Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cornwell turns his sights on St Pius X

Pope Pius XII visiting a bomb-site in Rome in wartime
Over the last week we have been treated to a real demonstration of how to promote a book. Extracts in one newspaper are enough to create news stories in others, and the author is invited to write a feature article in the weekend press to give the whole thing a bit of top-spin. Nice friends with big name recognition queue up with the plaudits:

Eamon Duffy: “a major contribution to the Catholic Church’s examination of conscience about the roots and circumstances of sexual abuse.”

Catholic best-selling author, David Lodge:  “the key that explains so much that is discreditable  in the history of the Catholic Church.”   

They are talking about John Cornwell's latest, 'The Dark Box'. It is about the wickedness of confession, at least for children.

Sarto (later Pius X) as a bishop
Cornwell observed how a work of fiction - Hochhuth's grossly slanderous play about Pius XII, 'The Deputy' - has had such an impact on public perceptions, and, because it established a narrative so congenial to liberals (not to mention the KGB) who want a stick to beat the Church, he saw how it achieved a success wholly disproportionate to its literary merits. So he decided to stick to fiction himself: it is so much easier to research than history, and you can still say it is history, so you can have it both ways.

Cornwell has done very well out of the whole thing, but the time had to come when the weight of historical evidence would begin to tip the scales even of the mainstream press against his claims. Good books debunking Cornwell and his imitators have been coming out for years, the Holocaust Museum in Israel has softened its stance on Pius XII, a rabbi has called for Pius XII's saving of Jews from the Nazis to be publicly recognised. Time to move on, perhaps, to smear another Pope, and watch the money roll in for another decade or so till his defenders can finally make themselves heard over the anti-Catholic din.

The intellectual dishonesty of Cornwell is staggering. Ronald Rychlak, who has written a 500-page tome on Pius XII, was asked to address Cornwell's accusations by the Promotor of Pius XII's cause, as soon as they were published. He looked up all Cornwell's references to the massive dossier created by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and found ... nothing. Cornwell said he was 'shocked' by what he read there, but when confronted on this by Rychlak he said what had shocked him was a report of gossip that Eugenio Pacelli (before his election as Pope) had been too close to his housekeeper. Evidence of anti-Semitism? Try again, Cornwell. Rychlak gives a very interesting talk on this here. He points out that, as Nuncio to Bavaria after World War I, Pacelli gave more than 40 speeches attacking aspects of Nazi ideology, particularly racism.

But it is, at least, easy to see what Cornwell gets out of it: this whole circus has made him famous. What is really disturbing is the sight of Catholic writers with established reputations who want to burnish their liberal credentials by endorsing Cornwell. On the subject of Confession, Cornwell's central contention is that children didn't go to confession before the age of 13 until the wicked Pius X 'decreed' they did so in 1910. This is pure fantasy. All Catholics have been obliged to confess once a year since the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, when they attain the 'age of discretion'. The law of the Church is exactly the same to this day. (H-T to canonist Edward Peters.)

But now we read Eamon Duffy saying Cornwell's book is wonderful. Is Duffy ignorant of the decrees of Lateran IV? No, he devotes a large section of The Stripping of the Altars to the importance of the obligation of annual confession established in 1215. He appears to link this, at one point, to the reception of communion: he talks about the 'houselling folk' going to confession (p60). But I find it very difficult to believe that he is not aware that the obligation was imposed on all Catholics of the age of discretion. All you have to do is read the canon, for heaven's sake (it is number 21, Eamon, if you're reading this). Even if he is confused by the modern practice of first Confession and first Communion coming together, he explains in The Voices of Morbath that in the late Middle Ages girls received their First Communion not at 13, but at 12. That should have given him pause for thought.

The fact is that Duffy, David Lodge, and The Tablet, and many like them, jump on any bandwagon they can find to attack the Church's moral discipline, without asking too many questions. It maintains their credibility with their non-Catholic friends and colleagues. And what a wonderful story it is: the 'pessimistic' Pius X, who lowered the age of First Communion (is that pessimistic?), condemned children to being alone in a 'dark box' with a potential paedophile. This is, in short, a daring, not to say desperate, attempt to link the sex abuse crisis with traditional, pre-conciliar Catholicism, and not the let-it-all-hand-out era when Freud began to make inroads in the Church (from about the 1950s) in which the vast majority of it actually happened. Pius X's patronage of the SSPX is an added bonus.

Low EF Mass at the tomb of St Pius X
But it doesn't make sense. The anecdotes Cornwell quotes to back the theory up are about priests who wanted to hear confessions outside the 'dark box', in a nice, friendly, brightly lit face-to-face encounter. Paedophile priests had been hampered by the 'fixed grill' which under both 1917 Code of Canon Law (Canons 908-910) and the 1983 Code (Canon 964) must be installed in a a confessional in churches. The same canons say that these confessionals are the 'proper place' for confessions: confessions outside this, while certainly possible (the deathbed springs to mind), are exceptions. In the 1917 Code, for a priest to hear the confession of a female outside the box, except in the case of illness or 'true necessity', is illicit: it is not allowed (Canon 910). (In the 1983 Code the hearing of confessions outside the box is allowed for a 'just cause': Canon 964.)

