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We all know what confession means: the Catholic ritual by which sinners gain absolution for their sins, by confessing to a priest.  John Cornwell’s recent history of Confession, The Dark Box (Basic Books, 2014) contains three key dates, very helpfully extracted by John Banville in his review of the book  in the Financial Times.  What are these three key dates?

  • 1215: The Fourth Lateran Council makes Confession mandatory for believers.
  • 16th century: Carlo Borromeo invents the confession box.
  • Early 20th century: Pope Pius X directs that all Catholic children should make their first confession at the age of seven.

Whole volumes could be written about each of these three initiatives. The invention of a practice that has no direct reference in the Bible is one of them (why would the world change so much that one day, a thousand years after Christianity had been invented, confession became not an option, but necessary?); that the confession is private (and that the priest should not reveal what was said) is another.  The idea that young children could and should confess I find quite extraordinary, but Catholics can be found to justify it. According to a letter in the FT of 22 February, a scholar of the eminence of Eamon Duffy calls this a “celebration of innocence and family”, an indication of Pius’s status as “a pope of the people”.

But the intention of this post is not to discuss the history or the social context of confession, but to reveal the power of dates. Any encyclopedia entry should have some kind of historical context,  enabling the reader to become aware of changes in society and ideas that gave rise to the concept being discussed. Which encyclopedias do this? Not Wikipedia, for a start. The Wikipedia entry for confession , for example, is very good at disambiguating the religious sense of confession from other meanings, but then muddles things by including the concept of confession in Alcoholics Anonymous in the confession (religion) article. I didn’t realise Alcoholics Anonymous was a church.

More disturbingly, the article for Catholic confession contains lots of biblical references, but not one of the dates above – not even the date when confession was instituted. Even the entry for confession in Diderot’s Encyclopediewhich is written largely from a Catholic standpoint, mentions the Fourth Lateran Congress. What Wikipedia does provide is several pictures of confessionals  – without any mention of how they came about.

Without dates, without context, the Wikipedia entry offers I think little insight to the innocent user, who will be presented with hefty chunks of propaganda, one from each church, transmitted uncritically and unthinkingly. What does Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates (1873 edition), which I have described in another post,  have to say on the subject? A brief entry that is considerably better than that of Wikipedia:

AURICULAR CONFESSION. The confession of sin at the ear (Latin, auris) of the priest was … enjoined by the council of Lateran in 1215, and by the council of Trent in 1551. It was one of the six articles of faith enacted by our [sic] Henry VIII in 1539, but was abolished in England at the Reformation.

Update March 7, 2014: I tracked down a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd edition  (1974), to see what it said about confession.  Astonishingly, its entry for “auricular confession” is shorter than any other I have found, and it contains not a single date:

Auricular confession. Confession ‘to the ear’ [Lat. ad auriculum, sc. of a priest], i.e. the confession of sins to God in the presence of a priest to forgive them in His name. 

That’s it! Just 30 words, and not a single date amongst them. Given that the ODCC contains more than 1.5 million words, the compilers clearly had other priorities than a fundamental part of Catholic practice. Perhaps in this case the ODCC would be better titled The Oxford Dictionary of the Church of England (with occasional dismissive glances at the practice of other faiths).