John CornwellThe Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession

Basic Books, 2014

by Marshall Poe on April 8, 2014

John Cornwell

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I've never been in a confessional box, but I've seen a lot of them in films. And if the depiction of them in films is in any way a reflection of popular attitudes toward confession, then I can say with some confidence that the act has a rather poor reputation. Confessional boxes are–in my imagination, at least–dark places where dark things are admitted and, sometimes, even darker things are done. Is it a surprise that fewer and fewer Catholics confess their sins in the box?

John Cornwell doesn't think so. In this provocative book–half history and half religious commentary–The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession (Basic Books, 2014), Cornwell traces the history of confession and the confessional box. The origins of confession–or at least its scriptural basis–can be found, of course, in the New Testament.  But the sacrament's form has changed quite a bit over the centuries. Regular, weekly confessions were a medieval innovation.  The box itself was a product of the Counter-Reformation. Even more recent reforms included dropping the age of first confession to seven years, something that, according to Cornwell, put priests into rather too close contact with what were essentially impressionable children. Just as important, according to Cornwell, were things the Catholic Church didn't do: its refusal to amend its stance on artificial birth control essentially drove even relatively devout, married Catholics out of the box. They could not, after all, promise they would do their best not to use birth control when they knew they would use it again.

Cornwell makes a persuasive case that confession is good for the body, mind and soul. He calls for the Church to renew the rite, to adapt it to modern mores. Perhaps, he says, Catholics will come back to the box if it is made less dark.

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