As a child, I was made to go to confession. The confessional was a scary place, and the voice through the grate was frightening even if it was Father Hubert, whose breath was scented with whiskey and Pall Malls. The sisters who taught us at CCD—leading up to our first confession and subsequently our first communion, the body of Christ Himself plopped on our tongues (Jesus tastes like dry library paste… who knew?)—told us that as long as we didn’t sin in thought or action, we would remain clean enough for heaven post-confessional. Naturally, my hand shot up. “So if we think about sinning—?”
“That’s right, Mr. Ovcak. Straight to hell.”
Ah, but sin. It’s always there, tempting us. Even for our clergy. In his new book, The Dark Box, John Cornwell makes the case that the confessional allowed priests to groom certain youngsters for molestation. He also brings up something I didn’t know about Mother Church—that confession for kiddies is relatively knew. It was only in 1910 when the Pope (Pius at the time) infallibly required children to step into the confessional all by their little selves. And the confessional box (now mostly gone) was created in the sixteenth century to prevent priests from pawing at young women. Claw at the screen all you want, Father! You’ll not touch her!
I think I was seven at my first confession. I remember there being a lot of instruction required before we were allowed to kneel down before God Almighty’s representative on Earth and talk about how we filched cookies, or talked back to our parents. Afterward, I remember comparing notes with other children on the punishments meted out—Stations of the Cross, Hail Mary’s required, etc.—like we were prisoners out on the yard discussing our court cases.
Mostly what I remember was my overwhelming guilt. I never felt like my slate was clean. Never. I still don’t.
I once asked a woman, a friend of a friend, on a date. We were both in our 30’s and unmarried. She was hot, and it seemed like the sensible thing to do. She asked, “Are you Catholic?” I said yes. “I don’t date Catholic men. They’re lousy in the sack.” I was about to be offended, even though I am lousy in the sack. “It’s all the guilt,” she said. “It’s like God Himself is in the room with us, judging you.”
I shrugged. She was right.