an overnight bag?” There followed two days of hair-raising rock’n’roll stories, during which Wilson often omitted to express much in the way of contrition.
Yet there is grace and insight in just being allowed to tell your own story. Which is why, when Pope Francis was a bishop, he used to put on his dog collar and sit on a bench in the worst part of Buenos Aires, knowing that sooner or later someone would come up and tell them him their troubles. There is also something to be said for those in authority being forced to listen. G K Chesterton attributed Father Brown’s intimate knowledge of the criminal mind to the unworldly priest having heard it all before in confession.
The most articulate sound coming from the confessional at the moment is, of course, silence. Cornwell is probably right to say that the decline in confession has happened partly because most practising Catholics simply don’t believe that contraception is sinful. Francis seems to be addressing that, not so much by changing the dogma as by moving away from the policing role that the Church has had. His acceptance of human frailty is evident, both in his own humility and in his dismissal of “trickle-down” economics in last November’s apostolic exhortation (for Christ’s sake, Miliband, read it – it’s paragraph 54).
It is a great paradox that in throwing off the repressive shackles of religion our society has become more judgemental than ever. The tiniest slip can get you pilloried in the press, with the result that the media dominates and manipulates the remains of our democracy. Surely there is room for something that takes our frailty as its starting point, that says we are all weak and in our weakness hurt each other, but it’s OK. We can begin again.