Non-fiction The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession, by John Cornwell | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on February 18th, 2014


The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell

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Blurb: Would you tell your deepest secrets to a relative stranger? And if you did, would you feel vulnerable? Cleansed? Or perhaps even worse than you did before?

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Confession has always performed a complex role in society, always created mixed feelings in its practitioners. As an acknowledgement of sinfulness, it can provide immense psychological relief; but while aiming to replace remorse with innocence, its history has become inextricably intertwined with eroticism and shame.

The Dark Box is an erudite and personal history; Cornwell draws on his own memories of Catholic boyhood, and weaves it with the story of confession from its origins in the early church to the current day, where its enduring psychological potency is evidenced by everything from the Vatican’s ‘confession app’ to Oprah Winfrey’s talk shows. Since the 16th century, seclusion of two individuals in the intimate ‘dark box’, often discussing sexual actions and thoughts, has eroticised the experience of confession. When, in 1905, Pius X made confession a weekly, rather than yearly ritual, the horrific cases of child abuse which have haunted the Catholic church in the twentieth century became possible.

(Profile, 2014)

John Banville, Financial Times 

“John Cornwell’s subtitle errs on the side of modesty. Far from being merely a history of the Catholic sacrament of confession, his book is a meticulously researched, carefully wrought and quietly furious anathema upon the Catholic Church as constituted from the Council of Trent in the 16th century up to the present day. Or rather one should say the Roman Catholic Church, since it is at the Vatican that he directs his mildly expressed yet damning accusations.”

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Eamon Duffy, The Observer 

“Anyone who experienced a pre-conciliar Catholic upbringing will recognise the force of Cornwell’s case… Yet Cornwell at times lays it on with a trowel… To interpret confession so exclusively in terms of dysfunctional sexuality is surely to take too narrow a view of a wider-ranging institution… The Dark Box is a major contribution to the Catholic church’s examination of conscience about the roots and circumstances of sexual abuse. But for a rounded historical assessment of confession itself, we will need to look for a different kind of audit.”

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Peter Stanford, The Times 

“Former seminarian John Cornwell spends the first half ofThe Dark Box on a warts-and-all history of confession… Cornwell races through all of this elegantly and succinctly but only really justifies making this a book, rather than a lengthy article, when he turns his attention to the 20th century. For he has a thesis, new to me, that, when Pope Pius X in 1910 made confession a sacrament for children from the age of 7 (previously initiation had been at 14), he inadvertently opened the doors of the confessional to the sexual abuse of youngsters by clerics that has subsequently disfigured and disgraced Catholicism.”

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John Carey, The Sunday Times 

“[A] brief but absorbing history… Cornwell’s final verdict on confession seems ambivalent. Its perversions anger him, but he recognises its potential to ease the soul’s ills… Cornwell’s current religious position seems unfixed, too. After abandoning Catholicism he hovered between atheism and agnosticism for 20 years, but he married a devout Catholic who has brought their children up in the faith, and he now feels nostalgia for the rhythms of the Catholic liturgy. His uncertainty gives balance to this forceful book, and saves it from tipping into anti-papist polemic.”

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Melanie McDonagh, London Evening Standard 

“What’s striking about this account is that it’s so sex-saturated, a charge the author himself makes of clerical guides for confessors … You’d never think it from this, but the guides did stress the importance of other social sins against justice — usury, say — and honesty, as well as against chastity. It’s a pity because John Cornwell has genuinely interesting things to say about confession. I think he’s premature, though, to write it off. The frequency of confession is in steep decline but not necessarily the quality. The need for the forgiveness of sins doesn’t really go out of fashion.”

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