Perhaps Pius X was not so stupid. Consider this: unlike any of his successors in office, and unlike the vast majority of his predecessors, he had worked as a parish priest. He actually knew something about pastoral life, about the struggles, temptations and opportunities of the parish priest at the coal-face. He had actually encountered children as their pastor. He hadn't spent his entire adult life behind a desk.

No, the craze for face-to-face confession cannot be laid at the door of St Pius X. It happened in tandem with the breakdown of clerical discipline, from the 1950s and accelerating after the Second Vatican Council, under the influence of the idea that confession should be a form of therapy. Yes, the very same fashionable theories from Freud to Carl Rogers which saw so much potential in a more relaxed setting for the sacrament of penance, also saw sexual repression as a bad thing. This isn't hard, guys: it was not a coincidence.

Watch out, you liberal Catholics condemning the wickedness of the 'the box', or you'll end up condemning, not the harsh and pessimistic discipline current in Pius X's day, but the liberalisation of those disciplines after the Council.

A confession on the road on the LMS Walsingham Pilgrimage: in fact this would not
have been allowed under the 1917 Code, with a female penitent.


  1. Thank you for your post here.

    I sent an email of complaint to the Daily Mail after I saw this article by John Cornwell which was published in the Sunday Mail:


    I received a reply from the editor, Paul Dacre who confirmed that he would pass my email to the editor of the Sunday Mail.

    I also received a letter from John Wellington who is the managing editor of the Mail On Sunday.

    I was grateful for the courtesy of the replies, but remain astonished at the article and the headline in particular.

  2. Thank you for that, Joseph. We were very saddened that Cornwell was given air time on Radio 4 yesterday morning with no one there to defend the Church or the sacrament in question.

    When the time comes for Cornwell to be judged by God, he will deeply regret the fact that he not only did not use "the dark box" himself (he can't be using it if he deems it wicked), but that he has kept others away from this most important of sacraments too, thereby losing their souls in the process. He will have to be answerable for this. Perhaps the title of his book should have been "Avoiding The Dark Box: How To Lose Your Soul In One Easy Step".

    I am also saddened by Eamon Duffy putting his name to this - someone I used to have respect for.

    1. Duffy's work on the Reformation is magnificent and has done a huge amount to restore objectivity to the academic debate. He also has good things to say on the liturgy and has graced traddy liturgical conferences.

      But his liberal views are not new. His book on the Popes was widely criticised for rubbishing the authority of the early Papacy - a subject he has no particular expertise in. Here's a discussion of his defence of Tina Beattie.

  3. Duffy's review in the Guardian of Cornwell's latest hatchet job is far more critical than you imply. He ably demonstrates Cornwell's obsession with sex and how he distorts his sources as a consequence.

    1. Well anyone can read it here. He says it's not a rounded history of confession, but he doesn't take issue with Cornwell's thesis, and he repeats the central falsehood, that confession was only for adults after Lateran IV.

  4. I think you have summed up the attitude of Duffy and others very well.

    “It maintains their credibility with their non-Catholic friends and colleagues”

    Duffy is actually a good historian. He should stick to that, and have nothing to do with people such as Cornwell

  5. Anonymous3:34 pm

    Since recent popes seem to be canonized almost as a matter of course, justice demands that Pius XII gets his heavenly guernsey. History is proving him to be as upright as a man could be in those hideous times.

    Also, since I cannot find your email link, I confess I have tapped you for a gong! Don't squirm too much. http://hughosb.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/belatedly-an-award/

    Pax semper.


  6. Does Cornwell explain for the information of the non-Catholic that in a confession box, there is a wall between the confessor and penitent with a small opening covered with wire mesh so that they can hear one another and see only a silhouette of each other?

  7. But if Cornwell is wrong why did the decree state that children should go earlier for confession?
    "7. The custom of not admitting children to Confession or of not giving them absolution when they have already attained the use of reason must be entirely abandoned. The Ordinary shall see to it that this condition ceases absolutely, and he may, if necessary, use legal measures accordingly."

    1. What you quote is a condemnation of a custom 'contra legem'. Presumably in some places priests couldn't be bothered with confessing children. But the children were still obliged to go. Follow the link to the wording of Lateran IV Canon 21 and see for yourself.

    2. The 1908 decree actually quotes that. I don't think it was a case of priests not being bothered but a far broadr change in praxis that had developed over the centuries postponing the age for confession, communion and even Viaticum as the decree makes clear. To quote from the 1908 decree again;
      "To postpone Communion, therefore, until later and to insist on a more mature age for its reception must be absolutely discouraged, and indeed such practice was condemned more than once by the Holy See. Thus Pope Pius IX, of happy memory, in a Letter of Cardinal Antonelli to the Bishops of France, March 12, 1866, severely condemned the growing custom existing in some dioceses of postponing the First Communion of children until more mature years, and at the same time sharply disapproved of the age limit which had been assigned. Again, the Sacred Congregation of the Council, on March 15, 1851, corrected a prescription of the Provincial Council of Rouen, which prohibited children under twelve years of age from receiving First Communion. Similarly, this Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments, on March 25, 1910, in a question proposed to it from Strasburg whether children of twelve or fourteen years could be admitted to Holy Communion, answered: "Boys and girls are to be admitted to the Holy Table when they arrive at the years of discretion or the use of reason."
      The decree restored the earlier praxis.