The Dark Box

The Dark Box : A Secret History of Confession

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Confession is a crucial ritual of the Catholic Church, offering absolution of sin and spiritual guidance to the faithful. Yet this ancient sacrament has also been a source of controversy and oppression, culminating, as prize-winning historian John Cornwell reveals in The Dark Box, with the scandal of clerical child abuse. Drawing on extensive historical sources, contemporary reports, and first-hand accounts, Cornwell takes a hard look at the long evolution of confession. The papacy made annual, one-on-one confession obligatory for the first time in the 13th century. In the era that followed, confession was a source of spiritual consolation as well as sexual and mercenary scandal. During the 16th century, the Church introduced the confession box to prevent sexual solicitation of women, but this private space gave rise to new forms of temptation, both for penitents and confessors. Yet no phase in the story of the sacrament has had such drastic consequences as a historic decree by Pope Pius X in 1910.In reaction to the spiritual perils of the new century, Pius sought to safeguard the Catholic faithful by lowering the age at which children made their first confession from their early teens to seven, while exhorting all Catholics to confess frequently instead of annually. This sweeping, inappropriately early imposition of the sacrament gave priests an unprecedented and privileged role in the lives of young boys and girls--a role that a significant number would exploit in the decades that followed. A much-needed account of confession's fraught history, The Dark Box explores the sources of the sacrament's harm and shame, while recognizing its continuing power to offer consolation and more

Product details

  • Hardback | 320 pages
  • 144.78 x 210.82 x 38.1mm | 430.91g
  • The Perseus Books Group
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 0465039952
  • 9780465039951
  • 550,806

About John Cornwell

John Cornwell is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. The author of the New York Times bestseller Hitler's Pope, he lives in Draughton, more

Review quote

Financial Times "A meticulously researched, carefully wrought and quietly furious anathema upon the Catholic Church." Guardian, UK "[A] powerful, persuasive, and disturbing book...The Dark Box is a major contribution to the Catholic church's examination of conscience about the roots and circumstances of sexual abuse." Sunday Times, UK "[An] absorbing history of the confessional...forceful." Observer, UK "The Dark Box is a powerful, impassioned treatise about the dangers of confession." Times Literary Supplement "A short but explosive book which is part religious history, part autobiography, part journalistic expose, and part manifesto for change...The Dark Box is a book that anyone concerned with the future of the Catholic Church should take seriously." Irish Independent "A powerful and disturbing addition to the literature on the subject, and lays bare the dysfunctional nature of a church which has still come nowhere near to facing its own self-inflicted demons." Buffalo News "This book, perhaps threatening to some, performs a signal service. It is an examination of conscience for the Catholic Church about what it has done and what it has failed to do in the matter of helping Catholics come to terms with forgiveness." The Spectator, UK "I have a confession to make. I really enjoyed this book...smartly, smoothly written." National Catholic Reporter "Cornwell uses his formidable talents to reveal the sacrament in a complete, compelling and original way... His writing is informed by faith and unfaith as well as intellect and passion." U.S. Catholic "A lucid and honest history of the development of sacramental confession, plus some rather balanced observations on its uses and abuses...this book delivers what it promises: a good history of the development of the sacrament of confession and its uses and misuses in the Catholic world." Commercial Dispatch, Ohio "There may have been those who benefited from confession, and even more who found it a mechanical process, compared to those who found themselves thrown into sexual guilt and confusion because of it. Critics will say this book depicts only the darker side of the dark box, but Cornwell's church would be better off understanding the issues expressed in this thoughtful and heartfelt book." Kirkus "A haunting study, both scholarly and personal, that situates the practice of confession as the source of the Catholic Church's clerical abuse... Enlisting a legion of voices attesting to their 'soul murder' by confessional priests, Cornwell offers another strong indictment of the church." John Heilpern, contributing editor, Vanity Fair "With his brilliant The Dark Box, John Cornwell, a most fair-minded hammer and conscience of the Catholic Church, has gone to the terrifying roots of clerical sexual abuse throughout Catholicism's history. He has made the nightmare link between sacramental confession and the abuse of children, while anticipating the future of a church pre-occupied with sex, sin and damnation. I cannot imagine a more timely book than The Dark Box in Pope Francis' brave new inclusive age of love, reconciliation and social conscience." Garry Wills, author of Why I Am a Catholic "A maxim often cited from the fifth-century theologian Prosper of Aquitaine is Lex orandi lex credendi -- the way we pray is the way we believe. In accord with this norm, the fact that Catholics have by and large given up going to confession means that they have stopped believing in it. Cornwell tells us why we should." Gary Kearns, Maynooth University College, Ireland "An elegant and profound reflection upon what turned out to be a tragic experiment in church discipline." David Lodge "A brilliant book, and an important one. Confession turns out to be the key that explains so much that is discreditable in the history of the Catholic Church, especially over the last 100 years. You show that "Saint" Pius X created a kind of spiritual totalitarian state similar to the secular dictatorships of the same period, complete with a loyalty oath to the leader. The practice of frequent confession and communion which he initiated, instilled in Catholics from an impressionable early age, combined with the moral theology of mortal sin, ensured a cowed obedience, or encouraged an Orwellian double-speak, until, with John XXIII and Vatican II, Catholics suddenly started thinking for themselves and deserted confession in droves. Interesting that it was a sexual issue, contraception, not a doctrinal one, that caused the old consensus to collapse."show more

Rating details

70 ratings
3.64 out of 5 stars
5 16% (11)
4 44% (31)
3 29% (20)
2 11% (8)
1 0% (0)
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