Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Dark Box

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Dark Box

Article excerpt


By John Cornwell (Basic Books, 2014)


John Cornwell normally subscribes to the conspiratorial school of Catholicism, as demonstrated by his books Hitler's Pope and A Thief in the Night. So when I picked up his new book, The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, imagine my surprise when I found in its pages a lucid and honest history of the development of sacramental confession, plus some rather balanced observations on its uses and abuses.

If the book has a weakness, it is that Cornwell in his recitations seems to be falling into the very error that he accuses confessors of: an over-emphasis on the sexual. Cornwell makes a point that, for many youngsters, it was in their preparation for first confession that they encountered a sexual vocabulary they were unprepared to deal with. Imagine a confessor asking, "Have you been touching yourself?" to a youngster who wondered what in the world the priest meant.

Cornwell does not make a good case that the sexual abuse of youngsters was the result of solicitation in the confessional, and the historical figures don't support that thesis. …

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