The Dark Box

A Secret History of Confession


By John Cornwell

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A bestselling journalist exposes the connection between the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis and the practice of confession.





Early Penitents and Their Penances

Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

—Psalm 51

ON THE DAY KNOWN AS ASH WEDNESDAY, MANY Christians the world over sport a dark smudge on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. They are marking the beginning of the penitential season of Lent with a public display that harks back to the remote origins of the sacrament of penance. That morning they have received on the brow in memory of the crucifixion a sign in ash made from burnt palm leaves and olive oil, to the accompaniment of the words ‘Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return!’1 But there is an earlier tradition of marking the head with ashes that has its origins in Jewish and Christian rituals for the reconciliation of sinners.

The Hebrew prophets and poets dwelt on guilt, individually and collectively. ‘My sin’, wrote the Psalmist, ‘is always before me.’ And, ‘I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink.’ Ritualistic contrition had antecedents in the Jewish Day of Atonement, involving a day and night of fasting. The tradition developed over many centuries and was originally a means of making reparation for mistakes and incorrect rituals in temple sacrifices. We read in Jonah how the Ninevites averted God’s anger by wearing sackcloth and ashes and engaging in fasting and prayer. In time, the Day of Atonement, practised widely in synagogues in the absence of the Temple (after 70 CE), encouraged reconciliation with those whom one had wronged as well as sorrow for offending God. In the Jewish tradition, while sins against God could only be forgiven by God, sins against one’s neighbour had to be forgiven both by that neighbour and by God. Repentance, according to the Sages, brought about acquittal and purity, allowing men and women to come close to God. The central meaning of atonement was this ‘at-one-ment’.2

In the course of Jesus’s ministry, we find him expressing a purer Hebrew prophetic tradition which required a change of heart rather than an external ritual. He said of Mary Magdalene: ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.’ Critics who question the Scriptural origins of the Catholic sacrament of penance cite several examples—the woman taken in adultery, the prodigal son, the penitent thief, Peter’s forgiveness for his denial of Christ—demonstrating the absence of an external agent, a priest or confessor, serving as mediator. James and John spoke of the need for all Christians to tell each other their sins.3

The principal rite of absolution of sins in the early Church was baptism, which was bestowed on adult converts. Baptism washed away the original sin of Adam and Eve. Atonement for sin had been achieved once and for all with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and was now completed for each individual in the waters of baptism. Nor was candidacy for baptism made easy. Catechumens—those preparing for Christian membership—were obliged to submit to long periods of prayer and austerity, and even to call on the services of official exorcists to cast out their demons.

Yet as the primitive Church grew and expanded, and members of the faithful fell by the wayside, rituals of reconciliation emerged as once-in-a-lifetime events. Christians often found themselves under threat and in a minority, fearful for their livelihoods and very lives. Those who committed serious crimes were a threat to the community. Christians were convinced, moreover, that Judgement Day would come sooner rather than later. Sinners stood in imminent danger of eternal damnation. In the early era of the Church, members of the faithful who had been excluded for grave sins were readmitted only after the completion of a series of painful public ceremonies.

The way back was harsh, melodramatic, and communal. Barefoot penitents—garbed in sackcloth, heads shaven, faces and skulls besmirched with filth—were summoned to approach the altar and the assembly’s bishop at the beginning of Lent. After the congregation had chanted lengthy petitions to the saints, the penitents rose to confess their sins out loud: principally adultery, violence, and idolatry. In one ceremony the clergy and the laity cried out ‘Indulgentia’ (Mercy), ‘Release us from our misery!’ ‘Help all penitents!’ St. Jerome wrote, of a widowed Roman penitent accused of adultery, ‘The bishop, the priests, and the people wept with her. Her hair dishevelled, her face pale, her hands dirty, her head covered in ashes, she beat her naked breast and face with which she had seduced her second husband. She revealed to all her wounds, and Rome, in tears, contemplated the scars on her emaciated body.’4 The readmission of penitents to the assembly, in many cases dependent on the communal decision of the congregation, traditionally took place on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.

