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The Decline of Catholic Confession

The Decline of Catholic Confession

Former Roman Catholic seminarian John Cornwell, the author of the 1999 bestseller “Hitler’s Pope,” has written a new book, “The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession.” In it, he traces the history of confession and also makes the case for the reformation of confession:

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.

The interview with Cornwell about his new book is available in today’s Boston Globe.


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