The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the target of stark and challenging examination in John Cornwell's critique of this most Catholic of rituals.
The Dark Box by John Cornwell (Basic Books)
- By Eamon Duffy, The Guardian
Any Catholic over the age of 50 will have vivid memories of a now largely abandoned spiritual discipline, weekly or monthly visits to church to confess one's sins to a priest.
Private confession originated among soul-searching Irish monks in dark-age Europe.
Backed by a ferocious tariff of punishments or 'penances' for grave sins, the practice spread to the wider Church.
Pastoral common sense gradually moderated the penances, and annual confession became mandatory for adults in the early 13th century as the emerging parish system gave everyone access to a local priest.
This new discipline was in part a way of policing morals, in part a forum in which, as anxiety grew about heresy, orthodox Christian teaching could be transmitted and quizzed.
John Cornwell summarises these developments with admirable verve in his first three chapters.
Despite its subtitle, however, his powerful, persuasive and disturbing book is not in fact a history of confession.
It is instead an impassioned response to the crisis in the Catholic church over sexual abuse by clergy.
Confession, he believes, has been on balance a malign institution, both religiously and psychologically. The obsessive emphasis of Catholic moral theology on sexual sin fostered joyless self-loathing.
And Cornwell sees Pope Pius X's decision in the early 20th century to extend the obligation to confess to children as young as seven as a moral disaster, putting them at the mercy of rogue clergy, teaching them to think badly of themselves, and to imagine God as 'trivial, petulant' and 'obsessed with cleanliness.'
Yet Cornwell at times lays it on with a trowel.
Human sexuality can be a source of life, joy and tenderness. But from the Trojan war to the poisonous antics of Jimmy Savile, it is also the cause of some of the world's grossest ills.
To interpret confession so exclusively in terms of dysfunctional sexuality is surely to take too narrow a view of a wider-ranging institution.
The Dark Box doesn't discuss the role of confession in moderating non-sexual sins or in cultivating civility and a sense of right and wrong.
The book is a major contribution to the Catholic Church's examination of conscience about the roots and circumstances of sexual abuse.
But for a rounded historical assessment of confession itself, we will need to look for a different kind of audit.
Read full review: The Dark Box by John Cornwell – review (The Guardian)
Pope Francis: Be courageous, go to confession (Catholic News Agency)
Buy book: Garratt Publishing