The evolution of ritual was not without problems. There were early rigorist groups who insisted that lapsed Christians should never be allowed re-entry. Casuistic arguments arose, especially over the circumstances of sexual sin—a focus of obsessive anxiety among early Christians. The influential second-century writer Tertullian, a lawyer by profession and a keen disciplinarian by temperament, was convinced that sex even between married couples polluted both body and soul. Women, moreover, constituted a permanent provocation to chastity. He saw them as indeterminate human beings. They were, as he expressed it in his De Cultu Feminarum, the ‘Devil’s Gateway’, a breach in the citadel of the Church through which the secular world would enter to poison the chaste assemblies of male saints. Perpetual virginity in a woman was the highest virtue, in his view; even second marriage after widowhood was for him a kind of adultery. The delight of orgasm, he insisted, was shameful. ‘In that final release of pleasure, do we not sense a loss of our very souls?’ Tertullian argued that the principal sins—apostasy, idolatry, adultery, and homicide—were unforgivable, setting the scene not only for increasing exclusions from reconciliation, despite contrition, but debates about the extent and limits of adultery. So we find Bishop Cyprian of Carthage in 259 asking whether a consecrated virgin (a woman who had taken a vow of lifetime celibacy), guilty of a sin against chastity, was truly an adulteress, since she was not married. He concluded after much debate that she should suffer the same penalties as an authentic adulterer, as she had committed the sin against her spiritual spouse, Jesus Christ.5

ON A WINDSWEPT ROCK rising sheer out of the Atlantic some eight miles off the coast of Kerry, Ireland, stand the remains of a primitive monastery known as Skellig Michael, believed to have been founded in the sixth century. On this forbidding island, a community of monks lived a life of isolation, prayer, and penance for centuries. In such places, at the far-flung limits of Christendom, an early form of confession, as it would come to be known, was first practised.

With the invasions of the Visigoths and the Franks beginning in the fifth century, and the resulting breakdown of civil societies, the once-in-a-lifetime exclusions and elaborate reconciliations went into decline. Yet a form of repetitive, private contrition was emerging within monastic communities in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, conducted by elders, abbots, and abbesses. The practice gradually spread outside the monastic setting as missionary monks from the north travelled south. This was the practice of ‘auricular’ confession in the making—confession ‘into the ear of the confessor’. Hence the idea of sin as requiring the forgiveness of the community gave way to the confession of sins through the private ministrations of a confessor who might be a monk or a nun. A crucial difference between the old reconciliation and the new was the practice of confessing lesser, ‘venial’ sins as well as the grave, ‘mortal’ ones. The penances were no less harsh than in the past, but they became more systematic as bishops, abbots, and leading missionaries developed sets of penitential ‘tariffs’, including sleep deprivation, fasts, exile, and pilgrimages (alone or in groups), for a range of sins. Christian fast days today, the Catholic tradition of not eating meat (but welcoming fish) on Fridays, and the popularity of pilgrimages echo the penitential practices of the second half of the first millennium of Christianity. At St. Patrick’s Purgatory Island in Donegal, Ireland, pilgrims to this day practise self-mortifications reminiscent of the penances of the sixth century. They pray all night in the island’s church; the next day, they walk barefoot on beds of rock, praying as they go. They eat only a single meal, dry toast washed down with black tea, in the course of three days and nights.

Manuals of these early tariffs came to be known as the ‘penitential books’. Among the most influential was The Penitential of St. Columbanus, who founded monastic communities in France, Switzerland, and Italy to become one of the great European missionaries of his age. Writing in about 600, Columbanus emphasised not only the sins of action and omission, and offences against others and the community, but also mental sins. Even if one had only desired ‘in thought’ to kill, to commit fornication, to steal, to feast in secret and be drunken, or to strike someone, he said, ‘let him do penance for the great ones half a year, for the lesser ones forty days on bread and water.’ He warned, moreover, ‘just as we must beware of mortal and fleshly sins’ before approaching the Eucharist, ‘so we must refrain, and cleanse ourselves from interior vices and the sicknesses of the ailing soul before the covenant of true peace and the bond of eternal salvation.’6

As in the early centuries of the Church, the penitentials focused on sins of the flesh, which merited abstinence from intercourse for the married. In Columbanus’s penitential, expiation of the sin of adultery in which a layman had begotten a child by another’s wife required ‘three years refraining from the more appetizing foods and from his own wife’. If a layman committed fornication ‘in a sodomite fashion, that is, has sinned by effeminate intercourse with a male’, the penance was seven years: ‘for the three first on bread and water and salt and dry produce of the garden, for the remaining four let him refrain from wine and meat’. The regard for modesty in the teaching of Columbanus was extreme: ‘. . . if anyone, even while sitting in the bath, has uncovered his knees or arms, without need for washing dirt, let him not wash for six days, that is, let that immodest bather not wash his feet until the following Lord’s Day.’7

