Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned

Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned

Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned

Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned

Synopsis

In Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned, Stephen Haliczer places the current debate on sex, celibacy, and the Catholic Church in a historical context by drawing upon a wealth of actual case studies and trial evidence to document how, from 1530 to 1819, sexual transgression attended the heightened significance of the Sacrament of Penance. Attempting to reassert its moral and social control over the faithful, the Counter-Reformation Church underscored the importance of communion and confession. Priests were asked to be both exemplars of celibacy and "doctors of souls," and the Spanish Inquisition was there to punish transgressors. Haliczer relates the stories of these priests as well as their penitents, using the evidence left by Inquisition trials to vividly depict sexual misconduct, during and after confession, and the punishments wayward priests were forced to undergo. In the process, he sheds new light on the Church of the period, the repressed lives of priests, and the lives of their congregations; coming to a conclusion as startling as it is timely. Based on an exhaustive investigation of Inquisition cases involving soliciting confessors as well as numerous confessors' manuals and other works, Sexuality in the Confessional makes a significant contribution to the history of sexuality, women's history, and the sociology of religion.

Excerpt

Inspite of the reforms introduced during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella that made Spain largely immune to the Lutheran threat, the Spanish Catholic Church remained a deeply troubled institution on the eve of the Reformation. Nowhere were these problems more evident than in the contemporary Spaniard's attitudes toward the sacrament of penance. Since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), Catholics had been required to confess their sins annually to a legally qualified priest, but the evidence suggests that few did so.

There were a number of reasons for this mass abstention from the sacrament of penance. One obvious explanation was ignorance of the precept that mandated yearly confession. When the Spanish Inquisition turned its attention to religious offenses committed by the popular masses, such as blasphemy, bigamy, or superstition, officials were alarmed at what they discovered. Across large parts of Spain, especially in the more backward and inaccessible regions, peasants and artisans were largely ignorant of the basic tenets of the Catholic faith. Moreover, widespread absenteeism among both priests and bishops often left the laity without leadership or basic instruction.

Apart from ignorance, the most important reason given for abstention from the sacrament, revealed in the inquisitorial trials of the early sixteenth century, was distrust of the clergy, specifically in sexual matters. Members of the tight-knit village communities that made up most of Spain were well aware that many, if not most, priests lived in sin, routinely violating the rule of celibacy. Medieval Spanish literature as well as popular songs and refrains are full of references to the sexual activity of priests, friars, and nuns. in light of the well-known moral deficiencies of the clerical caste, it was difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary penitents to feel comfortable confessing sins to a priest who was just as much a sinner. the problem was especially acute in the case of sexual sins, which were beginning to be emphasized in late medieval confessors' manuals.

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