Interview - John Cornwell weighs the worth of confession

Matthew Reisz meets a Catholic author who believes confession has value, but not for children

February 20, 2014

Catholic academic and journalist John Cornwell has drawn on his experiences of the Church in his new book on the confessional and its central role in clerical child abuse.

Although he has run the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge for almost a quarter of a century, he took an unusual route into the academy. From the age of 13, he spent seven years in a junior and then a senior seminary training to be a priest. Eventually, he admits, “I began to see that I wasn’t going to make it as a celibate.” He went on to lose his faith at university by reflecting on “the contrast between what I was learning about science and the vision being put forward by Catholic theology”.

While he was in one of the seminaries, Mr Cornwell was also sexually solicited by a priest during confession, which “meant that I became disillusioned with the idea of exterior piety and holiness”. He spent many years wavering between agnosticism and atheism and built a distinguished career as a journalist. In the late 1980s he accepted a “professional fellow commonership” at Jesus – open to “someone on the outside who wanted to write a book in an academic setting” – so that he could explore the issue of religious fanaticism.

Scholarly sanctuary

In the event, Mr Cornwell has never left the college, because a philanthropist was looking for someone who could organise seminars and conferences “bringing in experts to talk to science journalists on the vital areas where science interacts with society”. He had long had an amateur interest in such topics and came to a private arrangement with Cambridge to take a two-year course in neurophysiology and visit laboratories around the world to acquire the “language and the mindset” for his new job.

In the meantime, however, the fanaticism project – which eventually led to his 1991 book, Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light: Travels in Search of the Miraculous and the Demonic – had taken Mr Cornwell down a rather different path. “I went to the Vatican to ask them questions about the kids having visions of the Virgin Mary in Bosnia, which became linked to the terrible civil war. But the archbishop in charge of media relations told me I should be telling the story of the Pope who died after 33 days…”

Although A Thief in the Night: Death of Pope John Paul I (1989) exploded the absurd theory that the Pope had been killed by his own bishops, it was otherwise highly critical of the Vatican. It was followed by two equally controversial best-sellers, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (1999) and The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy (2005).

By the late 1980s, however, Mr Cornwell was also returning to his original Catholic faith when he began to “see that religion is fundamentally an imaginative exercise, and that the mistake is to treat it as some kind of science. And that made it possible for me to be religious after atheism.”

Also important was a new sense that Scripture lends itself to “multi-dimensional interpretation”. He had already had glimpses of this, while studying for his first degree at the University of Oxford, from a Jewish moral philosopher called Reginald Vivian Feldman. What made this unusual was that their encounter took place not in the seminar room but in the local psychiatric hospital, where Mr Cornwell was “working as a night nurse, and this chap was on my ward. He was a very great scholar and had written a wonderful book called The Domain of Selfhood, but he was a depressive and insomniac, so we would talk half the night away – and I learned more from him than anyone else.”

Today, Mr Cornwell calls himself a Catholic. He wrote a 2007 critique of Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion, a book he called “as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free of false modesty”. Yet he is otherwise uninterested in being an apologist or devotional writer, and his books on the Church tend to get “a lot of support from the liberal wing of Catholicism and a lot of brickbats from the conservatives”.

Damning indictments

The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession takes him into even more contentious territory. At its heart is the argument that the 1903-14 pontificate of Pius X, the first pope for 300 years to be canonised, was largely disastrous. Along with an anti-modernist campaign and an “emphasis on a monastic-style obedience in seminary formation” went a new commitment to children making their first confession at the age of 7 rather than around 14.

All this, in Mr Cornwell’s view, decisively influenced the culture of the Church in which he grew up. Notable disadvantages were boys like him embarking on priestly careers long before they had any idea of what a life of celibacy might mean, and children riddled with guilt, sometimes for life, about sins such as masturbation or even “breaking the fast” before Mass by accidentally swallowing a drop of rainwater.

The potential for psychological and sometimes sexual abuse also emerges from the experiences of many people who wrote to Mr Cornwell in response to an article in The Tablet, including one grotesque example of early confession submitted by the son of a prison officer where the only privacy was in the toilets and “Father would be seated on the toilet bowl, and I would kneel down in front of him”.

Yet none of this, Mr Cornwell makes clear, means that he is fundamentally opposed to confession – and he is taking the matter up with the highest authority. “There’s enormous value in looking at your life – your past, present and future – with someone else and trying to make sense of it. I’m saying confession is a good thing, but let’s leave it until you are more mature and can take on board sin as a turning-away from God’s unconditional love to one’s own self-idolatry.

“I have written an open letter to the Pope asking him to stop childhood confession and bring back ‘general absolution’, which was very popular until it was banned by John Paul II.”

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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