Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bless me Father


A few weeks ago I wrote here about my early experience with the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession. Now, in the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) I read a review of a new book by John Cornwell called The Dark Box, a history of the sacrament. Reviewer Peter Marshall writes:
But the real starting point of Cornwell's story comes with the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14), a pope who was canonized in 1954, and who to this day remains an icon for some traditionalist Catholics, but who is the undoubted villain of The Dark Box. Pius was a humble and holy prelate of peasant stock. But he was also dogmatic and authoritarian, obsessed with the spectre of "modernist" heresy within the Church, and a rising tide of materialism and secularism outside it. His ruthless suppression of dissident scholars and theologians inflicted wounds on Catholic intellectual life from which it took decades to recover.
Before Pius X, the age at which Catholic children began to partake of the sacraments of confession and communion was about 13 or 14. Pius decreed that seven was the "age of discretion," when children could tell the difference between right and wrong, and therefore share the sacraments. He also instituted a harsh new regime of clerical formation, designed too protect candidate for the priesthood from corrupting influences of the world.
This proved to be, in Cornwell's view, a truly toxic combination. Priests imbued with a sense of their own unchallengeable authority, but inoculated from much contact with family life, or any understanding of child psychology, inculcated into generations of Catholic children an abiding sense of guilt and shame, and an image of God as a petulant tyrant to be propitiated by the performance, or avoidance, of a narrowly specified shopping list of actions. Many of these -- almost inevitably -- were to do with sex.
I suppose mine was the last generation of Catholic children to suffer under this absurd confessional regime. I would like to think that I have recovered from any permanent damage, but who knows. Cornwell apparently has much to say about how all of this relates to the clerical abuse scandal, of which he was himself a victim, but I had no experience of that. My quarrel with the Church was always more intellectual than moral; once exposed to empirical criteria for truth (lower-case), the whole shabby brocade of archaic dogma collapsed into a heap. Lord knows I've sinned, and I hope those I've sinned against can forgive me, but that doesn’t include the Lord, or the sleepy priest in the dark box.