The writer of the Bigotian Penitential of the eighth century was preoccupied with masturbation. If a priest by sinful thoughts ‘has caused his sperm to flow’, he must fast for a week. If he ‘touches his member with his hand’, he shall do penance for three weeks. ‘He who often causes his sperm to flow by passionate thoughts’, wrote the author, ‘shall do penance for twenty days.’ And there is more: ‘He whose sperm flows whilst he is sleeping in church, shall do penance for three days. If he stimulates himself, for the first offence twenty days, for the second one, forty; if more often, fasts shall be added.’8

Women were to suffer exclusions in certain circumstances. ‘During their monthly period women should not enter a church nor receive communion’, states the Bigotian Penitential. ‘He who has intercourse with his wife during her monthly period shall do penance for twenty days.’ A pregnant woman, moreover, ‘must abstain from her husband for three months before childbirth, and during the period of purgation afterwards: that is, forty days and nights.’9

As the penitentials multiplied, so did attention to the role of the confessor. One penitential warns of the crime of telling tales outside of the confessing relationship. Categories of sins were also developed, drawing not only on the Ten Commandments but also the Book of Leviticus, the Letters of St. Paul, and the wisdom of the individual author of the penitential. The Seven Deadly Sins, those capital sins categorised in the early Christian period as symptomatic of the Fall, were constantly invoked: anger, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Intentional acts were contrasted with unintentional ones: if the desire to sin was frustrated only by lack of opportunity, it was deemed equivalent to the act itself. Premeditated crimes carried greater penances than those done rashly. For example, a murderer who had planned his crime would be exiled for ten years, whereas one who killed in the heat of the moment suffered exile for six. A sin that had become a habit was punished more severely than a single instance.

The status of the sinner was also considered, based on degrees of responsibility, privilege, and education. A bishop, for example, was deemed to carry more guilt than a priest or layperson committing the same sin. Allowances were made for the sick, the unemployed, and the poor. A rich penitent was allowed to pay a substitute to do his penance for him.

Pilgrimage, an increasingly popular penance, was based on a belief in the power and presence of the relics of saints. The bones of Sts. Peter and Paul attracted the faithful to Rome as the centre of Christendom, although the Eternal City would also vie with Jerusalem. But whereas Muslims are obliged to journey to one destination, Mecca, for the fulfilment of their pilgrimage, Christians from the earliest era had a variety of holy destinations, including not only supposed burial places of saints but sites of supernatural apparitions and occurrences.10 For example, it was believed that St. Michael the Archangel had manifested himself in a mountain cave on Italy’s Gargano Peninsula in 490. St. John Chrysostom, the early Christian Father, recommended the shrine of Job’s dunghill, where ‘many undertake a long pilgrimage, even across the sea, hastening from the extremities of the earth, as far as Arabia, that they may . . . kiss . . . the ground of such a victor’. The site of the burning bush beneath Mount Sinai was also popular. By the ninth century, one of the principal pilgrim destinations after Rome and Jerusalem was Compostela in Galicia, where, according to legend, the headless body of St. James the Greater had been miraculously transported from Jaffa in a stone ship. From the many accounts of pilgrimage, these journeys created not only an occasion of penance, but a rich experience of diversion, merriment, and sexual adventure. In the spiritual trade-off of the times, pilgrims could expect to be offered food and comfort from the locals along the way in exchange for special graces and blessings. For many, pilgrimage became a way of life.

The penances imposed on kings and princes tell a story of conflict between throne and altar. William the Conqueror was ordered by Pope Alexander II to build the abbey at Battle to expiate the killing of King Harold in 1066. A spectacular imperial penance was performed in 1077 by Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor. In a titanic political struggle between Pope Gregory VII and Henry over who took ultimate precedence in Latin Christendom, Gregory, one of the greatest reforming popes of history, took the awful step of excommunicating Henry, thus undermining his secular authority among the German princes, bishops, and people. Finding his situation as excommunicate ruler untenable, Henry travelled in the depths of winter to confront Gregory, who was lodged in the castle of Canossa in a high valley of the Apennines. For three days and nights, Henry knelt in the snow outside the castle, barefoot and dressed in a rough wool shirt, pleading for absolution and reconciliation in a self-imposed act of penance and contrition. As Gregory noted, the emperor’s lamentations ‘provoked all who were there or who had been brought news of what was happening to such great mercy, and such pitying compassion, that they began to intercede for him with prayers and tears of their own.’11 The pope finally acquiesced, opened the gates, and absolved Henry with the kiss of peace.

