I have just finished reading The Dark Box:A Secret History Of Confession by John Cornwell, an excellent writer with a long history of books regarding the Catholic Church, who is only just hanging on by a thread to his Catholicism, mainly because of massive encouragement from his wife.
The book is a marvellously researched history of the sacrament of confession and should be read by all lapsed Catholics to prove they were right, all practising Catholics to show how daft they are and all non-Catholics to let them know how lucky they were.
Traditionally confession was bequeathed on all young people on reaching puberty and it was Pope Pius X in the very early 20th century ordained that it was necessary for children from the age of six or seven. In this decision was planted the seeds of the calamity to hit the Church recently, that of clerical sexual abuse of children. But the book is not just about that but about the battle between modernists and traditionalists throughout that century and beyond to make the sacrament fit for purpose. Do you fit the people round the sacrament or do you fit the sacrament round the people.
It reached a high point for the modernists at Vatican 2 convened by Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s with the idea of communal reconciliation which became very popular and altered the thoughts of many lapsed Catholics who had ceased to practise their faith because of the discomfort of the one on one policy. A discomfort rightly felt if the priest was in any way invasive with his words. However the traditionalists have been fighting back and with Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI at the helm they have won back most of the lost ground and thus the Church is losing numbers.
The most interesting part of this very interesting book is how Cornwell considers the Church lost millions of supporters by not backing down on contraception, making it a grave mortal sin to indulge in this practice whether it be for birth control or even for use as a prophylactic to stop the spread of any number of sexually transmitted diseases. Although Pope Pius XII did allow coitus interruptus and the rhythm method, the traditionalist popes do not even consider those to be fair game.
So as is our practice, without thankfully television or newspapers, myself and Helen, after a sirloin steak and a glass of wine, sat down last night to talk. We were typical Catholics brought up in the very era that Cornwell was talking about and we started asking each other questions we had never asked each other in 41 years of marriage.
It soon became clear that neither of us had ever gone to confession during our married lives, although attending weekly mass, never in fact missing mass until November 2009 when the Murphy Report on clerical sex abuse was published here in Ireland and realising what a catastrophic cover up had been perpetrated by the Catholic Church, we never darkened the doorstep of a church since except in memory of departed friends.
I stopped going to confession when I was about 16 thinking what a foolish thing to do by confessing to a man who had probably done a lot worse than I. My experiences at school must have had something to do with my arrival at this decision. Certainly my religious education encouraged my scruples which forbade me at the same time not to receive communion as well because of not being in the necessary state of grace. Helen, although a little older before deciding not to take part in the ritual, just felt it was an unnatural situation to be in as a woman talking to a man. She put an embargo on the middle man when she was about 20 but that did not stop her from considering she was in a state of grace and therefore went to communion every week. Scruples must never have been on the curriculum at St Joseph’s Convent.
With regard to our marriage all I will say is that it had its ups and downs like all long marriages but never once until last night had we ever considered contraception. As we talked we realised we had never ever discussed the matter. Helen asked me why I had never once brought the subject up, and I thought and thought but could not come up with a solution. Probably the impromptu way we went about these things made me never consider. When I asked Helen, she said half jokingly, that she only let one thing invade her body and that was not going to be a creation of Big Pharma. Again she felt it unnatural and that is probably the reason why we have six kids. As the Bible says, you reap what you sew.
So after a couple of hours stimulating conversation we retired to bed realising we were not typical of Cornwell’s Catholics but in the end we all arrived at the same location, divorced from the Catholic Church, whilst the modernists, the traditionalists, the theologians and the clerical psychotherapists and psychologists tie themselves in knots playing hopscotch with the sacrament, while the Good God, if there is one, looks on and laughs.