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Sunday 16 March 2014

Review: John Cornwell, The Dark Box

I find it quite easy to believe in Freedom of Conscience and quite hard to go on believing in Freedom of Religion. The latter now serves primarily to exempt from ordinary forms of accountability powerful and worldly organisations most of which are of a more-or-less criminal nature. The Roman Catholic Church is the Big Daddy of the type.

The appeal of the Roman Catholic Church baffles me, though not in the case of worldly and more-or-less criminal individuals drawn to it by the incense of power.

John Cornwell is a born-again Catholic who, while lapsed, nonetheless allowed  his own children to be brought up in the faith and he has written a book which promises a challenge but ends up being intellectually and morally flabby, a damp squib.

Cornwell picks a good topic –the role of Confession in securing the hold of the Church over its individual members – and in relation to the Church’s cruelty over the past hundred years, he makes an interesting and sometimes passionate case against Pope Pius X.

A nasty piece of work by name of Giuseppe Sarto, Pius X arrived at the core ideas of modern totalitarianism while Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were still schoolboys. 

Confession has a role at the base of the totalitarian scheme; the wider totalitarian ambition was only realised in the Catholic fiefdoms – Ireland, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain. 

Of these proto - North Koreas, Slovakia was closed down by the victorious allied powers. The others are still emerging from the trauma of clerical fascism – in Ireland’s case, with no encouragement from the old Imperial power: shamefully, the United Kingdom rolled out the red carpet for Pope Benedict XVI at a time when the former Joseph Ratzinger could not have set foot in Ireland.

Cornwell sticks to the narrower context and at the core of his book is the argument that Pius X’s demand that Confession start at six or seven instead of fourteen or fifteen ruined the lives of many children, not only from sexual abuse in the Confessional, but from the universe of psychological Terror surrounding it.

Intellectually, there is just too much bland anecdotal material, padding out the text. So we learn, for example that Pius X:

Chose as his secretary of state the suave Anglo-Spanish prelate Rafael Merry del Val, although the latter was not yet forty years old. A consummate diplomat, and highly intelligent, Merry del Val spoke a number of languages and had an enormous capacity for administrative work” (page 81)

Morally, Cornwell assembles the case against the Church and then, it seems to me, seeks to persuade us that it could all be dealt with by feel-good internal reforms. He cannot see that the Church has only ever been responsive to external changes and force, never to internal moral argument or pressure. (You get excommunicated or exiled for that – Pope Benedict made his career out of silencing the internal opposition).

The Church’s conversion to the cause of Democracy dates only from the moment when American tanks showed up in Rome. I don’t think there is any way it can be converted to decency. It's never been in that business. It just has to be closed down.

So why do Catholics like Cornwell stick with - and even return to - a Church which they know is vicious at its heart? For the same reasons that if we closed down North Korea there would still be those for whom the guilt of betrayal would be assuaged by longing for the Kim dynasty. For the same reasons that in Russia there are still those who long for the Romanovs or Stalin. Erich Fromm called it the Fear of Freedom. It’s the fear which prevents you seeing that the way out is through the door.

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