In the following century, England’s Henry II was obliged to do penance to expiate the murder of Thomas à Becket. On 12 July 1174 he publicly confessed his part in the crime and submitted himself to receiving blows across the back from all eighty monks of Canterbury Cathedral.

With the spread of auricular confession came supplements to the penitential books to help priests in their pastoral duties towards penitents. The writings of Peter Abelard, the French eleventh-century theologian and philosopher, provide insight into the discussions and debates over confession in the early Middle Ages. He complained of the ignorance of confessors who did not understand the nature of the sacrament, or who failed to inform the penitent of the grounds of forgiveness, and thereby deceived them. Anticipating the corrupt practices of the high and late Middle Ages, he lambasted those bishops who tended to waive the penances in exchange for alms. The seriousness of confession, involving the destiny of individual souls, raised questions about the spiritual status of confessors—their suitability to guide souls.12

Another figure who wrote compellingly on this theme during the eleventh century was Peter Damian of Ravenna, an ascetic Benedictine monk who became a bishop and cardinal. Although known to be gentle on penitents, he was severe in his criticism of lax clergy, excoriating bishops for such pastimes as playing chess, and denouncing heads of monastic houses for their luxurious lifestyles. In his Book of Gomorrah, he drew attention to the clerical sexual abuse of adolescent boys. From the context it is clear that he was speaking of religious houses and monasteries where boys were housed as oblates and novices. He also paid significant attention to the suffering of victims of sodomy. He advocated celibacy for all priests while attacking homosexuality, mutual masturbation, the practice of sexual acts between the thighs, and anal intercourse. He believed that unbridled lust was a cause of lunacy.13


Confession into Its Own

Full swetely herde he confessioun.

—Geoffrey Chaucer’s Friar Huberd, The Canterbury Tales

IN THE YEAR 1191 CARDINAL-DEACON LOTARIO DEI CONTI di Segni was elected pope at the age of thirty-seven, taking the name Innocent III. His initiatives to encourage confession would shape the sacrament and its influence for centuries to come. He would make confession obligatory under pain of mortal sin.

Innocent, born into a wealthy patrician family, was a skilled canonist who had studied law in Paris and Bologna. He announced from the outset that he would exert the spiritual rather than temporal powers of his office, but he had ambitions in both spheres. He brought into constant use the epithet ‘Vicar of Christ’—a role, as he put it, ‘set midway between God and Man’—signalling his determination to elevate the rule of the papacy over both altar and throne. His political weapons of choice were the interdict (censure) and excommunication. In his quarrels with King John of England over ecclesiastical and monarchical authority, he declared the country’s celebrated Magna Carta null and void.

Innocent centralised Church authority, downgrading the authority of bishops. He sought to improve the discipline of the clergy both within and outside of monasticism, and he guardedly encouraged the activities of the preaching orders—the Franciscans and Dominicans. He called a Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the sack of Constantinople and the collapse of any hope of reconciliation between Latin and Byzantine Christendom. He initiated a military crusade against the heretic Cathars of southern France. They were anticlerical and had declared that the sacrament of penance was a false doctrine. They taught that Mary was conceived of Jesus through her right ear. Pope Innocent’s attempts to coax the Cathars out of their heresies through eloquent preaching failed; nor could they simply be ignored, since a central theme of their beliefs was the evils of the papacy. Innocent’s campaign against the Cathars led to the slaughter of many thousands and made way for the expansion of the Inquisition in subsequent pontificates.

Innocent was nevertheless convinced that the Cathar heresies indicated a thirst for religious revival which he believed he could satisfy with a tranche of devotional reforms. In 1215 he convoked the Fourth Lateran Council. Among its provisions was the decree that all the faithful must attend confession and receive Holy Communion once a year. First confession should be made ‘on reaching the age of discernment’ by all members of the faithful ‘of either sex’. Those who failed to do their Easter sacramental duties were to be ‘barred from entering the church in their lifetime and to be deprived of Christian burial at death’. A familiar verdict of history is that Innocent was exploiting confession to seek out heretics. Yet he also hoped to encourage spiritual renewal and to establish the role of the priest as spiritual director of individual souls.1

