On my way home from visiting my mother the other night, I listened to Phillip Adam’s Late Night Live on the radio.
Adams was interviewing a man who had once been a Catholic, a priest even, but who then became an atheist and more recently reconverted back to Catholicism.
This seems to me a difficult thing to do. To shift from Catholicism to atheism is easy enough – my path and many others I know – but to shift back.
What happens to your doubts?
This man, John Cornwell, still harbours doubts and he is critical of Catholicism in the institutional sense. He’s written a book, The Dark Box: a secret history of confession. In it he talks about the fact that the confession he and I grew up with was not an issue until 1903 when the then pope - one of the Pious ones - decided one way of stopping the falling numbers of Catholics was to reinforce the church from within.
To this effect he ordered that children as young as five or six start to prepare for First Holy Communion and confession.
Pious the whatever had no idea of the trauma these sorts of teachings would have on the minds of children - the horrors of hell and the relentlessness of a need to stay free from sin.
Before the nineteen hundreds the only ones to undertake confession and communion were at least in their teens, a stage which I suggest was also fraught, but it was preferable to early childhood.
John Cornwell also described the confessional as a place for childhood abuse because the priests who came into the priesthood grew up immature, stunted by their training, as if still school boys after the boot camp quality of their life in the seminary.
Cornwell described something of his own experience in the seminary training to be a priest.
There was a popular priest in the seminary who had been instructing young men in the ways of the priesthood.
This priest was popular because he offered seminarians cigarettes or even the occasional sip of alcohol. He was popular because he seemed to be one of them.
In those days the popular priest held confession in his room. One day John Cornwell went along to have his confession heard.
The popular priest locked the door behind Cornwell who sat nearby in order to begin his confession.
The popular priest then asked John to take out his penis. He needed to look at it, the popular priest said in order to examine its size and constitution. He needed to establish whether such a penis might more readily cause Cornwell to masturbate.
Cornwell had the presence of mind to get up from his chair, unlock the door and leave the room, never to return.
I tried later to retell this story to my husband and daughter over dinner on Friday night. My daughter recoiled.
‘Who wants to hear about sexual abuse over dinner.’
So I stopped telling the story mid track, but it has stayed with me. This take on abuse and the strange history of the dark box in which so many secret atrocities have occurred.