The Lateran Council had additional recommendations about the adequate supply of skilled confessors. Innocent sought to implement these by appointing ‘masters of theology’ in every diocese. Bishops were ordered to oversee the formation of good confessors: ‘If a blind man leads a blind man’, he reminded his flock, echoing the words of Christ in Matthew 15.14, ‘both will slip into a ditch.’ Innocent’s initiatives resulted in a flurry of activity at local levels, but there was a gulf from the outset between the ideals he advocated and the realities on the ground. The establishment of an educated priesthood would take generations, and there were many bad habits to be eradicated. Poorly paid holders of benefices all too often absconded, leaving their parishioners in the care of inadequate substitutes.

Whatever the spiritual advantages, the obligation to go to confession or risk excommunication meant that the Church had created a new grave sin, a new way in which individual souls could be excluded from the Christian community and merit Hell. But the requirement of annual confession also saw the decline of the old penitential tariffs, which were now giving way to more benign penances, such as prayers, special devotions, and payment of Mass stipends. Auricular confession became the norm in the Latin West. Examination of conscience and repeated contrition for daily failures became an essential feature of the devout soul’s journey to God. And with this shift came a new genre of handbooks, treatises, and summas for confessors, setting out the subtle gradations of sins, dimensions of intention, motives, levels of contrition, and authentic purposes of amendment.2

A typical consideration in such work was the threefold distinction between types of sorrow. A penitent, for example, might repine for having spurned God’s love; or for shame at having sinned; or merely for fear of Hell. Theologians were now wont to mull over the degrees and efficacy of these contrasting motives for repentance, querying whether the less commendable motive—fear of punishment in Hell—was sufficient for absolution. The disputes on this score would lead to a clash between the two great philosopher-theologians, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Both agreed that the priest in valid orders had a central role in confession. But whereas Aquinas argued that genuine contrition was as necessary for absolution as the priest’s verbal formula, Duns Scotus insisted that the efficacy of the sacrament was dependent on the confessor’s words alone.3

Theologians argued about the spirit, letter, and intention of Innocent’s decrees. Was it necessary, for example, to attend confession if one had not committed a mortal, or grave, sin? And who was to judge whether a sin was venial or mortal? Some scholars insisted that the very raising of such questions demonstrated the crucial importance of obligatory annual confession. The confessor could thereby ‘enquire diligently’, as the Fourth Lateran Council had put it, into the state of the penitent’s soul. Aquinas opined that while it should not be necessary, according to God’s law, to attend confession when one was not in a state of mortal sin, there was nevertheless an obligation to satisfy Church law. But disobedience to Church law, he intimated, did not involve turning away from God—the sine qua non basis of mortal sin.

An issue of major importance, and a source of debate both at the time and in subsequent centuries, was the age at which first confession and communion should be made. Experts in canon law in France and Italy argued that the age of discretion was at puberty or thereabouts; most pastors, in practice, were not prepared to administer the sacraments to the members of their flock until they had reached ‘marriage age’. This was generally taken to be at about fourteen, with minor local variations.4

Attendance at confession, even annually, was subject to many adaptations and exceptions across Western Christendom, depending on local traditions, the prejudices and convictions of pastors and bishops, and the existence of religious houses. Complying with the new rule was hardest in rural parishes with a single pastor. The parish priest’s workload increased exponentially with the new decrees, especially during late Lent and Holy Week, since many parishioners left their sacramental duties to the last minute. Priests complained of having to hear as many as three hundred confessions in a single day, hardly an ideal circumstance for a good confession. The priest usually sat on a chair in the sanctuary, the penitent kneeling beside him or in front of him. There were unruly scenes when people refused to wait their turn, and there was a tendency among penitents to eavesdrop. Overwhelmed by the numbers attempting to avoid excommunication as Easter approached, some priests would simply give general absolution to the entire congregation without hearing their sins. The stipulation that the faithful should confess solely to their own parish priest proved problematic. The better-educated parishioners refused to be confessed by an ignorant local priest, preferring to go to a monastic confessor of good reputation. Many were reluctant to confess to a priest who was known to them within their tightknit community. In some villages parishioners refused to attend confession despite the levying of fines, the threat of imprisonment, and the risk of excommunication.5


On Sale
Mar 4, 2014
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

John Cornwell

About the Author

John Cornwell is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. The author of the New York Times bestseller Hitler’s Pope, he lives in Draughton, England.

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